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Why does it take a tragedy to bring out the best in us?

| Wednesday, September 20, 2017

This September, hurricanes Harvey and Irma devastated much of the Caribbean and southern United States. Irma’s violent winds leveled the islands of Barbuda, Anguilla and St. Martin. It left 15 million in Florida without power. Harvey destroyed 100,000 homes in and around Houston. All told, it’s estimated that damages from the two storms will exceed $150 billion. Tens of thousands lost everything they ever knew. 151 people lost their lives.

Harvey and Irma are tragedies. Senseless. Uncontrollable. Inexplicable. They stand together with countless other tragedies that we witness far too often, from terrorist attacks to earthquakes to fires, to shootings and epidemics and tornados. Every time we turn on the news, it looks like the world is falling apart. But the aftermath of these hurricanes proves that it isn’t.

In the wake of the two storms, beverage company Anheuser-Busch halted production of beer and instead filled cans with water to be sent to areas affected by the storms. Houston Rocket James Harden donated $1 million of his own money to Harvey relief, and spent the days immediately after the storm unloading supplies with relief workers. Former NBA MVP Tim Duncan traveled back to his home of St. Croix to assist in cleanup. LuminAid is sending 2,500 of their waterproof, solar powered lights to areas affected by Irma. The New York Mets volunteered to host a Yankees-Rays series while Tropicana Field was battered by the storm. When the Rays returned to their home stadium, they handed out meals to struggling families. The Walt Disney Company has donated $2.5 million and raised over $16 million for relief.

Perhaps most inspiring is the story of J..J Watt, defensive end for the Houston Texans. Watt has always been heavily involved in his city and in charity work, so it’s no surprise that after Hurricane Harvey he would start an effort to provide assistance to Houston. He started a fund on YouCaring, and set a goal of $200,000. His fundraiser concluded on Sept. 15 having raised over $37 million.

These anecdotes are all heartwarming; they demonstrate that tragedy does an amazing job uncovering our sense of community and goodwill. But Harvey and Irma aren’t the only time this has happened. I experienced it first hand.

I grew up on the Jersey Shore, and in October of 2012 we were hit by one of the most catastrophically expensive storms in U.S. history. Hurricane Sandy rendered my hometown unrecognizable. The streets were covered in sand. Sections of the boardwalk were carried half a mile inland. Some homes were flooded, others were destroyed entirely. It was the most devastating thing I’ve ever witnessed. What I witnessed after was the most uplifting.

New Jersey has a bit of a reputation — we’re not exactly known as the friendliest of Americans. So, when Sandy hit, I thought most people would fend for themselves and sink further into self-serving behaviors. I didn’t at all expect the sort of outpouring of compassion that we’re seeing after Harvey and Irma. I’ve never been more wrong in my life. We spent every hour of every day restoring our town. We opened up our homes to those that lost their own. We hosted town-wide bonfires on the beach for those without heat. Far from driving people to selfishness, Hurricane Sandy brought out the best in us.

But why did it take a hurricane for us to be nice to each other? Surely we’re able to care for one another in circumstances other than the most extraordinary. It shouldn’t take a hurricane for neighbor to help neighbor. It shouldn’t take a tornado for companies to pledge millions to the less fortunate. A forest fire shouldn’t be needed to teach us to care for the environment. We shouldn’t need a shooting to remind us violence is never the answer, or a terrorist attack to demonstrate the importance of loving one another.

Our response to tragedies proves, time and time again, that humanity is ultimately good. We exhibit a remarkable ability to open our hearts to those in need, to ignore the selfish tendencies that all too often rule our lives.

Harvey and Irma have dissipated. Hopefully, the goodwill seen in their wake will not. We need to understand we are capable of unbelievable acts of kindness — and we are capable of them always. We don’t need the worst to bring out our best. Through tough times and easy times, through good and bad, the world is a much better place than we give it credit for. All we have to do is remember that.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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