Pummeled by disasters in this 24-hour-a-day news-cycle world, those of us on the outside looking in frequently are left with tears in our eyes, aches in our hearts and haunting, iconic images in our memory banks.
From what’s left of Moore, Okla., where more than 2,400 homes reportedly were damaged or destroyed and 24 people died in a huge, fierce tornado May 20, among the memories haunting us are:
• The terrified, wounded but rescued children and elderly;
• The joy on the faces of rescuees and their loved ones when they’re finally reunited and realize each of them is safe;
• The occasional, still-standing tree trunk, stripped clean of leaves, branches and bark — usually surrounded by unidentifiable piles of crushed lumber, wallboard, hardwood flooring, furniture, clothing, heirlooms, coffeepots, baby cribs and all the things that combine to make a house a home;
• Wrecked cars and massive truck trailers crumpled into unlikely sculptures stacked on highways, in parking lots or tossed like Matchbox toys against those hulks of buildings;
• All the aerial photos of what had been there in Moore before the mile-wide EF5 tornado swept through 17 miles of real estate for 40 minutes — and of what wasn’t there anymore afterwards; and
• Shell-shocked residents combing through endless, immense heaps of rubble, all that remains now of their neighborhoods and the lives lived out within them.
And, as horrible as all that is, it’s not unusual there in Tornado Alley, or even in Moore, which has been clobbered before, but always persevered.
Because there’s always strength, somehow, from the residents themselves, from the swarms of yellow-jacketed emergency rescuers working frantically through the night, the waves of anonymous helpers willing to climb into the wreckage to help save people and treasures, and the tsunami of family members, neighbors, friends and strangers offering places to stay, babysitting and laundry services and help finding pets and livestock, or simply bringing dinner, shovels, strong backs, hugs and hope.
Thank heavens such heartwarming memories will help sustain all those devastated families long after the nightmares wane, the insurance companies have paid up, the homes have been rebuilt and life is, while not ever back to normal, really, at least moving toward it.
Other goodness comes from things not done.
We’re grateful for photos we don’t see, because they weren’t taken (and wouldn’t have been published anyway) out of respect for the dead and their families.
There also are many pictures that were never shot because the photojournalist or other person holding the camera put it away and became part of the urgent rescue efforts.
Also, many kind folks provide food and services, but turn away offers of payment because they refuse to profit from the misery of others.
But one element is nearly always part of those photographic slideshows, and it speaks to who we are as a country and as people who frequently bicker over details of how to govern and live, but who nearly always come together in tragedy.
That element is the American flag — flags that mark the scene of tragedy while illuminating the resilience of the American heart.
Many photographers captured pictures of flags in Moore — sometimes tattered, sometimes not — fluttering from the top of makeshift poles or pealed-clean tree trunks.
But one picture really captured for me Americans’ steely, optimistic determination, especially when under attack by nature or other humans.
In the AP photo, two men were stretching a large, dirty, slightly damaged American flag over some branches and the crushed remains of what was formerly a home or business or school. The destruction around them was so complete, I couldn’t recognize what had been there before. All that was left were ruins.
What was clearly strong was the will of the men who were compelled to exhibit our flag, their obvious patriotism and their hope for a happy future after the disaster — even without a pole on which to fly them.
May that hope fly safely forever, in Moore and throughout our country. They need it, but so do we.