In April of 2014, I had been in my present position a relatively short time, had just argued an election case on the qualifications of local judges and was in the middle of the Arkansas case on same-sex marriage, when a tornado curled, twisted, and traumatized its way along a 24 mile path of destruction through my county. An EF4. The EF stands for “enhanced fujita” – Fujita being the guy who came up with the rating system. The “4” means that vehicles are overturned and houses are demolished. A “5” would mean vehicles become missiles and even the bottom boards are pulled off the foundations of houses. Our tornado had some particularly angry “5” moments, along with some “4” when it was feeling more gentle. I had come to this job expecting a mundane job of reviewing contracts for a decent salary and ended up in the middle of all this.
I was brought into my current position as Faulkner County Civil Attorney, in large part, because of my political neutrality. I was neither republican nor democrat and got along well with all but the most hard core of either side. This county needed someone at that time who wouldn’t cause anymore friction than necessary, and I was available. I’ve tried to be part of a political party on a few occasions (even joined one and either I wasn’t received well (and why should I stay where I’m not wanted?) or I couldn’t stomach the requirements. (rea publicae, contradiction, screw it)
This storm – in every sense of the word – was a challenge for me, testing my legal ability (election and constitutional law cases), compassion (marriage case and dealing with tornado victims face to face), and physical, mental and emotional endurance (balancing the legal, media, public servant and family responsibilities). I loved the service. I thrived in it, although it drained me. I learned a lot in the midst of the pressure.
See that cloud at the bottom of the funnel? That’s the sum of someone’s “stuff.” That’s the remains of what they have worked most of their life to buy. They studied consumer reports and online reviews and saved up their nickles to buy that. That is what, last Christmas, they simply had to have because that would make them happy.
I remember so vividly sitting with people the day after the storm, crying with new friends who lost family members and laughing about what they thought was valuable just yesterday. My compassion was stretched. I learned that where I had convinced myself I didn’t care much for people, I was in fact wrong. I cared (and still care) deeply for people, one on one, in their honest human moments. Regardless of party or creed or preferences or thoughts. And the truth is: most people do. When people stand in the rubble of their lives, so many things that were worth debate yesterday fall away, or maybe they are blown into the next county. So why can’t we remember that more than a few days at a time after a disaster?
President Obama came into Little Rock by jet, and then to Faulkner County by osprey plane. My journal of May 7:
For a day or so, everyone went back to their political corners to praise or criticize the president for his presence, and then once he was gone, they were helping each other again. It’s hilarious and pathetic at the same time.
Looking back, I can now say that it was my pleasure to share those moments with people in their simplest. most elemental conditions: people who need food and shelter, and other people giving what they still have.
Parents who lost their children;
Children who lost their parents;
Spouses with lost spouses;
Individuals who lost life savings invested in homes.
In times of fair weather (whether climate or social) it is easy to criticize the social programs of the democrats and the wealth building of the republicans, but when the storms come, we rely on those programs to re-distribute that wealth.
And in those few moments of elemental focus, we forget about our “first world” problems of who is violating our delicate social or fiscal consciences. I was amazed and inspired by the strength and hope shown by common people and I was less than impressed by a few political figures and “entrepreneurs” who jumped at a photo-op or business opportunity for their own benefit.
May we not do it again, and may we remember to help those in the midst of the storm.