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Zaleski: Big disasters tend to be great levelers

Jack Zaleski, The Forum Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

So I'm watching the 24/7 television coverage of the disaster visited on Houston and other Gulf Coast cities by Hurricane Harvey, and there's a deja vu quality to it. There's no minimizing the damages from the storm, which likely will set a record north of $160 billion. That's more than triple the costs incurred by the runner-up, Hurricane Katrina's hit on New Orleans and nearby communities in 2005.

But what gets a little irritating is an almost universal response to the disaster from local and state government officials that takes on a parochial snootiness. Invariably they let the rest of us lesser-folks know that "we Texans (or fill in any other disaster scene) will help our neighbors because, you know, we are Texans (or fill in any other disaster scene), and we will stand tall in the face of adversity better than the rest of you non-Texans (or fill in any other disaster scene). Don't believe it? Go back and look at news reports from Katrina and Sandy (2012), storms that have attained mythical status in the national psyche. Without exception, elected officials intoned with the faux conviction of a preacher that good folks in the storm zones were stepping up to help neighbors and rebuild communities and thereby demonstrating superior character. It was the same story in New Orleans during Katrina and in coastal New Jersey and New York during Sandy. Implicit in their tones was they are somehow better than people in other places.

Still don't believe it? Go back to the Red River flood of 1997 in Grand Forks or more recent near-flood disasters in Fargo in 2009 and 2011. The news was rife with bucketsful of official backslapping and self-aggrandizement about the way we North Dakotans responded to the threat, and how we handled the recovery magnificently. We did. But by comparison, floods on the Red River and on the Souris River at Minot were small disasters.

We are not made unique by some sort of imagined superior response to floods or storms. Nor are the people of New Orleans or Houston or New Jersey. That looking-down-the-nose attitude about how well we did it—how special we are because we stepped up to help our neighbors—is a nuanced insult, suggesting that people in other states don't help their neighbors. After all, how could residents of New Jersey, of all places, measure up to the "North Dakota way"—our arbitrary barometer of self-reliance, neighborliness and hard work? How could "those people" in New Orleans understand community values the way we do? A member of Congress from Houston, when asked about how his constituents were doing in the unprecedented flooding, said, "Hey, we're Texans. Texans. You know what that means, don't you? We do this kind of thing better than anybody else. We're Texans, we do it better, you know."

No, sir, you don't do it better than anybody else. Nor do North Dakotans or the people of New Jersey or New Orleans. In the context of their communities, neighbors find ways to help each other. People of means or no means find ways to ease the pain of a natural disaster. They do what's necessary and almost without exception do it well. And no matter the extent of the storm damage, all of them—even those stand-tall Texans—will demand big-time help from Uncle Sam. And they will get it, as they should. Which, by the way, gives every American—neighbors all, aren't we?—an opportunity to lend a hand.

Zaleski retired in February after nearly 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He will continue to write a Sunday column. Contact him at or (701) 241-5521.