For social media, it’s the best of times, and the worst of times. My apologies to Charles Dickens.
Internet-based networking sites have been a valuable if not life-saving means of alerting authorities to emergency needs as the latest disaster of our lifetimes — Hurricane Harvey — unfolded along the Texas coast. Others close to the devastation have also used those platforms to declare themselves “safe” to friends and family.
Meanwhile, social media once again attracted skeptical onlookers eager to question, with 20-20 hindsight, every decision anyone responsible has ever made.
Why wasn’t evacuation mandatory? Why wasn’t government better prepared? Why wasn’t such-and-such facility opened to evacuees?
All are valid questions, and all have valid explanations. The professional news media is duty-bound to ask such questions, and report the official answers. That’s its role, or at least it has been for generations. The news media, as representatives of the public, ask the questions their readers and viewers would pose if they had direct access to decision-makers.
Too often on social media, these questions come from cynics obviously more interested in smearing reputations than learning the reasons and understanding the methods.
One of my high school teachers told us the world is filled with people whose attitudes are, “Don’t confuse me with the facts.” Decades later, we’ve not made much progress.
Of course, different folks who are intelligent and reasonable can confront the same circumstances, understand them fully, and reach different conclusions. It happens all the time. It’s fair to question choices made in the public sector, and express our opinions. But in times of crisis, such as the times in which southeast Texas finds itself now, second-guessing is premature. There will be time for thoughtful review after people are safe and the floodwaters have subsided.
It’s also possible, in situations like Harvey, that there is no “best” course of action. For those who waited until the full extent of the storm was known, it was too late to get out. As it was, the highways headed north were jammed, and fuel was in short supply. If millions more had gotten into their vehicles, the death toll likely would have soared.
As news coverage of the disaster continues, we realize it’s nearly impossible to comprehend the scope of the damage. People living along the coast or near waterways understand the threat and are the first affected, but this has been a rolling disaster. Neighborhoods that were initially spared were flooded out days later, as waters held upstream were discharged when they threatened to breach dams. It’s a decision between two bad choices: create a degree of flooding now, or risk even worse flooding later?
In such times, the best way to begin to understand the damage is to focus on individual stories. What happened to a specific family, and how are they coping? Sadly, those stories abound.
Likewise, that focus may be the best way for those of us watching from a distance in the “cheap seats” to be of assistance. The millions — perhaps billions — of dollars in damage sustained is not only beyond individual comprehension, it’s also beyond any individual’s ability to fix.
However, each of us can donate $10 to a helping agency, provide a package of bottled water, or offer a helping hand in some other manner.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.