“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … the age of wisdom … the age of foolishness … the season of Light … the season of Darkness … we had everything before us …”
— Charles Dickens
As Hurricane Irma threatened to beat the dickens out of Florida after churning a deadly path through our Caribbean friends to the south, many of us experienced a true Charles Dickens moment of enlightenment.
The visual horror of Irma was all-consuming. It was conveyed through 24/7 news coverage, National Hurricane Center updates and in splashes of moving color on weather maps projecting the shifting path of nature’s hardest punch.
Where will it hit? Whom will it hurt? Will we survive this?
What happened next was inspirational.
There were stories that touched the heart, like first responders braving high winds to help a mom deliver a new life into the world, and police officers who defied an order to seek shelter to save the life of a man in cardiac arrest, and the 9-year-old who wanted her mom to pay the tab for an evacuating family in a line at McDonald’s.
Yet amid the churn of apocalyptic emotions, a sea of leadership and heroism swelled, from Washington to Key West, where elected officials and disaster relief pros and news media each did their part in standing tall against the storm.
The media, criticized of late for doing more inflaming than informing, were on point and on their game. Reporters sought out badly needed information from those who had it, moved from one coast to another to cover communities that were about to get it, and performed with professionalism.
Americans also witnessed a post-Katrina FEMA, and post-election White House, that was coordinated and decisive, reassuring a restive public they were as prepared for the approach of the hurricane as they would be for the days that follow.
Best of all, our public leaders stepped up when it counted.
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott was everywhere, not in buildings of marble or media studios filled with light but on the ground leading, reassuring, communicating. Attorney General Pam Bondi, armed with complaints of price gouging, went after the gougers with a fury as strong as Irma and got results. Members of Congress from both parties united to wield an emergency federal package of financial and human help.
And mayor after mayor met the storm head-on with critical information backed by calming bravado.
Each in their own way experienced anew what leadership feels like when it’s shorn of politics and posturing and pontificating. Because when a Category 5 hurricane comes one’s way, a blissful human truth emerges: We need each other. Crisis has a way of bringing out the best in us while creating a world that feels and acts a little more centered, balanced and together.
So why did it take a hurricane to wake us up? Why do we need an emergency to create an urgency to act?
Imagine for a second if the Washington power nexus of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi took a cue from all of this and acted with unity and urgency. Imagine them pulling together to take on other crises that if left unresolved threaten the health, welfare and future of this nation.
Imagine them standing together, saying we have a health care crisis that threatens every man, woman and child in America. Here’s what we know, here’s where we’re heading, we’ll keep you informed every step of the way, and we won’t stop until a remedy is at hand.
This model of behavior also applies to other crises, like America’s unsustainable and spiraling national debt, to an infrastructure where our bridges and roads are decaying their way toward disaster, and to threats abroad from terrorists wielding terror and a North Korean madman wielding the threat of a nuclear attack.
The lesson here is obvious. If Irma’s worst can bring out our best, why can’t we do this after the storm has passed and the sunshine returns? Why does it take a crisis to inspire bravery, empathy and honesty?
As Mark Twain wrote, “Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”
Our post-Irma message to Washington: Astonish us.
Adam Goodman is a national Republican media consultant based in St. Petersburg and the first Edward R. Murrow Fellow at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.