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Opinion

Watching a city drown on live television, warm and dry on the couch while lives are sucked into the churning belly of the flood leaves you with a feeling of stunned helplessness.

The vehicles sinking before our eyes, drivers still in them. The rain that doesn’t stop. Terrified family members, no longer able to wait to be rescued, inching their way to safety through filthy, neck-deep water.

And we know water in Winnipeg. Not the kind that storms in from the sea, but the kind that rises from the thaw and engorges rivers. So these latest scenes whisper: there, but for the grace of God — and a 48-kilometre-long ditch — goes us.

When hurricane Harvey began pounding Houston last week, the continent craned its neck to watch. The images that glared out from the United States’ fourth-largest city were heartbreaking, a nonstop parade of exhaustion and loss.

By Thursday, at least 28 people were known to have died in the flooding. That number is likely to rise, as more bodies are recovered. Among those presumed dead, six members of a single family were swept away in a van.

Forty thousand homes are destroyed. Tens of thousands of people huddle in shelters. Even after the rain finally stopped, the news remained grim: damaged oil facilities spewed toxins into the air. A downtown building blew up.

A chemical plant in Crosby, about 40 kilometres northeast of Houston, warned that it could do nothing to prevent an imminent explosion. The threat drove authorities to evacuate everyone in a 2.4-kilometre radius around the plant.

All the while, the region’s streets are engorged by fetid water and sludge. Authorities fretted about arsenic, lead and other chemicals leaching into the water from toxic waste dumps. The danger from that could linger for months.

"There’s no need to test it," a Houston health department spokesman told the New York Times. "It’s contaminated. There’s millions of contaminants... don’t let your children play in it, and if you do touch it, wash it off."

Volunteers help a woman after she was rescued by boat from her home in Beaumont, Texas, in the aftermath of Harvey on Wednesday Aug. 30, 2017. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Volunteers help a woman after she was rescued by boat from her home in Beaumont, Texas, in the aftermath of Harvey on Wednesday Aug. 30, 2017. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

This is a cataclysm, with a live television audience. These are the conditions that writers of apocalyptic fiction draw from when they write about the end of the world; and it was, for at least 28 people in Texas this week. Likely more.

Yet the images that beamed out of Houston show us something else, about living through sudden destruction.

Houston Police SWAT officer Daryl Hudeck carries Catherine Pham and her 13-month-old son Aiden after rescuing them from their home surrounded by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Houston Police SWAT officer Daryl Hudeck carries Catherine Pham and her 13-month-old son Aiden after rescuing them from their home surrounded by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Consider post-apocalyptic fiction. Scenarios vary — zombies, environmental chaos, nuclear Armageddon — but one trope is especially common: most stories rotate on bands of survivors, defending against predatorial outsiders.

Survivors of these tales are often beset on all sides; not just by zombies or radiation, but by other people. The most dangerous threats in post-apocalyptic fiction are human. The message of these literary tropes is dark and simple.

What we have most to fear, they tell us, is each other. We are our own harbingers of destruction.

Maybe that can be true, in total social-collapse scenarios. Maybe villainous bands of cannibals really will emerge after a zombie invasion. But in the real world, when real communities are hammered by disaster, that’s not what we see.

In one study of rural communities in Honduras, researchers found that people living in areas devastated by 1998’s hurricane Mitch reported higher levels of trust and more close friends, and performed higher on trust-based tests.

Another study, published in June, found that communities in Chile that had suffered the most earthquake exposure also showed higher rates of social cohesion. They gave more to charity, volunteered more, engaged in less crime.

"People seem to compensate for worse environmental conditions by being more co-operative," the authors wrote.

Members of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries help rescue Mike Henry (right) and his partner Rosemarie Carpenter in Orange, Texas, on Wednesday. (Gerald Herbert / The Associated Press)</p>

Members of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries help rescue Mike Henry (right) and his partner Rosemarie Carpenter in Orange, Texas, on Wednesday. (Gerald Herbert / The Associated Press)

And in Houston this week, we saw that effect beamed in heroic images. A reporter turned his camera on a civilian man, who came from a southern suburb of Houston, as he readied his boat to motor through the city’s flooded streets.

"You guys just jumping in to help out?" the reported asked.

"Yes, sir," the man replied.

Another question: "What are you going to do?"

"I’m gonna try and save some lives," the man replied.

There are more stories, so many stories of human co-operation, rising higher than the water. A furniture-store owner, Jim (Mattress Mack) McIngvale, opened his two showrooms as sanctuaries for more than 1,000 stranded refugees.

He had done the same for hurricane Katrina evacuees fleeing New Orleans more than a decade ago. He sent the store’s furniture trucks out to perform rescues. He gave out his cellphone number on CNN, so that anyone who needs help can call him direct.

In another scene, caught on video, an elderly man was trapped in a flooded SUV. Dozens of bystanders formed a human chain, linking arms and braving chest-deep water; they were able to reach the man and carry him to safety.

A man carries children after being rescued by members of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the the Houston Fire Department after residents were stranded by floodwaters due to Tropical Storm Harvey, Monday, Aug. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

A man carries children after being rescued by members of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the the Houston Fire Department after residents were stranded by floodwaters due to Tropical Storm Harvey, Monday, Aug. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Hundreds of these scenes beamed out of Houston this week. Countless more happened that will never be seen.

Captained by everyday people, flotillas of fishing boats and Sea-Doos set out on rescue missions. Doors opened for strangers in need of a safe place. Teams of volunteer lawyers set up at shelters to help out with insurance claims.

Elsewhere, floodwaters trapped employees inside a Mexican bakery for two days. So they worked through the bakery’s storehold of flour, baking for more than 24 hours, creating hundreds of loaves and cakes to share with survivors.

This is what the best parts of us look like. This is the solidarity we find in disaster. Normal people, banding together, contributing their skills to ensure mutual survival; from the wreckage of destruction, co-operation sprouts forth.

It’s not a new revelation. We’ve seen this countless times before. Yet as Houston was decimated this week, it showed us once more: at the end of it all, when the water rises up to swallow the world, what keeps us afloat is compassion.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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