Miscellany – The Unifying Force of Disasters

I have struggled with the concept of Gay Pride over the years, but one element of Pride Month is generally well-understood: Sometimes we have sunshine, and other times it rains on our parade. But regardless of the weather or the time of year, people tend to work together best during difficult times. Differences in our sexuality, skin color, gender and ideology don’t tear us apart. They unify us, especially when we are challenged as a community by unexpected disasters.

Late one May in 1973, my little town of Payson, Utah, was hit by a giant wave of water after a dam broke in the canyon above. It hit at dark, and we were all caught off guard that night. My cousin lost his balance in the fast-moving waters, and his foot got caught in a sewer culvert. He was quickly pulled underwater. When I got him up to the surface, we both coughed up the icy mountain water before catching our breath.

“Don’t tell my mom,” he said.

“Mum’s the word,” I replied.

Our town had been settled on an ancient creek bed that forked off three ways. Otherwise, we would have all been wiped off the map.

Still, it was enough water to flood most of the homes, including my grandma’s. She lost her heat, electricity and a brand-new washing machine, but not her family. We were all there to drain the swamp that her basement had become, cleaning up and restoring power and warmth.

She slept safely that night.

Ten years later, I was living in Salt Lake City when higher-than-usual temperatures caused a massive early thaw of the record-breaking snowpack stored in the mountains. When a normally small creek that ran through downtown started to overflow into the streets, it was almost too late.

We had to turn streets into rivers for more than a month to divert the waters.   

But guess what? Making the best of the situation was fun. We loved getting together to sandbag people’s houses, people we had never met. I enjoyed sitting at my favorite gay club, out in front on a sandbagged sidewalk, as people canoed, boated and swam down the newly named “State Street River.”

Kansas City, our city, has had many catastrophic floods. In 1951, floodwalls gave way near the West Bottoms, where the meatpacking industry was located and businesses, including Hallmark, had warehouses. The painter Norman Rockwell contacted Hallmark founder J.C. Hall to offer his support, and Hall asked him to create a piece showing the city’s rebuilding. Rockwell visited several times and saw how residents pulled together, undaunted and unified, The result was the painting The Kansas City Spirit, in which a resolute-looking man, blueprints in hand, rolls up a sleeve. You can see the original work on display at the Hallmark Visitors Center.

Take a look on YouTube for videos of all kinds of flooding, captured by camera phones. In one that I saw, a young guy in a little pickup truck was getting swept away on a once-safe street. Several random people swam out to help him, risking life and limb. He was pulled to safety right before his vehicle was submerged in the churning waters.

No one hesitated to help. No one asked about his citizenship status, his sexuality or religion before reaching out. They were helping a fellow human in need.

When a governor declares a state of emergency or the Red Cross comes in, normally off-limits spaces are turned into shelters for displaced people. Food is brought in to everyone, and news outlets share residents’ stories. We sigh in relief when all are accounted for, the old, the young, the disabled, the poor. Nothing else matters, as long as they are found alive.

Yes, too much water in a short time – and other disasters – can destroy a person’s home, belongings and keepsakes and take loved ones along with it. It’s devastating to witness and much worse to endure. But the result sometimes reveals the best side of people.

Regardless of the weather, we work best when we work together.

Even gay people will pitch in to save you when the waters are rising.

I am living proof.