When a defining moment comes along, you define the moment, or the moment defines you.
– Kevin Costner
The past two+ weeks have witnessed – yet again – the extraordinary efforts of ordinary Americans to help those whose lives have been forever changed by devastating disasters. One image: two men in waist-deep water helping a heavy-set elderly woman into a boat. You can see the care on their faces as they oh-so-gently fight to lift their clumsy burden without it tipping over. For them and for us, this was a moment that defined who they are. We saw similar scenes in the aftermath of the flooding in Louisiana almost exactly a year ago and as we watched Katrina’s horrors unfold. Snapshots revealing the heroes within ordinary people, doing what they can to help those nailed to the cross of Nature’s wrath.
Perhaps the best way to understand this is to hear it from these people in their own words. The captain of the Amberjack talking about why he was a part of the Boatlift from Manhattan on 9/11: “I never want to have to say ‘I should have.’” Or the Alabaman in Houston: “Maybe I can save some people.” Or so many others’ variations on “You gotta do what you can.”
And in some ways it is shaming. I have always been amazed that Mississippians – living in the poorest state in the nation – consistently give more of what they earn to help others than almost anyone else. While members of the self-proclaimed elite – making so much more – give proportionately so much less of what they earn, and viciously sneer that the victims are getting what they deserve.
Sadly, all too often, these moments that define heroism for the rest of us are the result of less-heralded moments that defined our communities’ leaders. Historically, Houston has been the poster child for urban sprawl. A tangle of streets and ring roads. No state-wide building code. Weak city building codes, poorly enforced (as an aside, it will be interesting to compare how Houston’s damage compares to that of surrounding counties with better codes). Last year, Houston’s mayor told residents in low-lying areas prone to flooding that the city wouldn’t help them. Similarly, in exercises a year before Katrina, the area’s emergency managers were confronted and confounded by a postulated levee break, but were not moved to act. They were defined by the moment, as were New Orleans’ Mayor and Louisiana’s Governor.
Yet I write to praise ordinary people not to bury Caesar. Our communities are largely ordinary people living ordinary lives. When the extraordinary event occurs, they are the first responders on the scene, most often rising above even their own expectations to help their neighbors. In resilient communities, leaders seize these moments to shape their community’s future. Sadly in other communities we have seen leaders fall back on hope as a strategy, leaving it to ordinary people to have more visible defining moments of their own. Thus, when we talk about our communities’ resilience, we are talking about defining moments. When one of them arrives, what will they reveal about our communities and ourselves?
The last graph for a while (I promise!): education and violent crime
In the graph below, I’ve plotted the normalized fraction of a county’s population with no more than a high school diploma against the normalized violent crime rate. The graph indicates that education limits the amount of violent crime. As you can see, there is one major deviation from this – the city of St. Louis. Delving a bit deeper into the data, it turns out that all of the exceptions – points above the line – are big cities OR neighboring counties. For example, St Louis and St Clair County, IL, containing East St Louis; Memphis and Crittenden County, AR, containing West Memphis. However not all big cities are above the line, e.g., Chcago is not. While I can rationalize the result I have no ready explanation for why St. Louis would be an exception.