Like millions of Americans, I’ve remained glued to the television and other news outlets chronicling the epic deluge that Hurricane Harvey has unleashed across Houston, Rockport, Galveston, and along the Gulf Shores of Texas and into Louisiana. As a fellow Texan and an American, it’s been heart wrenching to watch the powerful destruction so easily wrought to the works of men by Mother Nature.
As a lifelong educator and a parent, I am especially moved by images of babies, toddlers and elementary school-age children physically being carried to safety by rescue responders and hoisted into high water vehicles.I am grateful for their rescue and, at the same time, deeply moved by their vulnerability. As I watch the news, I’ve been reminded of Johnny Cash’s song “Five Feet High and Rising,” released in 1959.
The song’s simple, yet powerful lyrics tell the story of Cash and his family’s experience during a flood when he was a small child. Click here to listen to Cash singing his song on Sesame Street with Biff. With each refrain, he adds one more foot to the depth of the rising water. In the repeated chorus, Cash channels his rising childhood anxiety along with the rising water; his concern is apparent, as is the event’s long-term effects on his psyche:
How high’s the water, mama?
Five feet high and risin’
How high’s the water, papa?
She said it’s five feet high and risin’
The impact of a natural disaster on a child’s sense of stability and safety are on display in Cash’s song. Like Cash, many of us carry into adulthood emotions related to fear we experienced as a child. Paying close attention to a young person’s reaction to traumatic situations like these is crucial, as is providing professional support when necessary.
In the aftermath of the storm, it will be imperative that counseling and therapy be made are available to these displaced children. Their sense of loss will be profound, as they process feelings about the loss of their home, toys, clothes and, in some cases, family members and pets. Organized and supervised play activities, exercise and a return to school are good ways to help these children begin to experience the comfort that a daily routine can offer.
I am not an expert in crisis management and know nothing about how to recover from massive flooding. But I do know about loss. I hope and pray that mental health services will be available to these children, their parents and the elderly.
It’s important to understand that healing and recovery for those affected by Harvey will take not days or months, but years. Many – especially the children – will never forget.
In putting together these thoughts, I stumbled across some words of hope attributed to Cash about his song:
My mama always taught me that good things come from adversity if we put our faith in the Lord.
We couldn’t see much good in the flood waters when they
were causing us to have to leave home,
But when the water went down, we found that it had washed a load of rich black bottom dirt across our land.
The following year we had the best cotton crop we’d ever had.
Perhaps the dramatic citizen rescues and scenes of folks of all stripes coming together to help and support each other are small manifestations of the healing to come, and of our innate human compassion and empathy that too often seems invisible during these divisive days.