When Disaster Hits Close to Home

Commentator Tracy Bertram works for the United Way and volunteers for the Red Cross in Evansville, Ind. Earlier this month, a devastating tornado hit Evansville. Bertram describes what it was like coping with disaster so close to home.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And whether you're someone who says grace or not before your Thanksgiving dinner, chances are you'll pause for a moment today to think about all the things you're grateful for. Commentator Tracy Bertram finds herself thinking about matters of life, death and eternity. She'd be counting her blessings even if it weren't Thanksgiving.

TRACY BERTRAM:

This past year, hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in the tsunami's wave and in the violent shaking of the Earth. Here in the US, wind and water raged against the coasts, but no matter how much sorrow you feel for so many deaths far away, it doesn't prepare you for the death in your own back yard.

A few weeks ago, 23 little boys and girls, parents, loved ones and friends died in my Indiana hometown in a tornado and the losses still crush me. I work for United Way and volunteer for the Red Cross. After the tornado, I walked the debris-lined streets trying to make sense of the senseless. What I saw was overwhelming, almost 800 homes in ruins. Streets full of overturned houses and twisted metal, I saw homes ripped open like sardine cans, some right in half. The inhabitants were blown blocks away, but their clothes were mysteriously lined perfectly on closet racks ready for wear. I saw toys and baby items and pink insulation everywhere like trampled cotton candy on the ground, Christmas presents with tags still on them, a knitting basket with the beginnings of a scarf, unfinished business.

I paused where they rescued a child 12 hours after the storm. I couldn't help but wonder if he knew his daddy and sister were never coming home? What I heard surprised me most, nothing at all. In six seconds, lives were taken in a deafening roar. The next day, a large neighborhood off a busy interstate was quiet as if in prayer. What I felt was heartbreak and awe. What I also felt, of course, was lucky.

That night I tucked my little one in and counted my blessings. I finally cried for the children who never woke up, for so many who lost so much. Weeks later, I'm still rocking my little boy long after his bedtime because I'm haunted by the story of a father across town rocking his two-year-old son in a quiet corner of the morgue.

You should be able to assume that when you tuck your loved ones in at night they will be there in the morning, but now I know this is not always true. I have seen what a disaster can take away--lives, possessions, security--but I've also seen what's left behind after the storm: faith that things will get better, community, the coming together that only happens when everyone is hurting, not just those who lost everything, those who come to help, too, because that's when they begin to find comfort.

I learned that tragedies enable us to give not until it hurts but until it actually feels a little better. I am humbled by my own good fortune. I have my family and I have my home. I know that small blessings matter and we should do something, do anything, to make someone else's life better because in the end that's the only thing that lasts.

MONTAGNE: Commentator Tracy Bertram lives in Evansville, Indiana.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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