Last week, Hurricane Harvey rocked the coast of east Texas, wrecking hundreds of thousands of homes, leaving tens of thousands of people with nowhere to go and taking the lives of at least 66 people.
Quickly, social media became inundated with news about the storm, updates from Texans confirming their safety and suggestions of ways to help with relief efforts. Social media also filled up with posts from people on both the left and right trying to politicize the hurricane.
Just as in 2012, when a preacher tried to defend Hurricane Sandy as God’s answer to laws legalizing gay marriage, people tried to explain why those in the storm’s path deserved the destruction.
In one post, a University of Tampa professor, who has since been fired, tried to justify Harvey as retribution for the state’s voting patterns.
The now-deleted tweet from Kenneth Storey (@klstorey) read: “I dont [sic.] believe in instant karma but this feels like it for Texas. Hopefully this will help them realize the GOP doesnt [sic.] care about them.”
As the storm cleared, the damage became apparent and a response effort began. Along with the cleanup, a slew of journalists’ photographs emerged to give visuals of both the damage from and response to Harvey.
Taken out of the context of the rest of the photographic record of Hurricane Harvey, these photographs were ripe for politicization.
Matt Walsh (@MattWalshBlog) tweeted: “Woman cradles and protects child. Man carries and protects both. This is how it ought to be, despite what your gender studies professor says,” along with a photograph of a Houston police officer carrying a mother and son to safety.
Though retweeted 12,000 times, Walsh’s post was ridiculed by other users. Regardless of the conversation about gender Walsh is trying to engage, this tweet is an example of cheap politicization of someone’s suffering and the danger of taking photographs of disasters out of their larger context.
And, in another post I have unfortunately not been able to find again due to Twitter’s less-than-stellar search function, someone compared Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey.
A photograph of several white men pushing a truck through a flooded Houston was juxtaposed with a photograph of black men looting in the wreckage of post-Katrina New Orleans, trying to make an overdrawn, blatantly racist claim that the response to these hurricanes had to do with the race of the victims.
But what the photographic record shows is that Hurricane Harvey will not fit your partisan narrative.
The storm’s destruction did not discriminate. Especially in comparison to other American storms, Harvey destroyed the homes of people of all socioeconomic standings and races with the same violence and terror. As a New York Times article put it, people of all backgrounds are “united in soggy duress.”
The destruction does not discriminate, but neither does the restoration. Disaster forces humanity together. In the photographs, people of all genders, colors and income levels are seen working together to protect their neighbors and provide for those who have lost everything.
This is not to say that politics does not or should not play a part in how we understand and react to disasters like hurricanes. Political issues are bound to appear out of great tragedy, and policy surrounding evacuations, relief funding and flood insurance needs to be discussed.
But disasters do not fit into the boxes we draw based on our political views. And to try to fit them in is disrespectful, uncompassionate and simply false.
Liam Nieman is a sophomore Southern studies and economics major from Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania.