The recent tragedy at Umpqua Community College in Oregon reminded us once again that no community is immune to crisis, and that we must all continue to plan and prepare for any incident or disaster that may occur in the future. However, it was also one of the first times the news media chose to focus on the helpers and heroes, victims, and survivors involved, instead of focusing on the perpetrator.
The late Fred Rogers, beloved and gentle host of PBS’ Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood for over 30 years, once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers – you will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words, and I am comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
Indeed, helpers and heroes are everywhere, and they shine brightest in darkness.
In this new era of emergency management, where crises and disasters seem to occur every week, it’s more important than ever to focus on all of the helpers behind the scenes. Those of us who’ve been involved in responding to an emergency in the past can confirm that, for every negative story we see on the news, there are thousands of positive and heartwarming stories we don’t ever hear about. In my talks throughout the globe, I continue to encourage parents to teach their children to look for the “heroes and helpers” whenever they see images of disasters in the news – the police officer carrying an injured victim to safety; the firefighter putting out the fire, the everyday citizen directing traffic after a major power outage, to name just a few. There will always be heroes and helpers in the periphery – you just have to look for them.
I became inspired to write my book, Disaster Heroes – Invisible Champions of Help, Hope, and Healing, during my first volunteer effort in New Orleans, about eighteen months post-Katrina. As much of the media coverage had long since died down by then, I had no idea how bad it still was – until I started hearing about and meeting the countless survivors, first responders, and volunteers who were helping to rebuild and recover the great city of New Orleans. Their poignant and grounding stories led me to start researching and profiling some of the ‘everyday heroes’ who have shown up following the some of the world’s most significant modern disasters to do whatever it takes to make the world right again.
My time in New Orleans and subsequent research uncovered hundreds of stories of people who freely risked all odds in their endeavors to help rebuild the landscapes and lives of those devastated by disaster. As a former journalist and news anchor, I am acutely aware that we rarely focus on and celebrate the good, so I decided to find and share some of these empowering stories with the world. In no way do I want to downplay the tragic losses and devastation experienced following disasters, but I do think it’s extremely important to let people know about all the life-affirming stories of help and heroism that shine through.
Everyone remembers that fateful morning of September 11, 2001 in New York City following the terror attacks on the World Trade Center. That day changed us all forever. Within the emergency management community, it redefined us and introduced us to the violent reality of terrorism.
However, the events of that day also brought out the best in people. I remember seeing televised images of thousands of strangers silently walking together, supporting one another, holding each other up. Ordinary citizens stepped in to help direct traffic and carry the wounded. There were countless stories of people throughout Manhattan, New York, and New Jersey taking in strangers who couldn’t get home that night. Condolences and messages of support came in from all over the world. The horrific events of that day united us all.
These and other actions on 9/11 and in the days, months, and years that followed are beautiful examples of our basic human instinct to support and help others in need following a disaster or life-threatening event.
Courageous and dedicated men and women risk their lives daily to ensure our safety. Police, fire, EMS, the military, and emergency response organizations perform acts of heroism every single day. These men and women are true examples of heroism and are hopefully recognized regularly for their efforts, as they should be. But there are many other “hidden heroes” most people don’t ever hear about.
After every disaster, we are bombarded with images of death, devastation, and destruction. The media rarely focuses on the countless helpers behind the scenes. While each disaster reveals our fragility, it also demonstrates how resilient we humans really are, and highlights our natural urge to come together during times of crisis to help our neighbours.
When I started meeting and interviewing these “disaster heroes,” I realized they all shared similar characteristics. Empathy, selflessness, and perseverance were three common traits, as well as creativity, initiative, and “thinking outside the box.” I also discovered heroism can be demonstrated in many different forms and is displayed every day by men, women, and girls, and boys of all ages and backgrounds.
All of their stories had another thing in common. They each demonstrated how just one person with one idea could snowball into an effort involving hundreds, if not thousands, of others who donated their time, money, and efforts to help disaster survivors.
As we enter a new era of emergency management, I hope communities continue to recognize the need for collaboration between first responders, practitioners, and everyday volunteers after a disaster. By doing so, we can become more creative, innovative, and respectful of the roles, ideas, and experiences we all bring to the table during a crisis.
Every month from this point forward, I will focus on a different “disaster hero,” profiling uplifting stories of ordinary men, women, and children who have done extraordinary things to help respond, rebuild, and recover from catastrophes around the world.
Ronnie Goldman – The 9/11 Terror Attacks and The Spirit of Louisiana
One of these heroes, who also happens to be the inspiration for my book, is New Orleanian Ronnie Goldman. The retired telephone engineer started a fundraising campaign after seeing President Bush address the nation standing atop one of the 35 fire trucks destroyed in the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. His original goal was to raise enough money to build and deliver a brand new fire truck to FDNY on behalf of the residents of Louisiana, to replace one of the many lost that tragic day.
In the end, thanks to Ronnie Goldman, the people of Louisiana raised $1.2 million, which went to purchase several response vehicles for the New York City Fire Department, including the first delivery, a pumper truck named “The Spirit of Louisiana,” as well as two special duty vehicles, the Heart of Louisiana, also known as “Spirit 2,” and the “Soul of Louisiana, or “Spirit 3.” But the story doesn’t end there.
In a heartwarming twist of fate, little did Ronnie know that The Spirit of Louisiana would return to the state of its inception to help respond and rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. A total of 343 New York City firefighters, the same number lost in 9/11, joined the Spirit in New Orleans to provide assistance after Katrina.
Then, in 2012, the Spirit was recommissioned and dispatched back to New York to support recovery efforts after Hurricane Sandy, where it remained for several months before returning to Louisiana. The two cities, separated by 1200 miles, continue to enjoy a unique and lasting connection, all thanks to “everyday hero” Ronnie Goldman.
Suzanne Bernier is an award-winning and internationally recognized emergency management and business continuity consultant, instructor and speaker, who has helped governments, communities and companies plan for and respond to disasters for nearly two decades.