Harvey lesson: Sometimes, a complex disaster requires a simple feature focused on one person

I spent three full days in Houston and other parts of Texas last week reporting on the faith-based response to Hurricane Harvey.

I’m writing a package of stories for The Christian Chronicle. My first piece, focusing on churches that opened their doors to evacuees, was published today. I also did a Religion News Service profile of Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, a Houston furniture icon whose compassionate response to flooding victims made him a hero to many.

But here’s my confession: I found the massive nature of Harvey — involving tens of thousands of flooded homes and at least 60 deaths — a bit overwhelming.

Covering Harvey's aftermath reminded me of how I felt when I traveled to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast to report on Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

On Twitter, I noted:

But then I came across a lovely USA Today feature packed with revealing details about just one flooding victim. Understanding hit me like the realization “I could’ve had a V8.” (That V8 reference will make sense to GetReligion readers of a certain age.)

I knew this already, of course. But sometimes, the simplest lessons are the hardest to remember. In this case, the lesson is this: the power of a compelling story featuring one person — or one experience — that epitomizes the many.

That's where this USA Today piece shines.

The headline:

Houston family finds blessings as they clean up after Harvey

And yes, there's a strong religion angle that the writer, Natalie Neysa Alund, does an exceptional job of developing:

HOUSTON — After little slumber, Helen Benjamin, 78, rose from bed at 7 a.m. in pink pajamas and a ruffled purple sleeping cap and began preparations for church like she would any other Sunday.
But this day was different.          
Benjamin didn’t wake up in the home she’d owned for more than five decades in the city’s Kashmere Gardens neighborhood. She woke up 15 miles across town in a cramped hotel room with two double beds — her youngest daughter Kim Malbroue, 46, and 10-year-old grandchild Imana in the bed next to her.
Benjamin and her family are among tens of thousands of Houstonians displaced from their homes by Hurricane Harvey, which tore through southeastern Texas one week earlier, killing at least four dozen people, filling more than 50,000 homes with water and testing the endurance of the nation’s fourth-largest city.
“I didn’t sleep hardly at all,” she said, now dressed in blue skirt and blazer with a silver brooch on her lapel and navy blue hat atop her neat-kept silver hair. “We’ve been pulling wet stuff out of the house all night. My daughter was crying because her back hurt. But we are blessed. A lot of people are worse off.”

Keep reading, and you'll notice that Benjamin attends the Fifth Ward Church of Christ — which I visited on my reporting trip. But I didn't know about this remarkable story. And I am jealous.

Of course, in the case of Harvey, there’s a place for a journalistic helicopter view of the miles and miles of devastation. But there’s a role, too, for a close-up view, and that’s what the USA Today story provides.

This is a fantastic story. Despite the subject matter, it's a joy to read.

Go ahead and read it all.

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