Minnesota 2020 Journal: I hear Minnesota singing


A tornado brings out Minnesota’s best. As a boy, I experienced it firsthand. Sunday, I saw it again in Hugo.

The May 25 Hugo tornado took one life, severely injured a handful, leveled a bunch of houses and banged up many more. The storm and its aftermath have been widely covered. Images are easily found and, chances are, most folks have moved on because living with a tornado threat is as much a part of Minnesota life as winter. Unless, of course, you live in Hugo.

In 1978, my family’s farmstead was run over by a tornado.

The storm didn’t destroy our farm but it came close. Our classic red-painted wooden barn was pushed fifteen degrees off-center and lost a roof, the machine shed collapsed, debris wiped away a lot of barbed-wire fencing allowing scared cattle to wander into the neighbor’s corn and soybean fields, and generally created a two year work backlog.

Despite pre-storm coverage, the insurance settlement failed to fully compensate my folks for their losses. Approved claims didn’t remotely address or include the general chaos’ non-specific costs.

But, we witnessed the silver lining. The next morning, our neighbors showed up and started cleaning. By day’s end a genuine sense of order was restored.

Nobody asked us if we needed help. They simply came.

That’s how it works in Minnesota. When disaster strikes, as it did in Hugo on Sunday afternoon, the neighbors show up to help.

Walt Whitman, the 19th century American poet, was deeply moved by ordinary people’s capacity for diligence, enthusiasm and community. His poem, “I Hear America Singing,” was first published in 1855’s Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s seminal work.

I HEAR America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics-each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat-the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck;

Minnesota wasn’t a territory in 1847 when Whitman began writing his Leaves of Grass poems yet he captures Minnesota’s promise. We attend to our lives, do our jobs, raise our children and help our neighbors. We, as Minnesotans, are, in a very real, practical sense, Whitman’s singing voices.

Governor Pawlenty wasted no time pulling his navy blue Emergency Services windbreaker from the closet and heading up to Hugo. Eager to be perceived as doing something, Pawlenty regretfully acknowledged that, between the community response and near total private insurance coverage, he wouldn’t be able to deliver Federal Emergency Management Agency funds.

While I clearly have my own objections to Governor Pawlenty’s conservative public policy preferences, I also strongly suspect that Pawlenty is being excoriated by more right-leaning conservatives for suggesting that government emergency relief is even an option. In their world view, government is only a problem and never a solution.

I disagree. A timely and well-coordinated public safety disaster response doesn’t threaten our liberty. Rather, it reinforces it.

But this isn’t the moment for philosophical debate. It’s time for tornado damage clean-up with faith that work heals.

Hugo residents will learn what every tornado victim comes to know: the recovery is only the beginning and they’re not alone. They’ll be buoyed by their families, friends and neighbors. They’ll quickly understand another Whitman line, “I was thinking the day most splendid, till I saw what the not-day exhibited.”