He Wondered If Pittsburgh Could Survive a Disaster – And Then It Did

The reporter who researched and wrote a story about how Pittsburgh might respond to a disaster got the answer much sooner than he anticipated.

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This is Not a Drill, Can Pittsburgh Survive a Disaster? began as a thought experiment. I was sitting in traffic on a snowy morning in January, listening to radio reporters dissect the Hawaiian missile scare. Though the chaos in Waikiki seemed a world away from Pittsburgh’s icy streets, I couldn’t help but wonder: How would Pittsburghers respond, collectively, if the unthinkable happened here?

Less than two weeks after the resulting article was published, we found out.

The massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue has shaken Pittsburgh in a way it hasn’t been shaken for decades. It’s been more than 80 years since the city grappled with tragedy on such a scale, with grieving family members and friends under the national spotlight’s fleeting glare. The “darkest day of Pittsburgh history,” as Mayor Bill Peduto has called it, will no doubt join the terrible ranks of Pittsburgh’s worst disasters.

In the days following the slaughter, I found myself looking back at what I’d learned while researching this piece — namely, how the city responded to another great calamity, the St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936.

Newspapers from the time are full of stories about Pittsburghers coming together. “Apparently the railroads had carried out of town all the grouchy people. There weren’t any around,” wrote one reporter. A store owner gave away a thousand mattresses and a thousand blankets, wrote another. When a reporter named Charles M. Pooler — who was navigating Downtown via rowboat — was drawn toward a hotel by the sound of a choir, he climbed through a second-story window to find 600 stranded strangers singing “River, Stay ‘Way from My Door.”

That scene was on my mind as I stood in Squirrel Hill 82 years later, watching more than a thousand people sing Hebrew hymns as they marched and mourned. The moment was just one of many modern parallels to Pittsburgh’s flood response: Within hours of the shooting, donors jammed the city’s blood banks. High school students convened a candlelight vigil. Museums opened their doors for free, businesses gave their proceeds to charity, and the city’s Muslim community raised hundreds of thousands of dollars — enough to pay for the funerals of each of the 11 people murdered. The list goes on and on, and will surely expand during the coming weeks and months.

These gestures of goodwill have been widely celebrated, and rightfully so. We’ll no longer wonder how Pittsburghers respond to catastrophe — we’ve shown each other, and the world, what we’re willing to do.

But a larger question looms. Will we channel our anger, our sadness and our generosity into real, lasting change? Or will we fall back on our old ways, relying instead on the oversimplified narrative of Pittsburgh as a model of inclusivity and neighborly love — a narrative which held true in this instance, but which has failed people and communities on the margins from the city’s very beginning?

If we’re going to accomplish the former, we have a lot of work to do.

But anything less would be the biggest disaster of all.

Categories: Collier’s Weekly, Hot Reads