Flood in the House brings out best

Published 10:28 pm Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Natural disasters are something Alabama is all too familiar with.

We can remember the hurricanes vividly, Ivan and Katrina, slamming into the coast and proceeding to bring disastrous winds and heavy rains right up to the Tennessee line.

We see the storm systems that bring tornados, hitting homes and communities. There were more twisters just last week as the end of spring brought unstable weather.

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Some disasters come in so slow that it is hard to see them as calamities. Drought is one of them, and for about two years our state saw one of the worst droughts on record, threatening water supplies and ruining agriculture. However, the drought seems to have been in the distant past, because lately we have been dealing with the opposite problem: flooding.

Southeast Alabama has been deluged by rains this spring, making rivers and streams skip their banks, and washing out roads at an alarming rate. It is understandable that many people were praying for the end of the drought, but to end it like this must have been tough for those directly affected by the floods.

As it turned out, the Alabama Legislature was not immune to flooding. Last week, as the House and Senate got down to business on one of the last remaining days of the regular session, Montgomery was hit with what meteorologists are now calling a 100-year rain event. Almost 10 inches of rain fell in a period of just a few hours.

The flood waters rose and the parking lots of the State House went underwater, along with many of the cars parked there. Then the water flooded into the lower floors of the building, killing the power, making the State House unsafe for people and impossible to conduct the people’s business.

However, important work still needed to be done during the legislative day, so the leaders came up with an interesting and historic solution: the House and Senate would reconvene in the old State Capitol across the street for the first time since the 1980s.

Anyone who has been to the Capitol recently knows that it is more a museum than a place to conduct legislative business. Period desks line the old chambers, and all of the electric voting machines and loudspeakers have been removed. The beautiful chambers reflect what they looked like at the end of the 1880s, not the 1980s.

However, the professional staff of the Legislature quickly set up temporary tables for the clerks to use, the galleries filled with spectators, and the Speaker brought down his gavel to start business anew.

Another throwback to the 1880s was the fact that the air conditioning did not work. The controls were in the State House across the street and were out of commission when the flood hit. So the widows were raised and the rule requiring jackets on the floor was suspended. It was quite a remarkable site to see a session conducted under such circumstances, with shirtsleeves and unamplified voices calling back to an earlier time.

To many astonished onlookers, much of the people’s business was accomplished during that remarkable day, including passage of the important General Fund budget.

It is an old saying that natural disasters can often bring out the best in people, with neighbors helping neighbors and people reaching down deep to do what they can. Maybe that same type of sentiment made sure members of both legislative chambers put aside their differences to overcome an extraordinary situation to get work done.

AJ McCampbell is a state representative serving Marengo County.