2017-09-08 / View From Here


Hurricane Harvey and its lessons

Hurricane Harvey is now history, at least in terms of producing truly torrential rains and massive flooding, although the massive governmental and nongovernmental efforts at cleanup and recovery are just beginning. Harvey produced over four feet of rain in many areas, an almost unreal total, so there is obviously a huge task ahead. I contributed a few dollars to relief efforts and I certainly hope that readers in a position to help will do so as well.

As this written, there is some concern about the year’s newest hurricane, named Irma, and the possibility that it will move from the Atlantic and make landfall somewhere on the east coast of the United States. Obviously no one in his or her right mind wants another hurricane in our country, much less a second major storm a few days after Harvey. However, it must be said that natural disasters like the one in Texas and Louisiana, and many other places, do bring out the best in many people.

While any number of fatalities is too many, and there were scores of deaths, the amazing part of the Harvey story was the number of people rescued from the rising floodwaters. Literally thousands of people were saved, often from rooftops, by police and military personnel (the entire Texas National Guard was activated) and rescue workers, but also by private groups like the Cajun Navy and even by individuals using their relatively small private watercraft. There was a dramatic report of neighbors setting up a human chain in waist high waters to move a pregnant woman about to give birth into a dump truck where she could be evacuated to a hospital.

It is still a little early to tell, but the governmental relief programs generally seemed up to the task, with FEMA set up quickly. Meanwhile, private sector relief efforts were usually rapid and well organized. Catholic Charities, for example, sent out a video featuring its local director showing a well-staffed center in central Houston providing intake interviews to determine the needs of affected individuals and families and then well stocked tables and shelves supplying food, water and personal care supplies to people who frequently had lost everything. Obviously, many other individuals and groups helped as well. There were pictures of long lines of people in Houston waiting for volunteer assignments.

Most fundamentally, the response to Harvey is a counterpoint to the frequent argument that our country is hopelessly divided along lines of race, class and gender. A report in the French Agence France Presse news agency declared that in “devastated Houston, ‘nobody hates anybody’ as people come together”. The article describes a group of young Muslim men involved in flood rescues and clearing debris, and how their efforts were welcomed in the Houston community. A widely reported scene involved a black man on jet skis who had been dispatched by the local Chick-fil-A rescuing a white couple who were regular customers of the restaurant.

As columnist and law professor Glenn Reynolds put it, across “the affected area, Americans are coming together to help each other. Despite the racial divisions exacerbated by small numbers of fanatics on the left and right, (and amplified by the press), out in the real America white people, black people and Asians helped each other, men rescued women and children, and so on.”

Inevitably, some of the feelgood aura concerning Texas and Louisiana will end, as the devastation sinks in and delays and bureaucratic tangles make some people in the affected areas feel that their needs are not properly addressed. Moreover, some of the efforts will get intertwined in political feuds and score settling. (For what it’s worth, I thought President Trump did well in his own style during his visits to the storm region, although obviously he is a lightning rod.) But, for all its devastation, Harvey did provide a teachable moment about the good in ourselves and our society.

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