In April 1970, the Apollo 13 moon flight’s Jack Swigert reported, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” (The movie modified this to “Houston, we have a problem.”) Hurricane Harvey brought a more massive problem to Houston. In its suffering, Houston and other Texas Coast cities have displayed the solution to this nation’s bitter political and racial divide.
Early on, Houston’s mayor Sylvester Turner made a tough call telling residents not to evacuate the city. Given the impassability of so many streets and stretches of highway, his call seems on target. Still, Harvey forced tens of thousands of residents to leave flooded neighborhoods. Some managed alone. Many required assistance.
Local, state and federal agencies, including the Texas National Guard and the U.S. Coast Guard, went to work. They deployed helicopters, boats and high-water vehicles to pull desperate people out of the water, free them from vehicles and pluck them off roofs. Given the scope of the problem, they couldn’t do it alone.
Houston-area residents—and many people from out of the area—used their own boats and vehicles to take neighbors and strangers to shelters across the city. The Red Cross and other non-governmental agencies cranked up their efforts.
In addition to courage and compassion, these rescuers and caregivers shared another important quality. They assisted people in need without regard to race, ethnicity, religion, sexual identity or any other factor that has pitted one segment of the nation against the rest. I know of no white Christians who refused to help Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Jews and gays. I know of none of the latter who refused to assist whites. When push came to shove, Houstonians and others pushed back against the common adversary that threatened life, property and hopes for the future.
Houston and the Texas Coast will require years to fully recover. Some estimates see the presence of FEMA—the Federal Emergency Management Administration—at four years. This raises a critical question: Will FEMA have the funds and personnel to do the job—and do it right? Donald Trump ran a winning presidential campaign on shrinking the federal government and draining the swamp in Washington. Forget D.C. The White House needs to sufficiently fund FEMA and other agencies to help Houston and the Texas Coast rebuild long after its very real swamp drains away.
I wonder how many first-responders and rescuers—all of whom deserve our praise and thanks—voted for Trump based on his premise of smaller government and funds directed away from FEMA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health, the arts and more to build a wall on our border with Mexico. What we need is a wall sturdy enough to shield the Gulf Coast and its cities from rising waters—or a dome expansive enough to hold off biblical-type rains. Of course, that’s wishful thinking.
But here’s reality: The U.S. government has the unique assets and people power to make a long-term difference anywhere disaster strikes—and lead planning to avoid or mitigate new disasters. That’s why Texas governor Greg Abbott, a Trump supporter, welcomed federal aid.
Our political efforts should target making Washington more efficient and effective, not destroying it. Houston’s selfless, color-, religion- and gender-blind heroism offers a solution to national acrimony and achieving that goal. Pray that enough Americans notice.
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