Politicians, celebrities and the rich often set the world’s idea of their cities and regions. It takes a disaster to meet the regular folks. We met average Louisianans during Hurricane Katrina and the commoners from New Jersey and New York for Superstorm Sandy. Hurricane Harvey has introduced America and the world to ordinary Texans.
And what the world sees is a multiracial society of victims and heroes joined by geography. It sees people waiting stoically for rescue as their homes, photos and cars are swept away — people escaping the floods with nothing but their drenched dogs. And they heard locals saying things that required subtitles (and we’re not talking about immigrants).
We saw the Cajun navy, small boats coming over from Louisiana to rescue people. Some of the boats capsized, and the rescuers had to be rescued. The scene was reminiscent of the Battle of Dunkirk in World War II, when British civilians sailed their fishing and pleasure boats to a beach in France to rescue their stranded soldiers.
Shelters for evacuees in Port Arthur, meanwhile, themselves filled up with water. People were moved out on the backs of dump trucks. And hospitals tending to the wounded succumbed to the rising waters.
Houston experienced nearly 52 inches of rainfall in a handful of days. Seattle (one of whose nicknames is Rain City) typically sees 37 inches of rain in a year.
The residents of Houston are a politically mixed group, but Harvey seemed to lump them together into the party of humans. What other affiliation can you have when six-lane highways are under 3 feet of water – and there are whitecaps on Interstate 10?
Houston has just entered the recovery phase. This is the point when the drama recedes, leaving the victims stuck in the mud of loss, bureaucracy and relentless digging out.
My friend Frank, a veteran of Sandy, offers them a hint of what’s ahead. His real struggle began after the waters flowed out of his house on the Connecticut coast. Getting insurers to pay up bent his soul. The expense drained his retirement savings.
He suffered most of all from a sense of violation. Of course, there’s no logic in waving fists against an act of nature. And others had suffered far more tragic losses. But for Frank, this became a war to restore what he had. He defiantly abandoned his mold-covered first floor to live on the second floor, sleeping with a face mask. Even today, anxiety that this could happen again haunts him.
From Houston, my niece Amanda had been sending Facebook videos of her streets turned into fast-moving rivers. (Her husband, a Navy submariner, has been providing some pithy commentary.) I recall joining Amanda on a glorious springtime stroll along the nearby Buffalo Bayou, then a lazy stream, now a raging tyrant. It will never seem the same.
The recovery is where politics will raise its divisive head. There will be arguments on the role global warming played in the flooding. There will be debates on zoning, which Houston does not have. And what about understaffed federal government agencies?
Yes, there will be lots more to talk about. For now, though, the faces and voices of America’s fourth-largest city are not oilmen, quarterbacks, pop stars or U.S. senators. They are the people of Houston in soggy sweatshirts and scraggly hair telling their stories.
Possibly the most memorable photo of this disaster will be of a woman and her poodle floating on a lonely rubber raft at night. The woman bears the expression of calm determination and patience as they wait for help. Whoever she is – this week, at least – she is Houston.
Froma Harrop is a columnist for Creators Syndicate.
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