An old expression, where else but in Texas, took a double-barreled turn this weekend: Come hell and high water.
The nation’s emergency resources were being brought to bear with all the rescue and emergency management services they could muster even before Hurricane Harvey slammed into the state’s Gulf Coast with Category 4 winds of 130 miles an hour Friday night. The storm, which lost some of its windblown punch after landfall, set off tornadoes. And now, even downgraded to tropical storm status has continued to deluge communities with up to 25 more inches of rain on top of 30 that had already fallen into overflowing rivers and flooded streets.
Buildings are demolished and abandoned. Cars and boats thrown about like toys. There are images of people walking through knee-deep water, waist deep water, chest high water. It’s believed that as many as 30,000 people will end up in shelters from what’s been described there as an unprecedented storm in modern times.
Every life lost is precious, certainly, but what’s been remarkable given the destruction along the Texas Gulf Coast, has been – so far – a confirmed death toll in the single digits as of yesterday, the third full day since landfall.
Also remarkable has been the grit and heart of Texans watching out for each other – Texans helping Texans is a staple of the culture in times such as these.
Texans have taken it upon themselves, Dunkirk-like, to launch a flotilla of private boats and inflatable rafts through flooded streets to rescue stranded residents and carry them to safer ground. The talk in social and other media was not to call for help just because a few inches of water were pouring through your house so that rescuers could focus on saving those in truly life-threatening situations, of which there have been plenty. Authorities urged people to not climb into their attics, where they could be trapped – like some in Katrina – if water rose to the second floor, but to break through or climb onto roofs with sheets to attract attention.
One senior citizen in his 60s with a bad hip told his story to the BBC, of water flowing through his small house, of a neighbor half his age wading across the currents in the street to bring him back to his house, and waiting there until they had to abandon that too. They struggled down the street, where rescuers lifted him to the safety of a large truck. He ended up in a Houston furniture store that was sheltering 400 people in one location and 200 in another, riding out the storm with food, water and chairs, couches and mattresses to rest on. The interviewer’s comment about Texans helping Texans was met with a single heartfelt word, “Amen.”
Amen also for local public safety officers and the Texas National Guard, and for Coast Guard and Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel from across the country, including Massachusetts, who have been mobilized. FEMA’s efforts thus far have been on the mark.
“Today in Houston we don’t care about political parties. There’s no aisle in a flood. We work together,” was a Facebook post coming out of Houston to friends such as Tim Garvin, CEO and president of United Way of Central Massachusetts. The post was shared by Angela Blanchard, who has headed a neighborhood center in Houston.
The unprecedented natural disaster is the first such test for the Trump Administration. Recall that President George W. Bush was hammered for continuing to stay on vacation for a time at his Crawford, Texas – of all places – ranch, before flying back to Washington aboard Air Force One to personally oversee recovery efforts. He was pictured staring grimly out the window of his jet, detached, as it flew over New Orleans, where people had been had been stranded on rooftops pleading for help and in the Superdome pleading for water and food. More than 1,000 died in that catastrophe, which included inadequate and poorly coordinated efforts by federal, state and local authorities. These failures, along with President Bush’s delay in quickly visiting the site, albeit out of a stated concern over distracting from recovery work, became a permanent blot on his presidency just four years after he had been widely hailed for his decisive leadership in the wake of 9/11. Hard lessons have been learned.
Last August, Mr. Trump visited Baton Rouge while still a candidate to tour flooded areas – he was even photographed helping unload supplies – while President Obama was still vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard (Hillary Clinton spoke with the governor by phone). So it’s no surprise that as president, Donald Trump has been all over Twitter, declared a disaster emergency in Texas even before the storm hit, and yesterday declared an emergency in Louisiana, expected to get up to two feet of rain in some areas as Harvey moves up along the coast.
And it’s no surprise that President Trump expects to be on the ground there today, probably in Austin and/or Corpus Christi. And it’s also no surprise, despite his going to areas not hit as hard, that there’s criticism that his presence may distract from recovery efforts. That’s unlikely, but it would seem there’s still an aisle regarding whatever this president might do.