Memories of Katrina Shadow the Response to Harvey

The pictures of Hurricane Harvey’s awesome devastation are filtered through our collective memories of catastrophic trauma.


Twelve years ago, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the president of the United States said federal relief officials were doing a “heck of job.”

Twelve days ago, when neo-Nazi mobs rampaged in Charlottesville, the president of the United States proclaimed that some of the men chanting “Death to Jews” under the protection of armed supporters were “fine people.”

In between, in January 2013, 23 Texas congressmen and both Republican senators voted against a $50 billion relief program for victims of superstorm Sandy in New York and New Jersey. Many who voted no demanded dollar-for-dollar cuts elsewhere in the federal budget to pay for the storm relief and scorned the idea that climate change might be responsible. (The program passed anyway.)

It's heartening to see the many individual rescue efforts, but the test will come in the country's collective response. Will the federal government’s response to Harvey display the worst tendencies in American society and politics that have been on display for the past year? Or maybe, just maybe, might we do better this time?

Evacuation

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a conservative Republican, took the high road when asked about the first controversy to follow the storm: whether Houston should have ordered residents to evacuate in advance of the record rainfall. Houston mayor Sylvester Turner, a liberal Democrat, said no, while Abbot said yes.

“The decisions about evacuation are behind us,” Abbott replied. “Our focus now is on protecting life.” That may be a sign of progress, although the second-guessing about evacuation may recur when the storm’s death toll is finally assessed.

Evacuation seems commonsensical, but it has its own risks.

“People disproportionately die in cars from floods, so evacuation is not as straightforward a call as seems,” J. Marshall Shepherd, a program director in atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia, tweeted Sunday. As Hurricane Rita barreled toward Texas in 2005, an exodus of about 3 million people contributed to at least 73 deaths from traffic accidents and heat-related illnesses before the storm even arrived.

Hypocrisy

Sen. John Cornyn, who opposed the Sandy relief program, seems to have learned something. He appeared at a press conference Monday with Abbott and welcomed federal aid without digressing about the budget deficit or climate change. Cornyn is a hypocrite, but that’s no reason not to aid water-logged Texans.

An epic natural disaster can be a unifying event because it shows that everyone is vulnerable. But precisely because natural disasters inevitably stimulate empathy and inspire collective responses, they justify governmental spending and action. It's no surprise to read that Houston is "drowning" in its freedom from zoning.

As Katrina and Sandy showed, a massive disaster can also expose and magnify class and racial inequities and the desire to perpetuate them. 

The coming bill for Hurricane Harvey, expected to be in the tens of billions of dollars, may wipe out the plans of President Trump and some Republicans to shut down the government if Democrats don’t agree to fund Trump's border wall.

“Harvey could upend that budget fight, pressuring politicians to reach a quick resolution,” says the Washington Post. “That is because a government shutdown could sideline agencies involved in a rescue and relief effort that officials are predicting will last years."

But Harvey could also swamp a dysfunctional Congress and divisive president who are hostile to governmental activism and committed to denying the reality of climate change. 

Climate Change

While no single weather event can be definitively linked to climate change, Harvey's unprecedented severity sends a message that the Trump administration and much of the Republican Congress would prefer to deny: that climate change is remaking the world.

"After last summer’s devastating floods in Baton Rouge, climatologists estimated that the changing environment had probably doubled the likelihood that a calamitous storm would strike in a particular year," according to the New Yorker.

Once upon a time, it was natural to assume that the U.S. government would aid victims of an epic flood, just as it was once natural to assume that the country wouldn’t abandon a drowning American city simply because most of its residents were poor and black, or that a president wouldn’t give aid and comfort to Nazis.

We no longer live in such a country. The recovery from Harvey will be a test of the country’s social fabric frayed by the racism, greed and corruption emanating from the top. 

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