New Orleans Given Houston’s experiences with its own flooding and hurricanes and its welcoming and sheltering of thousands after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it would have seemed safe to assume that if any city could respond well to disaster, it must be Houston. A year after Hurricane Harvey, the answer is clear: not Houston either.
I was supposed to be in Houston when Harvey hit, and wisely delayed my trip, going only once reports were in that water was off of most of the interstate, though I found it still lapping the shoulder around Beaumont and Port Arthur. In Houston, organizers told me of the lack of response in apartment complexes where the residents were largely Hispanic and often undocumented. Philanthropists were generous, but uninterested in discussing the lessons of Katrina, as if it were ancient history, rather than a still open wound. Houston could handle it.
And, they have, just not all that well. There is still no real plan to protect the city in the future. A $2.5 billion bond issue passed overwhelmingly by an 86% margin, but in dealing with a disaster of this scale that’s almost chump change, and only for the Houston area, while Harvey’s footprint was much larger.
As one of the largest cities in the country, the damage in Houston is not as stark and inescapable as Katrina’s devastation in New Orleans. Maybe that makes Harvey easier to ignore, if you were lucky. Certainly, that’s been the case in terms of critical state or federal response. Governor Kathleen Blanco in Louisiana was as intimately involved in the recovery in New Orleans and Louisiana as the Mayor or City Council was, sometimes making the right decisions and sometimes, making the wrong ones in delaying housing funds and allowing school charters. Governor Greg Abbott on the other hand has been a virtual bystander in Texas offering little more than bootstrap platitudes and precious little money. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both targeted billions for Katrina recovery. Though it was inadequate, it dwarfs the little that President Trump has provided other than emergency relief and a recovery package that is also supposed to handle the devastation in Puerto Rico. Harvey may teach Houston and Texas Republicans the limits of what conservative provincialism really means when citizens demand and expect their government to also be responsive to their needs and not just step out of the way.
The recovery has not been equal even when it has moved forward. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted with the Houston-based Episcopal Health Foundation found that 70% of Texans now say their lives are largely normal, “but of the people who reported still being affected by the storm, more than 40% say they aren’t getting the help they need to recover.” Not surprisingly, the “survey found that those who said they weren’t getting enough assistance were more often African-American, poor and lived in the state’s so-called Golden Triangle area…which includes the cities of Port Arthur, Beaumont, and Orange.”
All of this sounds too familiar. Given the regular and recurring disasters, worsened by climate change, it’s becoming almost trite to keep asking, “When are we going to learn?”