Houston is trying to dry itself out and recover from the historic floods of Hurricane Harvey. It will take years and unknown billions of dollars.
Unlike New Orleans in 2005 after Katrina, the country’s fourth largest city was as prepared as any metropolis can be for a thousand-year flood. But unlike New Orleans, Houston’s city government was not horribly corrupt and incompetent.
In Houston, no poorly built or badly maintained federal government levies broke open, instantly flooding whole neighborhoods with sea water up to their rooftops and killing nearly 2,000 people.
In Houston, where so far about 40 have died, nearly 1.7 million residents left voluntarily or were ordered to be evacuated by local officials before the flood waters crested.
On a federal level, President Trump is doing and saying the right things, though his critics in the media will never admit it. They’re busy looking for any way to blame him for every thing that goes wrong in Houston while complaining he’s been too upbeat and hasn’t shown the proper degree of empathy. They’re no doubt already trying to link his personal contribution of $1 million to a kickback from Putin.
It’s still early, but so far the federal government’s response has not caused more trouble for Houston’s people or created any political firestorms. The Federal Emergency Management Administration is on the scene, throwing its money around and promising much much more. FEMA clearly has learned some lessons since its failures dealing with Katrina.
It was much better prepared for a major disaster and it’s not trying to hog the relief and rebuild process. FEMA now knows its proper place and its most important role - providing federal relief money and supporting state and local governments.
Earlier this week FEMA’s administrator, Brock Long, encouraged “all citizens to get involved. Donate your money, figure out how you can get involved as we help Texas find a new normal going forward after this devastating disaster.”
It was nice to see FEMA encouraging private organizations and individuals to help, but millions of Americans around the country were a step ahead of Long’s call. The bearded bass fishermen and flat-bottomed boat owners of the informal “The Cajun Navy”and thousands of other individual boaters drove straight to Houston to help people evacuate or pluck them from rooftops. Like thousands of individuals, charities, churches and community groups, they answered Houston’s call for help spontaneously out of the goodness of their American hearts.
Americans have a history of helping out in disasters at home and abroad and it’s been going on long before Jimmy Carter’s administration created FEMA in 1978. After a third of the city of Chicago was destroyed by the fire of 1871, it was private individuals, companies and charities that rebuilt it, not government. Before the fire was even put out, the people of Cincinnati held a rally, raised $160,000 and sent it to Chicago. Other cities did the same, raising the equivalent of nearly $100 million in today’s money and donating much more in food and clothing.
The same thing happened in 1889 when 2,209 people of Johnstown, Pa., were swept to their deaths by a wall of water from a broken dam. Americans from coast-to-coast contributed millions of dollars and sent so many relief supplies by rail to Johnstown that they were asked to stop.
As the city of Houston and its people already are learning, that kind of spontaneous private generosity is not just a tradition, it’s part of America’s DNA.
Today it’s easier than ever to help victims of natural disasters. Thanks to web sites like PayPal you can send a $25 donation to the reputable charity of your choice with a click or two.
That’s what I did, and when I get back home to Los Angeles, I’m going to go around the corner to the Red Cross office and give to Houston the old-fashioned way - with a check.