Why Harvey wasn't politicized
It's a powerful testament to the city of Houston that pundits who initially sought to politicize Hurricane Harvey, from a safe remove, have laid off.
The temptation, in this case, must have been tempting indeed. Harvey was the most extreme rain event ever recorded in the United States. At least 21 fatalities have been confirmed. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced. About 30 percent of Harris County, which encompasses Houston and most of its suburbs, remains underwater.
And the partisans had plenty of targets, on both sides of the aisle, on whom to cast blame. Texas is a red state where leaders like Gov. Greg Abbott (R) have been lackadaisical at best about the looming threat of climate change. Houston is a city with a Democratic mayor, Sylvester Turner, who had, on the eve of the storm, publicly pushed back on Abbott's suggestion that the people of Houston should possibly evacuate.
Making matters worse, the Houston floods were the first exogeneous crisis of Donald Trump's flailing presidency, and they arrived at a point when he had seemingly resolved to be gratuitously divisive and antagonistic. On Friday evening, he announced his decision to pardon controversial former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and on Monday he explained his timing; with Harvey bearing down on Texas, he assumed the ratings would be good.
And yet, the pundits have largely given up on casting blame for the disaster — with a few exceptions, of course. And the reason is simple: The example set by both Houston's leaders and its people has been too inspiring.
Houston has always been underrated. It's the energy capital of the United States, the most international metropolitan area in the country and, as we've all now seen, the kind of place where hundreds of people will naturally respond to a major catastrophe by, for example, rescuing random strangers, using their rowboats.
The images of them doing so — like this one, by The Houston Chronicle's Melissa Phillip — will linger in the collective memory, even after the waters recede. So too will the stories of the Houstonians who found other ways to help, like Mattress Mack, birth name Jim McIngvale, who turned his two stores into temporary shelters, or the workers who were trapped for two days at El Bolilla, and passed the time by baking, so they could help feed everyone else.
The heroism of Houston's law enforcement officers, meanwhile, was exemplified by Houston Police Sgt. Steve Perez, who lost his life after being trapped in the floodwaters Sunday morning; he had spent 34 years on the force, and had left his house before dawn to try to get back to work. And it was vivified by HPD's Daryl Hudeck, in an image that went viral while he was still at work. And leaders like Mayor Turner and Harris County judge Ed Emmett were acclaimed on all sides for their steadiness and focus while dealing with a crisis in exceptionally overheated times.
"What we've seen in the streets of Houston has restored my faith in America," said Harlan Hill on Fox Business Network on Tuesday morning, as a montage scrolled by in the background; it was "troubling," he added, that the mainstream media was allocating airtime to anything else. Such a response might be instinctual now, like criticizing the sartorial choices of the president and his family, but it wasn't fair. Journalists covering this storm have sacrificed their comfort, and risked their own lives, to produce stories and images like the ones Hill was talking about. While broadcasting on Saturday, a news crew from CNN rescued three people, to boot.
Still, it's no wonder that the images that emerged from Houston, after rescue efforts began, would resonate. From a public-relations perspective, it's been a hard month for "the forgotten man." And, more generally, it's a slightly demoralizing time to be an American.
Worth noting, then, is that the courage, creativity, and sense of community we've seen in the streets of Houston this week isn't actually unprecedented. It's just not in fashion, at the moment, on either side of the aisle. Republicans have embraced Trump, an aspiring strongman, as president, and averted their eyes from his most overt abuses of power, like the Arpaio pardon. Democrats are clamorous in their calls for a more capacious welfare state.
The people of Houston had no time for politics this week, though. More than 18,000 people were rescued this week, many of them by ordinary Texans. Because that's what neighbors do.