In times of disas­ter, take com­fort in our lo­cal sea­soned lead­ers

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - LISA FALKEN­BERG

No one wel­comes a hur­ri­cane. But if we hu­mans must en­dure calamity, it’s a nice change of pace to have one we didn’t cre­ate.

Cer­tainly, news of the man­made dis­as­ters is still wash­ing in. Un­der cover of a mon­ster hur­ri­cane bear­ing down on Texas, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump an­nounced sev­eral con­tro­ver­sial de­ci­sions Fri­day, in­clud­ing the par­don of Joe Ar­paio, a tough-guy sher­iff in Ari­zona who prob­a­bly treated his toi­let tis­sue with higher re­gard than the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion.

Ar­paio, who had re­ferred to his tent city jail in Mari­copa County as a con­cen­tra­tion camp, was con­victed last month of crim­i­nal con­tempt for de­fy­ing a court or­der to stop il­le­gally pro­fil­ing Lati­nos based on the sus­pi­cion that they were in the coun­try il­le­gally. Prom­i­nent Repub­li­cans con­demned the de­ci­sion, in­clud­ing U.S. Sen. John McCain, who noted that it un­der­mined Trump’s “claim for the re­spect of rule of law.”

A hur­ri­cane doesn’t make us im­mune from the trou­ble in the world. But for a lit­tle while, it forces us to pri­or­i­tize the ba­sics we usu­ally take for granted: sur­vival, wa­ter sup­ply, a dry floor.

For now, as we in the Hous­ton re­gion hun­ker down, say prayers and hope that the “ma­jor rain event” fore­casted in the days ahead doesn’t send Har­vey lap­ping any­where close to our front doors, many of us have had a lit­tle time to re­flect.

On the big things. And on the lit­tle things.

Time for board games with the kids. For movie nights with friends. For con­nect­ing with pan­icked out-of-town rel­a­tives who mean well with their in­ces­sant wel­fare checks per­fectly cal­i­brated with the latest apoc­a­lyp­tic ca­ble news up­dates. (I’m OK, Mom!)

Many of us who have lived through hur­ri­canes know the para­dox of the nat­u­ral disas­ter. Its power to de­stroy is only ri­valed by its power to bring us to­gether as peo­ple. Af­ter

Ike, neigh­bors helped neigh­bors clear de­bris and re­pair homes. We de­liv­ered wa­ter to those who needed it. We ran ex­ten­sion cords into the last house on the block wait­ing for the lights to come back on.

The other night, a friend was re­count­ing how Ike for­ever changed the way she treats the folks who work at Wal­greens. She used to get im­pa­tient some­times wait­ing in line at the phar­macy. Not any­more. She re­mem­bers how em­ploy­ees showed up to work when few places were open. She learned to put her own need for a nonessen­tial zit cream in per­spec­tive. Seek­ing com­fort

In a disas­ter, we bond over our com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence, which, as I have learned this past week, in­cludes a pri­mal need for ex­otic junk food the likes of which my pantry has never seen. Some­how, gum drops and cherry pie made into my shop­ping cart along­side the pile of D bat­ter­ies that fit no de­vice in my house in par­tic­u­lar.

When I vented about the im­pulse buys on Twitter, oth­ers com­mis­er­ated on their weird pur­chases: candy corn, pizza-fla­vored Cheez-Its, pork rinds. Then there was the guy who said he bought cat lit­ter even though he didn’t have a cat. He thought maybe it would suf­fice as a sand bag.

Com­fort. We’re seek­ing com­fort amid this panic and un­cer­tainty, wher­ever we can find it.

In the past few days, I have found it in a source more un­likely than gum drops: politi­cians. At least, the lo­cal va­ri­ety.

Like many, I was alarmed when Gov. Greg Ab­bott sug­gested at a press con­fer­ence be­fore Har­vey’s land­fall that peo­ple in Hous­ton should con­sider evac­u­at­ing, con­tra­dict­ing lo­cal of­fi­cials’ pleas to stay put. Did Ab­bott not re­mem­ber the dis­as­trous les­son of Hur­ri­cane Rita, when thou­sands of peo­ple who didn’t need to evac­u­ate, some with lux­ury boats in tow, were stuck on out­bound free­ways for some­times 10 and 12 hours?

In this case, Ab­bott’s con­tempt for lo­cal con­trol could have caused chaos more pro­found than the kind we’ve grown ac­cus­tomed to in the Leg­is­la­ture. The gover­nor could have en­dan­gered peo­ple’s lives.

Plenty of ex­pe­ri­ence

Luck­ily, lo­cal lead­ers re­sponded like the pros they are. They kept calm and re­it­er­ated that Har­vey wasn’t a di­rect-im­pact storm, but likely a ma­jor rain event that did not re­tire mass evac­u­a­tion.

Watch­ing a press con­fer­ence led by Har­ris County Judge Ed Em­mett and Hous­ton Mayor Sylvester Turner, I found com­fort in lead­ers who acted like lead­ers. Not par­ti­sans. Not politi­cians. Just peo­ple fo­cused on one goal: keep­ing us safe.

Em­mett, a Repub­li­can, in­tro­duced Turner, a Demo­crat, as “my good friend and col­league.”

Turner took the mic and praised Em­mett, say­ing “there’s no one who’s more ex­pe­ri­enced and ca­pa­ble of deal­ing with in­ci­dents of this kind, ma­jor storm events” than the judge.

They weren’t just plat­i­tudes. Em­mett is a storm vet­eran whose lo­gis­tics ex­per­tise helped or­ga­nize lag­ging sup­ply lines and re­lief ef­forts af­ter Ike. Turner is a long­time state rep­re­sen­ta­tive whom I hap­pened upon one day af­ter Ike, per­son­ally de­liv­er­ing ice to the door steps of his con­stituents.

“Thank you for your lead­er­ship,” Turner told Em­mett. “It makes it much eas­ier to ad­dress these sorts of sit­u­a­tions.”

Sur­pris­ing can­dor

Yes, it makes it eas­ier to have a govern­ment that func­tions as it should — that func­tions at all.

In a speech to troops that sur­faced re­cently, U.S. De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis spoke with sur­pris­ing can­dor about prob­lems in our na­tion, telling the young peo­ple in uni­form to “hold the line un­til our coun­try gets back to un­der­stand­ing and re­spect­ing each other.”

He sug­gested Amer­ica had lost some of its in­flu­ence, but promised, “we’ll get the power of in­spi­ra­tion back.”

I hope he’s right, with re­gard to Wash­ing­ton and Austin. But I be­lieve the power of in­spi­ra­tion can still be found if we know where to look. In the case of Hous­ton, a re­gion of mil­lions hun­ker­ing down against a pow­er­ful storm on the advice of a few trusted lead­ers, that in­spi­ra­tion is closer to home.

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