Hous­ton’s tales of in­spi­ra­tion give way to cau­tion

The Standard Journal - - COMMENTARY - By Ge­orgie Anne Geyer NEA Con­trib­u­tor

WASHINGTON — It was all so very brave, the way Hous­to­ni­ans and other Texans faced the storm of a life­time. Their ac­tions seemed to turn on its head ev­ery­thing we had been fear­ing about the de­cay­ing Amer­i­can char­ac­ter.

In­creas­ingly, we have feared self­ish be­hav­ior dom­i­nat­ing our lives; so much pet­tish­ness be­tween peo­ple, and es­pe­cially be­tween groups and reli­gions, that we could never come to­gether again; and rich peo­ple so rich and poor peo­ple so poor that, some­where along the line, a new civil war was brew­ing.

And then, there they were: a jet skier pulling horses to safety through 130 mph winds; the self- de­scribed “Ca­jun Navy” — the self­same “sailors” who “fought” in Ka­t­rina, thank you, ma’am! — rush­ing from Louisiana to help; self-styled “com­mand cen­ters” spon­ta­neously set up by vol­un­teers in their homes, em­ploy­ing so­cial me­dia to spot where peo­ple were in most dan­ger.

There were the white first re­spon­ders car­ry­ing old black women out of flooded houses, black vol­un­teers help­ing white women res­cue their dogs, po­lice­men car­ry­ing the un­doc­u­mented, and not only churches and sy­n­a­gogues open for the “busi­ness” of sav­ing lives dur­ing Mother Na­ture’s tem­per tantrum, but also Is­lamic mosques open for every­one — for they were in Amer­ica now.

The won­drous pic­tures of the re­sponse to Hur­ri­cane Har­vey re­minded me of when I was a child and, as fam­ily friends told me in later years, my fa­ther had given free milk from our dairy on the South Side of Chicago to neigh­bors dur­ing the De­pres­sion. It makes me proud even to­day.

And I’ll bet there are many young­sters in those south Texas cities who will grow up with a spe­cial pride in their fa­thers and moth­ers and what they did in the sum­mer of 2017.

Of course, we should re­mem­ber that this kind of kind­ness to one’s neigh­bors — this kind of sac­ri­fice — is noth­ing new in Amer­ica. It ar­rived with the first set­tlers in New Eng­land who soberly signed agree­ments with their co-re­li­gion­ists to gov­ern and care for the so­ci­ety. It mor­phed into barn-rais­ings in the agri­cul­tural north and west, where farm­ers joined to­gether to build barns for one an­other. This con­cern for “the other” is akin to care for “the brother” webbed through­out Amer­ica’s soul.

But now, when the streets of Hous­ton and Beau­mont and Cor­pus Christi have only just be­gun to dry, and as grat­i­fy­ing as were ci­ti­zens’ ac­tions dur­ing Har­vey, it be­hooves us to move on to the next stage. We need to build on Texas and be­gin plan­ning bet­ter for the fu­ture — on a per­sonal level, on a fam­ily level, on a civic level, and on na­tional and in­ter­na­tional lev­els, as well.

Sci­en­tists had been warn­ing for years that Hous­ton had re­placed prairie with pave­ment and con­crete, leav­ing less and less land ca­pa­ble of ab­sorb­ing flood­wa­ter. The prob­lems were hardly hid­den.

News­pa­pers like The Washington Post quickly re­ported that Hous­ton’s stormwa­ter sys­tem “sim­ply can­not han­dle the vol­ume of rain­wa­ter dumped on the city by Har­vey.” And it went on: “Fail­ure of a stormwa­ter sys­tem is crit­i­cal, as it im­me­di­ately and ad­versely threat­ens the health, safety and prop­erty of ci­ti­zens us­ing and de­pend­ing on the sys­tem.”

But Hous­ton, now the na­tion’s fourth-largest city, has been proud of its rep­u­ta­tion for “di­ver­sity,” for mad­den­ing traf­fic jams and even for its pro­mis­cu­ous wild­cat de­vel­op­ment.

There is vir­tu­ally no zon­ing. The city has be­come the Wild West re­born — housing sub­di­vi­sion piled upon sub­di­vi­sion, all built on clay soils, right up to the net­work of 1,500 chan­nels or bay­ous stretch­ing over 2,500 miles, which were sup­posed to pro­tect peo­ple, but didn’t.

A ProPublica and Texas Tri­bune in­ves­ti­ga­tion found that the over­seers of Hous­ton’s flood­ing is­sues pooh-poohed crit­ics, dis­miss­ing sci­en­tists’ warn­ings as “anti-de­vel­op­ment.” Then you place on top of this the fact that al­most no one in Texas had flood in­sur­ance (which is only avail­able through the gov­ern­ment and pro­vides for very lit­tle), and you have a sit­u­a­tion straight from hell.

A few peo­ple, mostly on the East Coast, spoke out on cli­mate change. Was the Texas dis­as­ter due to this? It surely made things worse.

But right now, we need to think of prac­ti­cal plan­ning. Wise use of space, great care for wa­ter re­sources (which are dis­ap­pear­ing at a dan­ger­ous rate), the need for fam­ily plan­ning be­fore the Earth’s pop­u­la­tion out­strips the planet’s abil­ity to sup­port it — we must soberly study all the prac­ti­cal, com­mon­sen­si­cal, eth­i­cal and moral con­sid­er­a­tions our wis­est peo­ple have been urg­ing upon us for years.

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