Houston, We Have a Problem


Texas needs federal assistance, lots of it. The damage, human and property, inflicted by Hurricane Harvey requires a united and collective response. The imperative to help in this time of overwhelming need shouldn’t be impacted by partisan, ideological or regional differences.

Unfortunately, that perspective has not always applied to other natural disasters.  Texas Republicans, and for that matter many other Republicans as well, voted against emergency relief aid in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.  Senator Ted Cruz was asked about his position against granting relief then in anticipation of a bill to help victims of Harvey.  His explanation for voting against the bill to help Americans in the Northeast part of the United States after Sandy was that lots of non-emergency spending was included.

That explanation, however, fall apart under examination.  Fact checkers have totally discredited the Texas Senator’s description of what was in that emergency legislation.  Cruz, who is clearly the least popular senator among his colleagues, is engaged yet again in world class hypocrisy.

Past behavior notwithstanding, Members of Congress should approve emergency assistance for Harvey victims as soon as possible.  I choose to believe that most will hold themselves to a higher standard than Cruz does.

However, this may also be an opportunity for a broader discussion about the role of the federal government and the importance of collective responses to challenges facing this country.  You might think there would be close to unanimity on the importance of a federal role in emergency relief, but that isn’t always the case.  Many Republicans are so fixated on reducing the size of the federal budget that they even argue for offsetting cuts to “pay” for hurricane assistance.  We will soon see what kind of response Cruz and his colleagues have to the crisis created by Harvey.

One of the cornerstones of contemporary conservative thinking is that individuals are responsible for themselves and shouldn’t be given “handouts” by government.  At its extreme, this position argues that the “free market” will do the best job of allocating resources and allowing the best decisions to be made.

Put aside for a minute that the concept of a “free market” is a fiction used to rationalize personal preferences.  In Houston, there has been no zoning or land use regulation.  It’s a great example of the rugged individualism that Texans claim as their defining characteristic.  The absence of planning and regulation, however, contributed significantly to the flooding and extreme damage caused by Harvey.  Houston has developed so rapidly, with so many miles of highway, so little permeable surface, that there is not nearly enough earth available to absorb water runoff.

Harvey has been described as a storm of biblical proportions, a once in a thousand years phenomenon.  While we may not see anything quite so disastrous again in our lifetimes, we will be getting extreme weather more frequently in the future.  According to the Army Corps of Engineers, Houston is in a 500-year floodplain, yet has flooded three times in the past decade.  And the reality remains that the impact of Harvey has been significantly worse than if attention had been paid to the risk–actually the certainty–of massive flooding.

Should we, as a result of bad land-use decisions in the Houston area, hold back on relief aid?  Do the people who are suffering from Harvey’s impact bear responsibility for their plight?  I don’t see it that way and have no reservations about assistance, but the philosophy of Cruz and some hard-line conservatives, when applied to other groups in need, would suggest letting Houston residents live with the consequences of their past decisions.

One of the Internet posts I saw from a Texas elected official proclaimed that the citizens of that state would get through this disaster because they have a tradition of working together and of helping each other.  That’s a great sentiment, but anyone reading about recent actions of the Texas legislature might be skeptical about how far that helping really goes.

Gerrymandering legislative districts–recently overturned by a Federal Court–to dilute minority voting power is certainly not an example of that helping spirit.  Constructing barriers to women’s health services doesn’t seem particularly friendly.  Despite having an enormous number of people who would have been eligible for service, Texas said “no” to Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

We will, in all likelihood, compartmentalize our response to the damage done by Harvey from other examples in which the country would benefit from a collective effort.  This could be a teachable moment, a chance to apply the lessons of emergency relief, so visible in this instance, to other needs that don’t look as dramatic but are every bit as important.

Our Child President seems enthralled with the size of the disaster.  It is the magnitude that he convinced himself was on the National Mall for his Inauguration.  His tweets insure that he will avoid the criticism that George Bush received during Katrina for being totally out of touch, but there’s no indication so far that he will provide any leadership to the country in terms of either the response to the emergency or to the broader issues of coming together as a nation.  Sad.