We touched down in Texas before the waters had receded. Tens of thousands who evacuated didn’t need to see their homes to know how bad it was—they were living it.
Some of the images we hold of being American are so common that they pepper everyday talk: the rugged individual; the lone ranger. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, I saw ample evidence of American resolve. But I also saw, again and again, that Americans in need are never alone.
When I met him, Mayor Adan Chapa of Aransas Pass, near Corpus Christi, still hadn’t been home. His house and restaurant were both flooded. Most of his belongings were probably destroyed, but there he stayed at the command center, moving three times to escape the flood waters, all while overseeing neighborhood rescue efforts. He wasn’t alone. In Beaumont, Texas, as the floodwaters rose, a team of volunteers came to the aid of a rescue boat getting swept away in the current, standing in high water to pull it to safety.
There are countless stories just like these, of first responders, relief workers, and even citizens moonlighting as flatboat captains—when they helped one, they turned around and headed back to help another. Every act showed that we are a nation not of passive well-wishers, but of active helpers. We act to answer prayers.
Accompanying this gritty effort, help arrived in a distinctly American way. We have a long history of embracing and reinventing technology. So while the iPhone may only be ten years old, people in Houston were readily adapting mobile technology to communicate with neighbors, find and rescue stranded families, and deliver everything from food to generators—all to people whom they didn’t even know. Nextdoor, a neighborhood social network, helped people share news, request help, and offer assistance in their area. Congressman John Culberson told me that his brother was saved by reaching out to neighbors on this app. Snapchat users seamlessly converted the Snap Map feature to a down-to-the-block chronicler of Harvey’s destruction and local responses. Sketch City mapped shelters and updated which needed supplies or volunteers in real time. During the storm, teams of developers built digital tools that directly helped volunteers and first responders save lives.
As Hurricane Irma bore down on Florida so soon after Harvey, and, soon after, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the federal government will respond the same way by getting people what they need: food, water, shelter, and power. But while emergency aid staves off immediate disaster, how do we help people rebuild?
As we saw in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Washington can help, but it works best by playing a supporting role to the front-line volunteers removing soaked sofas and mold, the builders and local banks helping families rebuild homes, and the doctors donating their time to help the worst-hit get healthy again. Louisiana, Texas, and Florida, like America, are built and renewed by the people. So Congress will fund the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as much as necessary, but we must also reform our aid system to focus on people, not process.
We’ve already passed legislation to cut dramatically the amount of paperwork that families and small businesses must fill out to receive disaster-recovery grants and to improve our technology so that we can quickly process claims and reduce wait times. We should also explore better ways to build housing for families—perhaps by working with modular housing-construction startups that produce homes on a large scale faster and cheaper than a construction industry, already plagued by labor shortages, can manage. We could even integrate some of the apps invented by people who experienced Harvey firsthand into our national relief efforts.
In all this, we should remember that the real work isn’t done by systems or agencies or aid packages, but by the American people. They’re the ones who came by with a boat when nobody else could. They’re the ones who put others before themselves. They’re the great company of neighbors who, every day, are still proving that there is no tragedy we can’t overcome.
Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images