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Houston, Above Water

eye on the news

Houston, Above Water

Disaster management has come a long way since Katrina. August 30, 2017
Politics and law
Public safety
Texas

President Trump visited coastal Texas Tuesday but said little and soon left. That was appropriate: unless a city or region is fully incapacitated, as Texas and Houston are not, the federal government provides support but leaves disaster operations to the locals. Texas governor Greg Abbott reminded the public of that arrangement, reiterating that Trump and the White House were “helping,” not directing. After his briefing with rescue and recovery officials, Trump told supporters gathered outside the local firehouse that “we’re gonna get you back and operating immediately.” To that end, what can observers expect to see in the next few days?

The Houston region has received record rain, more falling in less than a week than it usually does in a year, and at least 30 people, including a Houston police officer, have died. Harvey, however, is not Katrina. One measure of this difference is in electricity provision. After Katrina, New Orleans was almost entirely without power for weeks. In Houston, by contrast, 94 percent of customers still had power as of early Wednesday.

Though we won’t know for sure for a while, the fact that Houston has kept the power on is likely in part a legacy of infrastructure investment after previous storms. Five years ago, Hurricane Ike cut power to 95 percent of Houston. But, as NPR reported after the storm, the city’s power company, CenterPoint, took steps after Ike, as well as after Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, to upgrade the grid, spending $400 million. Houston, helped by $50 million in federal money, cut down tens of thousands of trees along power lines and outfitted poles with the ability to re-route electricity away from damaged routes toward undamaged ones.

With power, hospitals can continue to operate; even Ben Taub Hospital, surrounded by water, kept the power on. Stores, too, have quickly begun to reopen. Power also means that people whose homes didn’t flood can stay put, lessening the burden on police to keep neighborhoods safe from looters. If the power stays on—as it should, now that the worst of the storm is over—Houston should do well. If it goes out, the city will have far more serious problems. 

As people in low-lying areas have fled their homes, or found themselves among the thousands rescued by the Coast Guard and local helpers, many have flocked to communal shelters. Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center reached its 5,000-person capacity by Tuesday; the NRG Center, with room for 10,000 people, opened to handle additional evacuees, and dozens of churches, schools, and other facilities have provided additional help.

Shelters can be run well or poorly, as the terrifying chaos among evacuees at New Orleans’s Superdome revealed in Katrina’s aftermath. As FEMA chief Brock Long said on Tuesday, “this is not the Superdome. They are sustaining food, security.” That's partly because the electricity is on, but it is also thanks to Houston’s superior policing compared with the Big Easy’s. Moreover, reports of drug overdose and discontent at the Brown Center do not equal mass chaos. By definition, people with few other resources will go to communal shelters in disasters. Their ranks include the homeless, as well as drug addicts and the mentally ill.

Even with competently provided power, water, food, and security, though, people can stay in public shelter for only so long. Superstorm Sandy, which sent 7,000 New Yorkers to public shelter, was a reminder that people do not do well in such spaces for more than three days, due to inadequate showers and poor sleeping conditions. Houston has begun the task of finding thousands of people temporary homes. Many of these will be hotel rooms or apartments far from people’s workplaces and schools. Even five months after Sandy, 2,000 New Yorkers remained stuck in hotels. If recent history is any guide, the federal government likely will spend billions providing temporary housing alone.

Empty neighborhoods and business districts invite looting. Houston had already arrested 15 people as of late Tuesday for allegedly trying to steal everything from liquor to an ATM, and for attempted robbery, as well. These arrests, plus a nighttime curfew, are a good sign; after Katrina, New Orleans police officers failed to keep control over the city, both because of the severity of the damage, which left most of the city empty and dark, but also due to their longstanding poor performance. Harris County district attorney Kim Ogg and Houston police chief Art Acevado have already set the right tone to deter wrongdoing. Ogg said Tuesday that thieves “are going to feel the full weight of the law,” and Acevedo said he would push for tough sentences for people convicted. In New Orleans, by contrast, state and local officials’ apocalyptic invocation of “martial law,” rather than calm reliance on the rule of normal law, only exacerbated the sense of chaos.  

With some, though not most, Houston neighborhoods now deserted, state law enforcement has a role to play here, as well, with federal support. A competent local police force will be busy, after a storm, in helping still-populated areas. In turn, state police and the National Guard, with less experience interacting with people on a neighborhood level, can help by patrolling and securing empty areas. To that end, Texas has already activated the National Guard, adding 12,000 people to safety efforts as well as rescue and food distribution.

In three critical areas, then—power supply, shelter, and public safety—Texas, Houston, and the feds are so far doing a good job. Things are working as they should: Houston and Texas are directing efforts, with FEMA playing a critical support role and, eventually and importantly, paying the bills.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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