A Political Storm

A particularly painful irony is the showing of unity and sympathy that spontaneously arises in America in response to a catastrophe. The latest location of this display is my home, Houston, Texas where the flooding brought on by a “1 in 800 years” storm has displaced tens of thousands of residents of the 4th largest city in the U.S. with an estimated 30,000 residents housed in temporary shelters. Tweets and Facebook posts of pictures showing rescuers on boats and emergency workers tirelessly patrolling the flooded streets are often captioned with idealistic messages about how racial and political differences don’t matter anymore, don’t let the media tell you otherwise! And to some extent, it’s true. When someone is stuck on their roof waiting for a boat, black or white, blue or red, alt right or alright, none of these distinctions are at the forefront of thought.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking racial, political, and socioeconomic hierarchies are washed away in the deluge. A succinct piece in The Atlantic sums up how residential segregation, an effect of the aforementioned hierarchies, leads to a situation where the poor and the minorities of Houston are disproportionately found in areas more vulnerable to flooding. Texas’s unique role as home to the majority of the country’s oil and petrochemical industry means that natural disasters are compounded by oil spills and hazardous waste overflows. Again, as has been widely documented, these environmental hazards are often found closer to minority communities; the location of Superfund sites (where hazardous chemicals are stored) in particular coincide with concentrated populations of minorities and others lower on the socioeconomic ladder. And coverage of recovery and evacuation events as well as treatment of survivors often takes on racially-charged tones, as was seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This doesn’t necessarily indicate active racism or discrimination on the behalf of the powers that be (although those aspects were certainly instrumental in perpetuating the hierarchies in question). But it does mean that, as with almost all negative circumstances in the U.S., natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey impact racial minorities and the economically vulnerable much more than those on higher rungs of either demographic ladder.

Additionally, the sad truth is that politics affects everything in American life. This situation is no different. Climate change is real and plays some role in intensifying storms such as Harvey. Failure to take climate change into account means city planning and precautions for situations such as this can often be inadequate. Some have argued that the new administration’s anti-science, anti-regulation and generally reactionary bent has led to policies which will not only hamper Houston’s recovery but will make it increasingly vulnerable to similar catastrophes in the future. Much has been made of the voting history of Texas Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn who helped defeat a funding bill to aid the Northeast in their post-Superstorm Sandy recovery while relatively little has been predicted regarding the impact Harvey will have on poorer Texans who may need medical care following the storm; Texas refused the Medicaid expansion packaged within the Affordable Care Act and over 800,000 Texans find themselves uninsured as a result. These are political decisions, often made due to partisan interests, that will help determine how, or if, Houston and its citizens will recover.

The reason I am particularly concerned with the political context of such a storm is because the storm will (hopefully) end soon and then the long process of recovery will begin. It is then when the impacts of these decisions will be felt and it is then when pictures of Houstonians working together will become more scarce on social media. I am also concerned because this storm has been used as political cover for the unsurprisingly nefarious actions of Donald Trump. Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio, a truly despicable racist whose treatment of Latinos in Arizona can best be described as disgustingly inhumane, came just hours before Harvey hit land. In any other situation, we could focus on how a man, only two weeks removed from equivocation on the matter of white supremacist violence, felt that a man who rounded up Hispanics for detention in a self-proclaimed “concentration camp” and allegedly forced women to sleep in their own menstrual blood was wrongly prosecuted for simply doing his job. Instead, we (correctly) focused on an unfolding tragedy as the perpetrator of a previous tragedy walked free. There also remains the possibility for Trump using his visit to Texas (purportedly to support the recovery) as political cover to further advance his uncompassionate agenda with the repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals this week, spurred on by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton among others. As mentioned, Harvey’s largely unpreventable wrath has displaced some 30,000 Texans (although that number is sure to rise as the rain continues); the preventable repeal of DACA could displace 800,000. Though we may like to pretend that political differences and vendettas are put aside in times of crisis, this is simply not the case as Donald Trump has demonstrated.

This isn’t about weighing lives or tragedies against one another. I am sincerely not expressing a perverted “All Calamities Matter” agenda and to that end, I am donating to the Mayor’s Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund (and urge you to as well) because after all, this is my city and it is natural for me and other residents to care deeply about this disaster. But here’s the point I want to make. The eye of a hurricane is a region of extremely low pressure; it is for all intents and purposes a vacuum. It is also quite calm in the eye, something that often lulls people into a false sense of security; the eye is certain to be followed by the full force of the storm. That is the effect of the vacuum. But the effects, the devastation, and the responses to such a storm do not exist in a vacuum. The socioeconomic and political context of an affected city matters greatly and when the storm subsides then, if history is any indication, the incredible show of unity and humanity present in Houston right now will likely subside as well. The context and hierarchies leading to disproportionate impact on the poor and on minorities will not however. It is a shame that it often takes such disastrous circumstances to bring people together but perhaps if the same level of concern for our fellow humans were to take on a more permanent form, permeating our politics and understanding of society, more of us could be prepared for such a storm in the future, more of us could receive the benefits of recovery, and more of us could re-emerge from such a catastrophe, shaken but resilient, as the city of Houston soon will.