The scale of flooding in the Houston area as a result of Hurricane Harvey is hard to imagine, and the images of suffering are horrifying to behold. In central and south Texas, an area the size of Michigan is now a storm-tossed lake. What Brad Kieserman, vice president of Red Cross, described as “the most catastrophic event” he has ever seen has killed several people, displaced tens of thousands and wrecked untold numbers of homes, commercial and industrial buildings, highways, bridges and harbors.
It has also created human misery on a vast scale. Thirty Texas counties, which together have nearly 7 million residents, already have been declared disaster areas. Nearly half a million people may ultimately need disaster assistance. The physical and emotional wounds inflicted on victims won’t heal overnight.
One heartening aspect of the catastrophe is the heroic effort of so many locals who’ve used every means they had to rescue those stranded and in danger. Another was the response of other cities in the region. “We will do whatever it takes,” promised San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who expects a large influx of evacuees from Houston, 200 miles to the east. “No one will be turned away.”
No doubt Americans will respond quickly and generously to the catastrophe, sending contributions to groups that minister to those in need — from well-known organizations like the Salvation Army and the Red Cross to local food pantries, diaper banks and shelters. Numerous big corporations have made large pledges, including $1 million apiece from Walmart, Pepsico and Amazon. Volunteers are arriving by the hour to do what they can.
The federal and state governments have a big role to play. On top of the search and rescue efforts undertaken and coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Congress may have to come up with additional funds to assist in overcoming this gargantuan disaster.
Americans who want to help shouldn’t limit their focus to the Houston area. Much of the Texas Gulf Coast was devastated, and much of southern Louisiana, too, is at high risk of flooding.
But it’s also important to remember Houston and neighboring areas once the sun is shining. Recovering from a natural disaster on this immense scale takes a long time. If someone asks how long New Orleans needed to recover from Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, the best answer would be: We’re still waiting to find out. “We are going to be dealing with this all the way through Christmas,” predicted Kieserman in an interview with NPR. Repairing and rebuilding will take not months, but years.
So will bringing back the people forced to leave. The New Orleans area lost some 380,000 residents after Katrina, and 10 years later, its population was still well below its previous level. Baton Rouge, which absorbed a lot of those who left New Orleans, has grown. Tens of thousands of former New Orleans residents settled in Houston, which in 2005 used the Astrodome to provide shelter to 25,000 people.
Many of the unfortunate souls now displaced from Houston are expected to seek refuge in San Antonio, Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth, as well as smaller cities that the storm spared. Dallas is housing evacuees in a convention center, and high schools and middle schools in Austin are being used as emergency shelters. Anyone looking for worthy causes should look not just at the place hit by the storm but the places that will be coping with the influx of evacuees for quite a while.
Americans are a generous people, quick to respond to devastating emergencies by opening their checkbooks and rolling up their sleeves. For all of us, FEMA Administrator Brock Long had some sound advice: “Donate your money. Figure out how you can get involved as we help Texas find a new normal.” We would add: And keep doing that long after the floodwaters recede.