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In Houston, Hoping for a Unity That Is Not Forgetful

Just three weeks after the violence in Charlottesville, some claim that Hurricane Harvey has washed away racial division. But tragedy affords us a wider perspective, and acknowledging the full picture of inequality is an essential part of making progress toward decreasing it.

In Houston, scrolling through social media on tired evenings, I have seen a lot of memes showing black and white neighbors in each other’s arms with captions like, “This is America in reality,” or “Suddenly we don’t care about statues.”  Many of my more conservative friends happily crow at the juxtaposition of pictures of a black man and a white man holding children of other races. While we were up to our necks in angry rhetoric after the violence in Charlottesville just three weeks ago, they claim that Hurricane Harvey has washed that all away.

While I appreciate the sentiment, the effect of these memes is basically to say, “We have always been fine.” The claim is that if the media or outside activists would simply stay out of southerners’ business, then people would get along and harmony would return. Yet, I simply do not think that is correct. All you have to do is look at the last year of American life to know that the country has not been doing things right, and we have serious problems on our hands as a democracy. To flaunt these kinds of beliefs in the middle of our recovery is to dance in the eye of the hurricane, believing we have already come out the other side.

Many of my friends and family ask me why I would bring this up now, as we pick up our possessions, leave our houses, break through drywall, tow our cars out of chest-high water. They urge me to wait or to confine my thoughts to a blog no one will read, rather than insert myself into their social media feeds or polite conversation. It is understandable to have this reaction when there is a lot on our plates and on our curbs. But I bring up racial inequality and our recent inflamed social rhetoric because the only good thing about mass tragedy is the wider perspective it affords us.

Here in the midst of recovery, I encourage Houston residents to look around at their neighborhoods and see how people are coming together now, how they are forming human chains—literally arm in arm—in order to rescue each other. Strangers are welcomed into homes, into boats, into trucks, just because it’s the right thing to do. I encourage them and you to look around now and realize that this is how it could always be.

The details of Hurricane Harvey have been thoroughly reported. By some estimates, the category 4 hurricane brought with it 20 trillion gallons of water, flooding at least 20,000 square miles—enough to encompass the entire route from New York City to Boston by comparison. It whipped through fishing and shipping towns of Rockport and Corpus Christi, only to dump over 40 inches of rain on many parts of Houston in four days. Much of the country learned the meaning of “bayou” as they watched us take to the rooftops, and much of Houston anxiously learned about the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, fail-safes which for the first time were in danger of spilling over and flooding downtown. We were warned to take axes if we went up in our attics. Just a couple months after the release of the thrilling war movie “Dunkirk,” the Cajun Navy loaded up their trailers and headed our way on a similar civilian expedition, magnanimously reminding us that Houston did the same for New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm and bounced along the coast, stalling out over Port Arthur, East Texas, and Louisiana, preventing the return of many of those brave rescuers as their own family and property were threatened. Still Harvey continued on through Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee.

In the midst of all of this was constant and sometimes invasive reporting, and America finally found something that could garner more attention than our president. Tremendous stories of tragedy and generosity, loss, and merciful rescue were everywhere. Leading the way was Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, owner of Gallery Furniture and a beloved Houston icon, who opened his stores to house and feed the displaced, first responders, and Coast Guard. Grocery chain HEB and a few other furniture stores did the same. A well-known cardiothoracic surgeon and recent transplant from Boston, Dr. David Sugarbaker, was seen pulling people from the water onto a boat. A pregnant woman going into labor was passed along a human chain into a waiting truck to be delivered to a hospital for a successful delivery. A friend’s 91-year-old great-aunt in Port Arthur was finally found alive and well in her home after three days; she had ignored passing would-be rescuers because she “slept a lot.” Bill White, the former mayor of Houston who opened up the city to over 200,000 Katrina victims, was flooded himself.

Local heroes were made in each community. Nurses and doctors were isolated in Houston’s famed Texas Medical Center for over 3 days, working marathon shifts to continue medical care for the sick and traumatized even while their own properties and families were endangered. Evidencing an incredible feat of engineering, all TMC hospitals continued to function throughout the flood. First responders endangered their own lives to rescue more than 10,000 people. Although each death is a tragedy, the death toll stands currently at 45—remarkably low compared to nearly 1,200 estimated to be lost in a concurrent monsoon in South Asia.

In the wake of Harvey, Houstonians’ routines, families, and homes are wrecked. More than 185,000 homes were damaged and destroyed—80% of them without flood insurance—along with half a million vehicles. On my morning drive to a South Houston hospital, I saw a FEMA truck lodged in the flood water among them. I know a few people along the bayous whose homes have flooded not once, not twice, but three times now. After the first flood, the cost of flood insurance was prohibitive, if they were offered it at all. Without that coverage or significant savings, their choices have been to rebuild by themselves or to sell their land without the house, either way at a significant loss. In every section of Houston, including the neighborhood next to my hospital, half the content of people’s houses are out on the curb, waiting for the bulk trash trucks.

A flooded FEMA truck that the author glimpsed on his commute

On Labor Day weekend, many of the gulf region’s residents forsake our holiday and labor instead in our cities’ houses, churches, and schools. Many of us meet our neighbors for the first time, and we enter across a broken threshold to rip out moldy drywall and eat pizza together. We drive around and hand out clothes and Whataburger and beer to strangers who are toiling in the return of the hot Texas sun. We realize we have a lot of clothes and possessions we don’t need. We appreciate our luck or the grace of God. We line up around the block to volunteer.

Here in southeast Texas, in close proximity to the largest church in the country, we have had our share of religious and racial strife. Our state has the highest rate of death sentences, and this irreversible punishment falls disproportionately on black offenders. We are not immune to the problems of a country where black men are 6 times more likely to serve time in prison and the killings of black males by whites are 8 times as likely as all others to be labeled justifiable. Texas is as fluent in systemic racism as any state. Sheriff Joseph Arpaio was pardoned under the cover of this very storm, and sanctuary cities are still under attack. Texas state government is still overwhelmingly staffed by a white evangelical community capable of producing the Nashville Statement condemning the LGBTQ population but that is resistant to wrangling theologically with racialized adversity and poverty in America.

After we recover from the hurricane’s damage, we will have to deal with these problems again. The temptation here in Texas and the South is not to talk about our society’s inequality and division, to mind our work until it’s done, to continue in the silent and individualistic resolve for which we are often known. And yet, given the chance to rebuild, do we only wish to return to how things were when Harvey found us?

For now, we Houstonians, Texans, and Southerners have all been displaced in some way—some more than others—and we find each other in the same boat, across racial and economic lines. Because of Harvey, we have a chance to meet each other at our rock bottom, and we can finally realize that we can be good to each other. We have a chance to unite, not by party or the color of our skin or the president, not by fear of North Korea or terrorists, not over Game of Thrones or a football game, but rather by a latent desire to do the right thing by each other.

Here next to the bayou, we see each other vulnerable, and through the flood water, that guy looks like my brother and this woman looks like my mom. Suffering unites us. It lets us grieve with our neighbors who have lost a loved one, because death is what we all face at the end. We begin to see our possessions and our savings and everything guarded by politics as fragile and temporary, but our community and our reputations and how we work for and vote for our neighbors could be our legacies.

The fact that a terrible tragedy has occurred does not mean that we can so easily set aside our society’s inequalities and racial disparities, for they will return. I bring them up now so that you can look around, so that you can remember the faces of your fellow community members when all of this is past us and Harvey’s wide path of destruction is rebuilt. Though we have lost a great deal, we have gained a chance to meet our neighbors and care for each other. Then, when all this is done, will we look up and be so fascinated with the Civil War and retaining power for “our kind” that we would again overlook our neighbor’s strife? Will we again ignore his need for health insurance, or her need for an efficient and fair immigration process? Will we demand again that only English be spoken between neighbors who in this tragedy have spoken a common language of sorrow and loss? Let us not allow this flood of hatred and callousness to overtake us again. Let us mind the coming storm, and let us speak of love.

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