Hurricane Harvey and Other Traumas

Rescue boats fill a flooded street at flood victims are evacuated as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

There are plenty of lessons to be learned in the news every day and this week we are learning some doozies. Hurricane Harvey came to Houston. Now Houston is full of water. All day long there is footage of people wading through water, riding through water on an astonishing array of water craft, being airlifted by helicopter – and soggy pets, mostly dogs, being rescued and displaying such stoic trust about it. We have no idea of how many people and pets have not been rescued. Hopefully that number is really low.

It is gratifying to see the response of the people of Houston as they just pitch in with no overarching direction and do what needs to be done. Without these spontaneous acts of courage, caring, and disregard for personal comfort a great tragedy would have brought us grievous news, instead of the uplifting news we are seeing play out on the media.

But what if the people in the area did not own the kinds of tools necessary to save people in a disaster? Would the government have been able to handle the rescues in Houston? Would they be able to rescue you in your hometown if there were an emergency? Perhaps the National Guard could have responded with resources for Houston and performed the same rescues that neighbors have taken on. Would the response have been as timely? Would this event have looked more like Katrina?

We also know that housing people in giant shelters like convention centers does meet the immediate needs of people who have lost everything and have nowhere to go. And we see the shelters in Houston have learned from the fiasco at the Superdome in New Orleans. But will those lessons be enough when those shelters contain twice as many people as agencies planned for? Logistics is key but this storm has flooded a very wide area. Are there good supply lines? Is there a steady supply of food and water? How quickly can people be moved out of these less than ideal situations? Would you want to be sheltered in a convention center or sports arena?

I am proud of the way Americans cooperate in times of strife. Watching the news each day from Houston is just as uplifting as it is sad because of the activities of rescuers and of the Houston government and even the federal government. During this summer of 2017, 1000+ people died in flooding in Southeast Asia my newsfeed tells me. Perhaps there are not as many people who own their own boats as we have in America, perhaps the flooding happened too quickly, and, of course, the geography and infrastructure is very different.

Look at what happened at the Grenfell high rise in England. There is no way any heroics on the part of individual citizens could have helped in this case. This event was so fast and so devastating that the government was relatively helpless. But would you like to be treated the way the surviving residents were treated after they made it through that trauma. The government seemed rude and cold-hearted. Perhaps that was their only option, I don’t know, but I wonder how those residents have adjusted to the enforced changes in their lives.

I guess I am feeling that the government and even our neighbors may not be able to save us every time if weather events are getting more and more severe, and if crowded conditions are likely to generate more tragic events like Grenfell (yes, there was an architectural issue, but there may be many hidden weaknesses in our structures that we cannot know about until a failure occurs). I know that there are people who cannot evacuate their homes because they have no emergency funds for a hotel and no family to take them in. Perhaps centers could be designated before an event, especially a coastal event, to give people a place to evacuate to. What if you lived in an area where neighbors did not own the equipment necessary to make citizen rescues?

I guess I am thinking about this because some of us think we live in fairly safe areas, away from the zones where more extreme weather events occur. We don’t live on coastlines. We don’t live in high rises. We rarely have tornadoes. But perhaps no area is really safe. Storms happen and we live in areas that used to be different biomes in earlier times and could perhaps revert.

Our cities have nowhere to go but up but it doesn’t look like there is any good way to rescue people from the highest floors in a fire. That means that you had better hope the architect and the builder were skilled and did not cut corners.

Is there any way we can preplan for all possible permutations? If these large scale emergencies happen too frequently will we totally run out of resources to offer even the amenities we offer right now? What good will a survivalist plan do if you are unable to stay near your supplies? It looks like people need to evacuate when told to and do it right away even if it seems difficult. We need to stop feeling upset if we evacuate and it turns out to be not necessary. Maybe we need evacuation insurance.

We are watching, we are concerned, and we are donating whatever we can to help. I hope all turns out well for all the survivors of Harvey and I also hope this makes us begin to have some conversations to generate useful ideas for citizens who find themselves in situations like this.

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