1. Opinion

Ruth: Houston brings out our humanity

Volunteers in boats rescue people and their pets from their homes near Interstate 45 in Houston. They didn’t need to be asked; they simply acted.
Volunteers in boats rescue people and their pets from their homes near Interstate 45 in Houston. They didn’t need to be asked; they simply acted.
Published Aug. 30, 2017

Times of crisis tend to reveal the character of a community.

With the passage of time, Houston will be remembered as a city devastated by the catastrophic ravages of Hurricane Harvey, a very nasty chap of a storm.

But in the here and now, Houston also has become a vivid symbol of what we have known to be true. Long before it became a campaign slogan, America never needed to become "Great Again." For all our bickering and polarized politics, there always has been the beating heart of greatness in the body politic.

You can gauge greatness in terms of military might, or economic power, or the reach of a nation's ideals and culture. There's something to be said for all of that.

Or you can measure greatness by the inherent goodness of the souls of the people.

Houston is a mess. It will take years, perhaps decades, for this vast metropolis to recover from the damage inflicted by Harvey. And it will take untold sums of billions and billions of dollars to cover the costs of rebuilding.

But over the past week, the nation and the rest of the world also has been witness to the meaning of the kindness of strangers in the face of unspeakable horror.

In a sense, Houston became an American Dunkirk.

As the flood levels grew and local emergency first responders found themselves overwhelmed by the scope of the rising waters, citizens took it upon themselves to help. They didn't need to be asked. They simply acted.

Boats of every size appeared. Canoes. Water scooters. Any form of craft that could float took to the streets to save lives, manned by people with no particular experience or training in rescue techniques but nonetheless willing to put their own welfare at risk for the sake of others.

Many local businesses stepped up to offer aid and comfort to the displaced.

And in what might be the most vivid symbol of civic responsibility, Jim McIngvale, a small businessman who owns Gallery Furniture, opened up his stores (including one 100,000-square-foot showroom) to anyone who needed shelter, sacrificing his inventory.

In an interview with National Public Radio, McIngvale, who promotes himself as Mattress Mack, explained: "The people of Texas are resilient, as are the people of this country. And, you know, my daughter's favorite saying is if not for my struggle, I would not have known my strength."

McIngvale is right about that, taking pains not to engage in stereotypical Texas bravado as he noted helping others in distress is not a regional virtue.

We've seen this sort of compassion many times before, whether in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or the suffering imposed on the people who live in the Midwest's tornado alley, or earthquakes in California. Mother Nature can be cruel. But her children can be feisty, too.

Stories abound in Houston of samaritans reaching out to protect their fellow citizens. It mattered not who voted for whom in the last election, or what god anyone worshipped, or whom they chose to love.

This is the country we aspire to be, and in times of tragedy it is who we are.

We know all too well the drill by now. For the next few weeks, as Houston and the other communities in the cross-hairs of Harvey contend with all the destruction, there will be a commendable wave of unity across the country as fundraising events are organized and volunteers descend to assist in the rebuilding.

Well-attended candlelight vigils will be held to honor the dead. Awards will be bestowed on the heroes of the moment.

And then the customary feuding will begin anew.

Not surprisingly, or shockingly, Congress has already gotten a head start on the sniping, dredging up the debate over an emergency relief financial package to assist the victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which spread havoc along the Eastern Seaboard.

Back then, many Southern lawmakers balked at the $50 billion Sandy relief package, most notably Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who claimed the bill contained too many pork barrel spending items.

Days ago, Republican New York Rep. Peter King called Cruz a "liar."

All this "we're all one people" comity stuff didn't take very long to turn into a Washington pie fight, did it?

Perhaps a fractious Washington would be wise to follow the example of Houston at its greatest moment of crisis.

At the end of the day, aren't we all better off helping each other to keep our heads above the surging tides of uncertainty?