Hurricane Harvey landed a devastating blow to Houston. The four-day downpour destroyed countless houses and killed more than 60 people (and counting). As for my wife and me, the incessant rain created a claustrophobic sensation of helplessness and fear as we sat prisoners in our home and watched on TV the never-ending images of an epic flood.
The water was our enemy. The source of life had suddenly turned killer. Water was everywhere: pounding our roof, walls and windows. The enemy inched up our driveway and soaked our backyard. The water wanted in, but by a stroke of luck and an elevated lot, the water didn’t invade our home. We were safe. We suffered, however, a profound guilt to know that there was little we could do to help others while our streets flowed like wild rivers.
Hurricane Harvey was frightening, yet it brought out the best in many of us. Stories abound about people using their boats to save others trapped in houses or apartments. Some formed human chains to extract people from sunken cars. And after the street became passable, waves of people rushed to the George R. Brown Convention Center to volunteer in helping the evacuees.
My wife and I dropped off donated clothes and then spent six hours as volunteers at the convention center. We sorted mountains of clothes, before I was assigned to give out pillows to the displaced people. As I passed out the pillows, I began to realize that the hurricane had exposed another side of Houston, one that has remained hidden, or at least remains ignored: the poverty in our city.
The poor were mainly black, though Latinos, Asians and whites added to the color of poverty. They formed lines to receive their goods, and they appeared all too happy as they stuffed their bags with clothes, blankets, pillows, baby food, dog food and toiletries. Maybe they were truly happy because they had received so many household items for free, removing slightly the pressure of unwanted expenses. Maybe they were happy because so much attention had been showered on them. Maybe it was both. Their happiness made me sad.
I spent a fretful night thinking about the poor. Why had Houston, one of the wealthiest cities in the country and perhaps the world, with all its oil and corporations, allowed some of our communities to deteriorate to such levels of inhumanity? It seemed to me that the only time we really paid attention to the poor was during a crisis, and the rest of the time we offered them charity to make their lives barely tolerable.
The reaction of the people of Houston during and after the floods was admirable and many should be considered heroes. The outpouring of help was amazing and inspiring and made us all proud to be part of a caring city. Yet, I would emphasize that we need to be this caring not only during a crisis but during peaceful times too. We need deep structural changes that will assure that all people live a decent and good life. The poor need the attention necessary to help them move up and ahead. They need jobs, affordable housing, health care and proper nutrition.
But what they mainly need is a good education. Education is the key to a new world. There are 10 schools in the Houston Independent School District that will be closed next year if they do not improve their academic standards. Most of these schools are attended by black students, with one or two holding a mix of black and Latino. How and why did these schools reach this danger zone? If these 10 schools were to close, the communities in which they lie in will be further hurt. Let’s take the caring we’ve unearthed from this devastating situation and apply it to times of calm, so as to ensure this doesn’t happen.
Do we really want a society that reacts with kindness only after a hurricane has devastated our city? Do we want a society in which the president does not have the sense and heart to say a few words of sympathy to the suffering? Should the goal in life be to seek material wealth while others have to toil in misery? No. I don’t think so. Let’s try to make a difference so that when the next disaster hits —natural or not—there will be little, and perhaps even, no poverty to expose.
David D. Medina is a long-time resident of Houston. He is a literary critic and a director in the Office of Public Affairs at Rice University
Posted: September 8, 2017 at 3:13 am