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The real costs and work of Harvey recovery are just starting

Accuweather, the Pennsylvania-based weather media company, has estimated $190 billion in damages. The company’s officials have pointedly said government underplayed Harvey.
Accuweather, the Pennsylvania-based weather media company, has estimated $190 billion in damages. The company’s officials have pointedly said government underplayed Harvey. AP

Hurricane Harvey is about to get worse in Texas.

Yes, Washington will send the first several billion dollars in aid. But if the history of hurricanes is prologue, the rest of the massive aid package is worrisome.

Congress and the administration seem likely to lose sight of Harvey quickly, stumbling as they do from one quagmire to the next. In Austin, Gov. Greg Abbott has made himself the face of recovery, yet committed nothing financially. And on the Texas Gulf, the initial euphoria of survival will turn into the fuming frustration of recovery.

There is practically nothing that can prepare you for a hurricane, no matter how many you have been through. Like a beast in the dark, it brings a psychological rush that you never wish you had. On the night that Harvey hit, thousands of people streamed north, and the acting mayor of Rockport issued the chilling instruction to those who remained to write their names and Social Security numbers on their forearms. And then 200,000 people were plunged into darkness, and millions into uncertainty.

When the lights came up there was a collective euphoria among the survivors. And just like any near-death experience, that feeling was powerful testimony to the human spirit. The rescuers in the boats and the rescued exhibited a noble communitarianism.

But the third act of a hurricane, upon which Texas is now entering, is a beast of a different kind. It uncoils slowly, inevitably and with seething frustration. People and institutions run low on energy and the work ahead becomes more, not less.

It’s a low feeling, being trapped, powerless, in your own house in a losing battle against mold and mildew in dirty clothes in the heat of summer with nothing regular in your life: not your work, your car, your money and certainly not your future. One day you had a normal life. The next, all of your worldly possessions are rotting in the street to the backdrop of Salvation Army food trucks and the buzz of National Guard helicopters overhead.

In the Harvey saga, we are there. In his visit to Houston, President Donald Trump congratulated Abbott as “fantastic” along with painting survivors as “happy” and saying Texas can recover in “six months.” Many good people are giving what they have, money, time, prayer. Heck, along with J.J. Watts, Beyonce, Oprah and Barbra Streisand are spearheading a star-studded benefit for recovery.

City fathers always vow to rebuild. Bigger and better. But as Houston County Judge Ed Emmett pointed out, this is where the kumbaya stops and jolting reality sets in.

Recovering from a storm this size is work measured in at least a decade if not longer. All of the after-action reports of the Federal Emergency Management Agency for hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike and Sandy clearly say so.

Accuweather, the Pennsylvania-based weather media company, has estimated $190 billion in damages. The company’s officials have pointedly said government underplayed the storm. The company’s methodology has been used successfully before.

Nearly all estimates are being revised upward. Accuweather’s has climbed from $160 billion to $190 billion. FEMA’s reporting is only going up from initially 17,000 people in shelters to now approaching 100,000 in shelters and hotels.

Whether you like Trump or despise him is irrelevant; Congress cannot handle all this at one time. It will be too tempting for Congress to check the box and approve $8 billion or $15 billion for Harvey relief and say it took care of Texas.

The weather forecast for Houston in the coming week remains mercifully mild. But make no mistake. Patience will grow short. Tempers will soar. And there will be blame.

Richard Parker is the author of “Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America.”

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