Houston We Still Have A Problem

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I have a friend who is a widow. When she first lost her husband she was showered with attention, but as time went by she became more and more alone. It was almost as though she had simply been forgotten. She and her husband had enjoyed an active social life until he became critically ill. After his death the invitations and visits that she had always so enjoyed became less and less frequent.

I recall the same thing happening to my mother over time until she mostly relied on family to invite her out of the house now and again. She remarked that it was human nature to provide comfort at the beginning of a loss, but that people slowly become preoccupied with daily routines that sap their time and energy making them less likely to stick around. She was quite understanding and nonjudgemental of those who drifted out of her life. She adapted and made do with the help that was offered, and didn’t dwell on the friendships that withered away because her life had become so different with my father’s death.

As the sun shines, schools open and so many people return to a semblance of normalcy after hurricane Harvey I find myself worrying and possibly even panicking for those most impacted by the devastating storms. Most of them have all of their possessions piled in heaps on the curb along with mounds of sheetrock, flooring and carpet. The stench of mildew and rot fills the air around their neighborhoods. They await word from FEMA or insurance adjusters to tell them how much assistance they will receive in rebuilding their lives. They often wear somebody else’s  clothing and shoes. They rely on others for rides because their cars are gone. Their futures are so uncertain that they are numb. They sit in their yards or rented rooms staring absently into the distance. Everything feels so overwhelming, particularly as the interest of others wanes. They have been the disaster of the week, the big news headline, but now it feels as though so many begin to move on to the next big thing.

Even the people who still remember them and appear to understand their plight are being pulled and tugged by the everyday demands of existence. They have to schedule their voluntary hours and assistance now. There is so much pressure to get back to the usual grind and a pervasive feeling that there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish all that must be done, but the piles of rubble are still there. The shells of what were once rooms where memories were made await financing that may or may not come. Stressed out homeowners jockey to book overworked contractors to bring their dreams back to life. Word is that it will take months, maybe even years to make all of the needed repairs. What are the injured parties to do while they are waiting? How much debt will they incur? Is there really any way to help them to feel safe and secure once again? Will they eventually be forgotten, or should they expect to be mostly on their own? These are the questions that haunt them in their sleepless nights. These are the worries that fill their thoughts.

Harvey has already been pushed to the back pages of the news. Irma is the new kid in town, the tragedy of the hour. FEMA is moving some rescue efforts from Texas to Florida. There will be competition for limited resources and funds making frustrations even more intense. All the while we have to continue to support our neighbors in the long journey that lies ahead for them even though we too are tired. Still those of us who were lucky understand that we do not have the luxury of simply resuming life as though nothing has happened. Our neighbors are frightened and weary and just as psychologically scarred as their homes are physically.

Every part of town is feeling the impact of this horrific event. Harvey was an equal opportunity storm whose wrath made victims of the rich and the poor and virtually every race and ethnicity. We have rushed to provide stop gap assistance. We provided cleaning products, tools and the labor to clean out houses. We gave food, clothing and shelter to those who have been displaced. We took school supplies to schools and did our best to care for the personal needs of people of all ages. There have been untold heroes who have worked tirelessly and selflessly for days. Now comes the hardest part of all, the moment when we just want to have happy thoughts and forget about all of the pain. Unfortunately to do so would betray all of those whose fate might have been ours but for the randomness of the destruction.

In the coming weeks we must be certain that all of our neighbors get the repairs that they need to make their residences whole again. More than that though, we must insist that measures are taken to make our streets and neighborhoods safer. This may mean purchasing homes that are in harms way and repurposing them as green spaces. We may have to strengthen and build levees, create more retention ponds, get dams up to date, install pumps around town, build houses on higher freeboard elevations, improve drainage. We have the know how, but we also need the vision and the will.

Long ago Houston leaders had a dream of making what was then a small town into a major port even though it was landlocked. They dug a big ditch from the Gulf of Mexico all the way into the city that became known as the Ship Channel. Today it is one of the busiest commercial centers in the world. With a bit of imagination we built the Harvard of the South on the campus of Rice University and created one of the best medical centers anywhere. We need the same kind of willingness to use technologies and knowledge to rebuild a city capable of withstanding even the unthinkable. We showed the world that we are not a population of ordinary people. We Houstonians are quite special and its time that we translate all of our spirit into a victory over tragedy. Houston we have a problem, but we have found answers to other conundrums before. Now let’s see what we might do to unravel the complexities that caused the worst flood that our country has ever seen, and insure that we will be prepared if such an event were ever to occur again.

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