Sunday, October 19, 2014

This is where I came in.....

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans obliquely, but the levees that were supposed to protect the city, gave way and drowned the city.*  The result made people as near as Houston think the apocalypse was upon us, because when Hurricane Rita threatened Houston, everybody from Galveston to Houston fled to Dallas, creating a traffic jam some 250 miles long.

As I said at the time, this led to the deaths of several elderly people when the nursing home van they were in caught fire after idling for several hours. Local officials made matters worse by telling everyone in the path of the storm to evacuate.  Tout le Houston thought of themselves as "in the path of the storm," and evacuate they did.  I live well inland from even the Houston Ship Channel, but people well to my west (away from the coast) were jumping in their cars and heading for the exits.  They didn't get very far; even the roads to Austin, almost due west of here, were clogged beyond capacity.  Had the storm actually struck Houston, the damage would have been nearly incalculable, as some people rode out the night of the storm on the freeways in and around the city.

In the end, Rita struck Beaumont and Lake Charles, well to the east of Houston.  As I said at the time (again!), this is pretty much the damage Houston got directly from Rita.

So now comes ebola to the U.S. via Texas (actually via Belgium and one of the airports in D.C., but why split hairs), and I'm seeing the same panic again.  When Rita threatened Houston, not only did the fourth largest city in the country turn into a ghost town (city streets were empty around me; it was like the Rapture), but I saw a man in my neighborhood board up his house and paint the wood with the legend "Looters will be shot!"

When Ike took out power in the city for three weeks a few years later, nobody panicked or boarded up their house and waited for the rapacious looters.  In fact, no chaos befell the city at all, and nobody was afraid.

In this scenario, ebola is Rita; the crisis in west Africa is Katrina.  And Rick Perry is the hapless administrator in Houston (one of several) telling us panic is our best option just now; when he isn't blaming the Federal government for not keeping Texas safe.  Yes, the same Federal government which shouldn't tell Texas how to pollute its air, water, and soil, should have protected Texas from one terminal case of ebola, and two people who are symptomatic but being treated.

In other states, because we don't have the wherewithal, even with the Texas Medical Center and UTMB-Galveston, to handle it.  Apparently.

The panic, though, is familiar.  It is media induced.  Nobody who came to Houston from Katrina to find shelter in the Astrodome was blind with fear.  No fear swept through Houston at their presence.  Local people helped out, even if Tom DeLay made a fool of himself down there.  We were calm.

Until the threat of a storm came.  We didn't panic when Ike was coming, either; or after it tore up the city and wrecked our power system and scattered trees like they were Tinker-toys.

But now, the country has turned into Houston, and panic is the word of the day.  It's almost funny, talking about a "travel ban" from "west Africa," when no one is calling for a travel ban on Texas, which is where the virus is in this country.  Well, now we've taken it to two other states, so I suppose we should quarantine those states, too.

Just a long winded way of saying I've seen this movie, and shame on us all for not knowing how it ends, and for replacing native American xenophobia for native American common sense.  Houston embarrassed itself in the Rita debacle, and people died who should have been safely home.

How far are we going to follow the analogy this time?

*yes, you can even use that neglect by the Federal government as part of the analogy, if you want to.


  1. You have good company in Thurber. I think the whole account is copyrighted, but the beginning is surely fair use. Often anthologized as "The Day the Dam Broke":

    "I am having a fine time now and wish Columbus were here, but if anyone ever wished a city was in hell it was during that frightful and perilous afternoon in 1913 when the dam broke, or, to be more exact, when everybody in town thought that the dam broke. We were both ennobled and demoralized by the experience. Grandfather especially rose to magnificent heights which can never lose their splendor for me, even though his reactions to the flood were based upon a profound misconception; namely, that Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry was the menace we were called upon to face. The only possible means of escape for us was to flee the house, a step which grandfather sternly forbade, brandishing his old army sabre in his hand. "Let the sons -- ------- come!" he roared. Meanwhile hundreds of people were streaming by our house in wild panic, screaming "Go east! Go east!" We had to stun grandfather with the ironing board. Impeded as we were by the inert form of the old gentleman -- he was taller than six feet and weighed almost a hundred and seventy pounds -- we were passed, in the first half-mile, by practically everybody else in the city. Had grandfather not come to, at the corner of Parsons Avenue and Town Street, we would unquestionably have been overtaken and engulfed by the roaring waters -- that is, if there had been any roaring waters. Later, when the panic had died down and people had gone rather sheepishly back to their homes and their offices, minimizing the distances they had run and offering various reasons for running, city engineers pointed out that even if the dam had broken, the water level would not have risen more than two additional inches in the West Side. The West Side was, at the time of the dam scare, under thirty feetof water -- as, indeed, were all Ohio river towns during the great spring floods of twenty years ago. The East Side (where we lived and where all the running occurred) had never been in any danger at all. Only a rise of some ninety-five feet could have caused the flood waters to flow over High Street -- the thoroughfare that divided the east side of town from the west -- and engulf the East Side.

    "The fact that we were all as safe as kittens under a cookstove did not, however, assuage in the least the fine despair and the grotesque desperation which seized upon the residents of the East Side when the cry spread like a grass fire that the dam had given way. Some of the most dignified, staid, cynical, and clear-thinking men in town abandoned their wives, stenographers, homes, and oflices and ran east."

  2. "Hoowee, the dam is bust!'--Churchy LaFemme

  3. Lesson learned: Don't have preconceived notions about a blog post.

    When I saw the traffic photo, I thought you were going to say people were evacuating Dallas and going to Houston to get away from Ebola. If that was the case, I was going to demand that Bobby Jindal close the border between Texas and Louisiana to be certain that no Dallasans(?) made their way to Louisiana.

  4. Q.E.D.

  5. How much of the flight from Houston pre-Rita was due to fear of the storm itself and how much of it was due to fear of being one of "those people" who were "not responsible enough" to listen to authorities and leave before the storm?

    I remember that immediately post-Katrina there was a lot of victim blaming complaints about how those people who were in New Orleans during Katrina should have listened to authorities and evacuated and how it was their own fault for staying in New Orleans. I imagine that a lot of the rush away from Houston was a matter of Houstonites saying to themselves "I am not going to be like those people who didn't evacuate ahead of Katrina ... I will evacuate when I am told and not be a 'sucker'". Of course, everyone who got stuck in a fatal traffic jam turned out to be a 'sucker' after all: sometimes it is fear of being a sucker that turns us into suckers.

    But how much of the panic around Rita was a panic about getting hurt/killed by the storm and how much was moral panic and the fear of being like "those people"?

  6. It's the fear of being like "those people," isn't it?

    There's a reason no one is calling for a ban on travel from Texas, but insist we must ban travel from "west Africa."

    Wherever that is.