The loud and angry chant that had filled an Arizona convention center, egged on, remarkably, by the 45th president of the United States — "CNN sucks! CNN sucks!" — was still ringing in many people's ears when the first scattered pellets of rain began falling on Houston. By Sunday afternoon, politics was almost forgotten as millions of Americans sat glued to their TVs, watching the devastation from Hurricane Harvey and a flood that looked as if it were something out of a Bible-school coloring book, the rising waters gradually and inexorably obliterating much of the nation's fourth-largest city. Into the eye of this apocalypse rode cops, wildlife officers, everyday Joes and Janes with little more than some gumption and a Mercury outboard motor, and, yes, an army of journalists.
Or, as we rarely call them these days, human beings.
One of those humans happened to be a journalist for the above-mentioned CNN named Ed Lavandera. He and his producer Jason Morris had hooked up with a citizen volunteer named Austin Seth to look for survivors in one of the epicenters of flooding, Dickinson, Texas, a Sun Belt suburb where the streets resembled Venetian canals. They were on their way home when the crew heard the cries of a woman, yelling that she and her elderly, infirm parents were swamped in three to four feet of water. Over the next few minutes, America watched as Lavandera put down his microphone and hoisted a shell-shocked elderly man into their boat. When told that his wife struggled with Alzheimer's disease, the crew even stopped filming — even though it was riveting TV — to focus on the rescue.
If you've been following the unfolding drama along the Gulf Coast, you know that Lavandera's helping hand was hardly an isolated incident. As journalists have poured into Houston and surrounding, inundated communities, following the path of literally trillions of gallons of rainfall, they have performed yeoman's work — not just providing citizens with life-or-death information about which roads to avoid or the locations of shelters, but serving as eyes and ears for the authorities and volunteers racing against time to find survivors.
One of those journalists was Brandi Smith of Houston station KHOU, who was doing a live report from an overpass when she spotted a truck driver in 10 feet of rapidly rising water that was filling the cab of his tractor. Smith was able to flag down passing Harris County sheriff's deputies, who commenced a rescue operation that reached the stunned driver with not a moment to spare. "Help is on the way. He is incredibly lucky," reported Smith, whose words were aired by colleagues who continued to broadcast the news to Houston's beleaguered citizens even as the ground floor of their station was filling with water.
I could easily fill a whole column with tales of journalists — derided by many, including our commander-in-chief, as the "enemy of the American people" — aiding and abetting their alleged enemies.
But it would be more than a little self-serving to write only about my fellow journalists, for they are just one part of a remarkable and — although hard to cherish right now, amid so much misery — uplifting piece of the Hurricane Harvey story.
So many of the people who've been vilified over the last couple of years in our endless, ear-hurting political debates — government bureaucrats, law enforcement officers, and, most important, citizens of every political stripe and every, to use the current buzzword, identity — are dropping whatever they are doing to rush into danger and rescue total strangers. Yes, it's what people are supposed to do, but in an era when the defining feature of civic discourse is to dehumanize almost everybody else, it's something this country desperately needed to be reminded of, even — no, especially — in the midst of a natural disaster. Again and again since Friday night, we've seen the America that we've clung to in our battered imagination — a place where neighbors help one another.
Some of the most marginalized folks in modern American life — even in a Lone Star State, where some elected officials have been waging a kind of holy war against migrants and the LGBTQ community, not to mention basic voting rights — have shown the most courage and humanity during these desperate hours. I was moved by a story in the New York Times about an immigrant from El Salvador who waded a mile through deep water, clutching her umbrella and a bag, to get to her $10-an-hour job folding and ironing sheets at a hotel because "it was my day to work, and I'm a very responsible person."
Some Christian megachurches offered shelter from the storm, but so did all of the many mosques that dot the Houston area.
And though Mexico may not be paying to build a border wall with the United States, our neighbors to the immediate south of Texas have been more than generous in offering people power and any other form of assistance that hurricane and flood victims might need.
Look, it's naive to sing "Kumbaya" into the post-hurricane rainbow and pretend there are not urgent political questions that are being raised by Harvey and what is sure to be a long and sometimes grim aftermath.
The best time is not today — not when first responders are roaring down flooded streets in longboats and folks are crying for help from rooftops — but very, very soon we're going to need to have a real conversation about the role that man-made climate change — not to mention poor urban planning — has played in a spate of deadly floods that now call into doubt the long-term habitability of a major world metropolis. We'll need to talk about the recent gutting of federal agencies that deal with natural disasters, housing recovery, and the environment and whether they'll now be up to the task of rebuilding Texas. Can we spare the billions needed to restore the Gulf Coast while spending $1 trillion or more to "modernize" the weapons that can destroy the world? These are issues that need to be argued aggressively, even loudly — and I fully intend to take part in that.
But watching the second "flood" of Houston — the flood of human empathy and courage — it's impossible to wonder whether there can't be a better way to have that conversation. Can we use Mexico's generous offer of help as the jumping-off point for a debate based on building bridges — and not erecting walls? Will we be able to finally look at America's immigration question as deciding the fate of human beings and not "illegals" who need to wear pink underwear? Will we be able to take the instinct that makes us rush into a house filling up with four feet of murky water without asking what political party its desperate occupants belong to — and somehow put that in a bottle for future use? Can we remember that those labeled from the presidential lectern as "enemies of the American people" perform one of the basic functions of a civilized society — even beyond the rare and remarkable moment when a journalist saves a human life?
Pray for the survival of Houston — not just a great American city but a living monument to this nation's diversity, home to Vietnamese boat people and those fleeing gang warfare in Central America, whose mayor is a descendant of slaves. But as you continue to watch this unforgettable moment of American history unfold, take a second to ask yourself: Just who exactly are these "enemies" that we keep hearing about?