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Hurricanes and public policy

9/8/2017, 12:41 a.m.
Hurricane Harvey did everything people said it would do and more. It either drowned or swallowed everything it touched in ...

Julianne Malveaux

Hurricane Harvey did everything people said it would do and more. It either drowned or swallowed everything it touched in Corpus Christi, Houston and Beaumont, Texas, the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and a bunch of other places. Already, estimates say that Harvey may be our nation’s costliest disaster to date, costing at least $190 billion, or about 1 percent of our gross domestic product. 

The damages are both individual — think of the uninsured person who lost her home or the worker whose job has now been eliminated — and national. Houston is our nation’s fourth largest city and an epicenter of the oil and gas industry.

The man who occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. traveled to Texas with his $40 cap, available on his website. His wife, who took two suitcases for the day trip, managed to switch jackets and caps and come out of her lizard heels and into a pair of sneakers. They let us know what was important to them — the “epic” hurricane, the size of the crowd gathered to see President Trump (more likely, unemployed folks waiting for food or housing placements) and the “team.” They didn’t tell a single soul that they empathized and would work to help.

No matter. People came forward without being asked — contributing food, their boats, towels, clothing and so much more. In crises like these, we are reminded about the many ways we Americans come together, contributing to relief funds, showing up to volunteer, opening up homes and more to help.

What role must policy play in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey? 

For one thing, we must define and refine the role of government in times of disaster like this. Government clearly dropped the ball with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and some of the lessons from that tragedy have been applied in Houston.

At the same time, Gen. Russel L. Honoré, the hero of the Katrina debacle, said that in the 12 years since Katrina, so much more should have been done around preparation for a natural disaster. 

Why haven’t we done the work? Often, we’ve been penny-wise and pound-foolish, choosing to cut expenses while incurring even greater costs. And if 45 has his way, we’ll be cutting even more. The budget he submitted to Congress cuts the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Weather Service and other agencies essential in responding to crises like Harvey.

I never thought I’d say it but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has a point. You don’t get to rail against disaster aid when it is going to someone else’s state, but demand it when your state is impacted. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas was not just wrong, he was dead wrong in voting against relief for those who survived Hurricane Sandy. And now, he is revealed as a craven hypocrite when he wants more for Texans than he offered to residents of New Jersey.

Either we will step up in crises or we will not. And if we step up, we need to step up for everyone. Hurricane Harvey did not discriminate. It swallowed the expanse of mansions, even gated ones, as well as the small apartments of uninsured working-class folks. Only one in six of those affected by Harvey were insured because premium costs rose quickly, forcing some families to pay as much as $2,000 a year, even as they earned relatively low wages. 

If we step up, we have to step up for everyone, not just those with sterling documentation and the right insurance.

Do we believe that all should be protected from catastrophe? How do we implement such beliefs? And with a tone-deaf narcissist leading our nation, how do we transcend our terribly flawed leadership to adhere to our ideals?

In the weeks after Harvey, it is imperative for us to examine public policy toward those affected by our nation’s tragedies. 

The writer is an economist, author and founder of Economic Education.