As the horrors of Hurricane Harvey continue to unfold in and around Houston, people may not remember that it was President George W. Bush’s completely failed response to Hurricane Katrina, and the sinking of New Orleans, 12 years earlier that was the nail in his political coffin, even resulting in the nation’s first ever African-American president only three years later.
Despite the growing dissent over his unprovoked invasion of Iraq in 2003, Bush was still popular enough to achieve re-election in November 2004. It was really not until the following August of 2005, just 12 years ago, that Hurricane Katrina hit and broke through the woefully inadequate levees that stood between a swollen Mississippi River and the poorer neighborhoods of New Orleans, including in the infamous Lower Ninth Ward, almost entirely made up of desperately poor African-American families.
Bush was perceived as dismissive and non-responsive until well into the catastrophe, patting Michael Brown, “Brownie,” his incompetent political crony appointee heading FEMA, for “doing a great job.”
Acting as if he’d learned that lesson, Trump has jumped more quickly into the Harvey catastrophe, but in a typical flag-waving, crowd-loving cheerleader mode on Tuesday, demonstrating exactly what it is that he simply doesn’t have — empathy — in the process. Yesterday, he spoke again with an eye to that empathy thing, but he could do it only by carefully reading remarks crafted by someone else off a teleprompter in Missouri.
But as in 2005, it is not only the president who will be badly damaged by this unusual encounter with reality. Ironically, Hurricane Harvey, like Katrina, is a by-product of humanity’s irresponsibility, even as among its bullseye targets are the powerful petrochemical industries of Texas that have done the most to boost the climate-change “deniers.”
If there is justice on some level associated with all this, it would have to be deemed a judgment on not only this industry but also on the desperately immoral right-wing evangelical churches that dominate the Houston area and who owe God, herself, a serious explanation for their disgusting behavior supporting the election of Trump.
The statistic is that of the 1,566 churches in Houston, only 60, or four percent, have opened their doors to extend a helping hand now.
But it is wrong to attribute a moral purpose to this storm. That is left for we humans to do in the fashion of Old Testament prophets, citing natural disasters as evidence of the brokenness of and need for repentance of God’s people. As with Katrina, this “judgment” is going to come as the full extent of the Harvey catastrophe is more fully unfolded. It will come as surely as the images of the thousands of desperately poor African Americans pouring out of the Ninth Ward of New Orleans in 2005 ensured the election of Barack Obama in 2008.
It was not then, as now, a judgment on the president, alone, but of decades of Republicans chiseling the working class out of a genuine shot at a decent living standard.
This is evidenced by the painful reality that the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, after 12 years to this day, has not recovered from Katrina, not by a long shot. As Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle wrote in his column, “Awash in Poverty” this week, the neighborhood remains defined by “vacancy and scraped lots of half-finished repairs. Thousands of people have left and haven’t come back. The population of New Orleans has fallen below 400,000 for the first time since the 1920s.”
Is this the fate of Houston, currently the nation’s fourth largest city? For all its shiny high-rise office buildings clustered in its downtown, Houston has large swaths of incredible poverty, as I learned living there for four years in the early 1980s. These people will not be able to recover from Harvey and will simply migrate elsewhere.
In their wake will be yet another a stinging indictment of the Republican party, amplified by the noisy bickering Republican lawmakers who are engaged in blaming each other for failures to deliver on relief for the devastating superstorm Sandy in the Northeast, underscoring the chiseling that is the cornerstone of everything they stand for.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected].