Ike: Recovery That Works
HOUSTON — Perhaps the most salient moment during Hurricane Ike came Saturday morning shortly before 8 a.m. when officials delivered two news conferences. From Washington, President Bush explained that Ike was a serious storm, that Secretary Chertoff of the Department of Homeland Security would fly to Houston when conditions permitted, and that the federal government was on the lookout for price gouging, a term of populist, not economic, meaning.
Thankfully, the White House did not feel it necessary to repeat its performance after Hurricane Gustav, wherein they appeared to believe that only the personal intercession of President Bush at a news conference in Texas, reading the same scripted talking points as other federal officials, could lead to an effective response.
Then, from downtown Houston, County Judge Ed Emmett of Harris County gave a statement on behalf of himself and Mayor White of Houston. They asked people to be conservative in their water use and to stay off the roads if possible due to downed power lines and flooding. They asked people to restrict 911 calls to life-threatening emergencies, and warned that there was no guarantee that EMS, police, or fire would be able to respond. Judge Emmett closed by saying, "This afternoon we will be about the business of neighbors helping neighbors" begin the recovery process, a sentiment that Mr. White would echo the next morning.
I listened to both of these statements on the radio, my eyes trained out the living room window on a cluster of pine trees swaying wildly in the diminishing but still tropical storm force winds. We had lost our power hours earlier and kept up-to-date by Houston's excellent local television stations simulcasting over the radio.
Like Judge Emmett, local officials across southeast Texas have stressed that the recovery process began as soon as the storm passed. Mr. White's press conference yesterday morning was also a status update devoid of political posturing or groundless prognostications, informing listeners that water was back up to about three-quarters of typical capacity, that businesses would not be legally encumbered from reopening, and that the airports would reopen in the evening with flights resuming today.
If it sounds like Houston has learned from the lessons of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it's because it has learned a great deal — both from its experiences welcoming a quarter-million displaced New Orleanians, as well as from the pitfalls in that city's recovery process. This recovery is starting right.
There will be no grand replanning efforts, partly because Houston has never had the arrogance to try to plan and control the city's booming growth and economic vitality to begin with. A healthy skepticism towards politically-driven plans will serve the city well in the long recovery process ahead — and belie the claim of urban planners that only extensive and oppressive planning creates cities that work.
Because city and county governments are doing what they should do — enforcing the law, sharing critical information, and making honest assessments of the status and future of public services — they have cleared the way for the private sector to respond effectively. By yesterday morning, all local grocery chains had reopened at least some of their locations, and their trucks had made it into town and were busy resupplying. This would have been impossible if the city had been locked down, or if employees had been prohibited from coming to work.
Stressing that people should use their judgment rather than trying to freeze movement, officials have created space for what reports indicate is an incredible — and uncoordinated — response by people clearing streets and storm drains. The official attitude that recovery is a grassroots effort, of which government is just one sector that plays a supporting role, means that recovery is already underway, and people don't have to wait for officials to draw up (and eventually fumble) a complex, top-down plan.
The private sector is playing a crucial role in sharing information. Citizen journalists have been liveblogging events as they unfold, the television and radio stations are sharing information called in by normal folks about grocery stores, gas stations, and hardware stores that are open. Indeed, the press has been a vital conduit of information throughout the process, as they were after Katrina when New Orleans radio host Garland Robinette famously stayed on the air throughout the storm serving as the only instrument of fact over a cacophony of official fiction.
Ike was a nasty storm. It came ashore as a very strong Category 2 hurricane. It shut down almost a fifth of America's oil refining capacity. And its effects have been felt by some 13 million people across Texas and Louisiana. But none of this has caused local officials to throw out the playbook and assume dictatorial control. The feeling down here is that all we can do is start picking up, help each other out, and get back to normal as fast as possible.
The federal response to Hurricane Ike is still unclear, and it remains to be seen whether they will follow the local lead or come in and try to take control. The biggest fear at this point is that federal employees will soon blanket the area saying what President Reagan called the nine scariest words in the English language: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."
People in the damaged areas have the local knowledge that the feds do not. By-and-large, they have local officials who are telling the truth and making clear, credible commitments about public services, law and order, and the "rules of the game" for rebuilding. The recovery has already taken several large steps in the right direction