As I watched the horrific images of Hurricane Harvey causing catastrophic flooding in Houston, I was moved.
I grieved for the five people who’d lost their lives, and the dozen who’d been injured as of Sunday afternoon. I empathized with the residents as the onrushing water destroyed homes and businesses. I hoped that as a nation we’d embraced the lessons from the last storm of this kind.
I prayed that we remembered Katrina.
As local, federal and state agencies raced to respond to the tragedy in Houston, conducting more than 1,000 high-water rescues along the way, I couldn’t help thinking of the last time a major storm hit the Gulf States in late summer.
It was August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall. The storm was a Category 3, bringing 125-mile-per-hour winds to an area that stretched 400 miles. In New Orleans, a major American city where cultures both melded and clashed for centuries before Katrina, the storm was bad enough. Then the levees broke, and the resultant floods first destroyed communities, and for many, they destroyed hope.
Back then, during the George W. Bush administration, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was Michael Brown, a man who came to the position with minimal experience. Brown’s biggest job before FEMA was supervising judges at Arabian horse shows.
Under Brown’s leadership—or lack thereof—FEMA’s response to the emergency was slow, and there were racial overtones. Thousands of people from New Orleans’ poorest, brownest neighborhoods were sheltered in a stadium called the Superdome with little food or water. On the streets outside that makeshift shelter, television cameras captured blacks taking food from flooded stores and called them looters. Whites who did the same were said to be finding food.
As the federal response slowed to a crawl, and the hours turned into days, the images of black families on rooftops begging for help made their way onto our television screens. In a televised fundraiser for Hurricane victims, rap artist Kanye West stared into the cameras, and in an unscripted moment, said what many of us were thinking: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
Two days later, things got worse.
On Sept. 4, nearly a week after Katrina hit, a group of unarmed African Americans were crossing the Danziger Bridge in search of food and relatives. A group of police officers driving a rental vehicle rushed in to answer a distress call. The police shot at the group with high-powered weapons, severely injuring four and killing two, including a developmentally disabled man named Ronald Madison, who died after being shot in the back with a shotgun.
But Houston is not New Orleans, and the current FEMA Director is an experienced emergency manager.
William “Brock” Long was a regional manager at FEMA during the George W. Bush administration, and later served as Alabama’s emergency management director. In that capacity, Long helped coordinate the emergency response to tornadoes and the BP Oil Spill.
I have no doubt that this Trump administration appointee is equipped to do the job. I just hope he learned the lessons of Hurricane Katrina. More importantly, I hope the president will encourage Long to act in accordance with those lessons.
Despite President Trump’s recent comments equating White Supremacists to anti-racism demonstrators, I hold out hope that Trump’s administration will treat disaster victims in Houston according to the extent of their need rather than the color of their skin.
In spite of Trump’s recent pardon of Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt of court after ignoring a judge’s order to stop racially profiling Latinos, I hope the Trump administration will encourage local law enforcement to respond to brown disaster victims with help, not bullets.
In short, I hope that Trump appointee Brock Long will go beyond the president’s rhetoric, and treat the people of Houston equally, no matter what they look like.
Otherwise, the Trump administration will compound the pain inflicted by Hurricane Harvey, and that would be a disaster for us all.
Listen to Solomon Jones weekdays from 7 to 10 am on WURD Radio