In his 1965 hit, “Houston,” Dean Martin sang that he was stuck in a hard-luck town, “just a-walking in the rain.” So, he said, he was going to go to Houston. To Houston. To get out of the rain. Let that sink in, so to speak.
Houston averages more than 45 inches of rain per year. There are more than six million people in its metro area. None of them live there for the weather.
Many do live there because of Houston’s audacious boomtown attitude. The spirit of Houston is fueled in part by those old oil wildcatters and other pioneering entrepreneurs who had neither time nor patience for dodgy MBAs or the narrow, two-dimensional world of spreadsheets and buzzword-happy business plans.
The very year of Dean Martin’s hit song, a few undaunted Houstonians finished building a domed stadium so their baseball team could get out of the rain. Problem solved.
In consequence of such wildcatter optimism — and despite gross and persistent inequalities — Houston still embodies a unique egalitarian, all-in-it-together spirit. The world witnessed what that spirit could mean during the week of Aug. 25, when Houston became the site of the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history.
It rained 50 inches. Mayor Sylvester Turner said 27 trillion gallons of water fell on Houston and nearby communities. The storm made a mockery of weather models that speak of 500-year floods. Harvey engulfed the Bayou City in the third such flood in three years.
Hurricane Harvey gave us images of extraordinary heroism and community solidarity. In Houston and the rest of Southeast Texas, everyone was everyone’s neighbor. No one gave up. No one gave in.
Gov. Greg Abbott said the recovery of Houston will cost more than $180 billion. Houston could build almost 700 domed stadiums for that amount in today’s dollars.
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It’s doubtful that current leaders in Austin and Washington, where most of the money will have to come from, have the will and the vision to fund the equivalent of 700 domed stadiums.
The original Astrodome was built for convenience — and to display the city’s bold, optimistic attitude. Today, the money is needed to save Houston and towns from Rockport to Port Arthur.
Federal funding for recovery efforts here need to be seen in the context of the hurricane devastation in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The total resource demands are, at the moment, incalculable.
Congress has approved a $15 billion disaster relief bill for Harvey. In Austin, Abbott has refused, for now, to tap the state’s $10 billion so-called rainy day fund. That’s a fund set aside for, well, rainy days. If the days of Harvey weren’t that, what were they?
Anyway, Abbott did find $50 million in available state funds for Houston. He even delivered the check in person to Mayor Turner. It’s not even a drop in the bucket; it must be the thought that counts.
Today’s Republican leadership has little of the can-do, entrepreneurial spirit they often claim to have. Unlike Roy Hofheinz, the future-oriented adventurer who spearheaded the building of the Astrodome, Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and others look like pessimistic tightwads.
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Texas’ public schools are underfunded. Roads and bridges were in disrepair even before the hurricane. Investment in water resources is laughable. Tens of millions of Texans are without health care. As far as adequate public policy goes, today’s state leaders don’t have the sense to get out of the rain.
Harvey has helped reveal some of leadership’s weaknesses, beginning with an unjust tax structure that fails to provide adequate resources while overburdening the middle class and the poor.
At $180 billion, the cost of Harvey recovery in Texas is more than 80 percent of the state’s total 2018-19 budget of $217 billion. Some of it will be shouldered by the feds. Some will be picked up by private charities.
Most of the responsibility will fall on the governor and the Legislature. We’d better carry umbrellas.
Smith, a longtime political journalist, is an author and director of Progress Texas, a political action committee.