Viewpoints: As waters rise in Harvey’s wake, Texans make a heavy lift

The staggering images from the Texas coast of the catastrophe unleashed by now tropical storm Harvey are heart-wrenching, showing all the world the raw devastation that brought the region to its knees.

Harvey is “one of the largest disasters America has ever faced,” Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday.

From Port Aransas to Corpus Christi to Houston, inland and beyond, the destruction and suffering are at levels we’ve rarely seen. And that’s saying something; sadly, Texas knows a thing or two about hurricanes.

CONTINUING COVERAGE: Austin sets out welcome mat as more Harvey evacuees are expected.

But the images also tug at the heart for their inspiration, showing all the world the best of our people — our resilience, our overflowing capacity to help each other even when we might need help ourselves, our compassion for our neighbors and for strangers alike. We are at our best when we show no regard for our differences, only for our common humanity.

Nowhere has the scope of devastation been more overwhelming than in Houston, where floodwaters seemed to swallow the nation’s fourth-largest metropolis.

Over and over, news reports and images from there, including those collected by our own journalists at the American-Statesman, depicted courageous acts of selflessness and of people who waded into waters waist-deep and higher, not waiting for others to step up. They saved thousands of people – families, children, our elders — plucking them from rooftops and from highways that resembled raging rivers, pulling them to safety from submerged vehicles, steering them to higher ground using ropes as lifelines.

In a dramatic scene in Beaumont that spread on social media Monday, a motorist pulled off the road to save a woman whose car stalled in floodwaters that threatened to sweep the vehicle away.

“I’ve got you,” the rescuer said.

I’ve got you. Comforting, reassuring words like those were uttered across the disaster area.

COMMENTARY: Dear Trump, make your visit about Harvey recovery — not you.

The rescuers were members of the Coast Guard, National Guard, law enforcement and emergency responders in official capacities. They were civilians and private citizens, neighbors and people with boats. Makeshift flotillas swarmed flooded Houston streets, making one rescue after another.

Overwhelmed by the deadly storm, emergency responders pleaded for more private boat operators to join rescue efforts — and they got their wish. Some boat operators dropped everything, drove for hours to the flood zones and joined in the rescue efforts for hours on end.

Even more help was coming. On Monday, Abbott activated the entire Texas National Guard, deploying 12,000 members to help in rescue efforts. A convoy of H-E-B trucks was delivering food and supplies, and the grocery giant said it was donating $100,000 to hurricane relief efforts.

Austin and Central Texas emergency relief groups mobilized homegrown relief efforts for the short and long haul, doing everything from providing counseling to collecting goods and toiletries for Harvey’s victims. One aid organization, the Austin Disaster Relief Network, which works with more than 175 churches in greater Austin, sent teams of volunteers to local shelters to tend to spiritual care.

Other local organizations, like the Salvation Army, deployed volunteers to the battered coast. The American Red Cross took in large numbers of evacuees at Austin shelters.

Everywhere, it seemed, Texans were asking how they could help.

COMMENTARY: Why didn’t families evacuate before Harvey? It’s not cheap.

The worst is not over; more chapters are left in Harvey’s tragic tale. A worst-case scenario has the storm looping back to Houston for another devastating punch. When it is finally gone, it will take years to recover and to rebuild.

Texas officials said at least 15 people have died as of midday Tuesday, though the count was sure to rise. Abbott said damage will be in the billions. He asked the Trump administration to declare at least 54 Texas counties disaster areas, a testament to the widespread destruction. Disaster declaration will make the counties eligible for much-needed federal aid.

Much is being made about whether Houston city officials, knowing the risk of flooding given the city’s weather history, should have issued a mandatory evacuation. That is a question obviously worth studying, but now is not the time.

Presented with the question Sunday, the governor avoided divisiveness to strike the kind of unifying tone that leaders must provide in times like these. That stood in stark contrast to President Trump, who as Harvey battered the Texas coast last Friday announced that he had pardoned Joseph Arpaio, the controversial former Arizona sheriff convicted of criminal contempt for persisting with profiling Latinos and decried by many as a bigot.

“It’s so difficult to look in hindsight to see would it have been better to evacuate or not evacuate, which is why we simply aren’t focused on it right now,” Abbott said Sunday.

“Instead, all of our attention is focused on saving lives.”

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That is where it should be — and that is where it was in Houston, where rescuing people from the swiftly rising floodwaters that closed in on them became a frantic and dazed norm.

One good Samaritan standing in floodwaters almost up to his chest took a moment to answer a reporter’s question about what it was that drove him to risk his well-being to help others.

With a smile, he chirped, “It’s the spirit of Texas.”

Yes, and it is more than that. It is the human spirit. It is what brings out the best in us.

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