Come Together

Houston's response to Hurricane Harvey aftermath proves that politicians can work together

Yes, politicians can work together and Hurricane Harvey proves it

Ed Emmett, Bob McNair, Sylvester Turner at Super Bowl Countdown Clock
In happier days before Super Bowl LI, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, left, and Mayor Sylvester Turner, right, huddled with Texans owner Bob McNair, center. Photo by Michal Wycoff

During a hurricane, there are no Republicans or Democrats. Only Houstonians working together.

That's the message that we've gotten over the past few days as Mayor Sylvester Turner, a African-American Democrat who grew up in Acres Homes, and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a white Republican who went to high school in Bellaire, have led us through the area's worst weather crisis. The two leaders look increasingly exhausted at each subsequent press conference over the weekend, but they seem on the same page on how to handle the problems generated by the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. If they have had any disagreements, they certainly haven't aired them in public.

They haven't sugar coated the situation but they have been calm and reasonable as the public faces a horrible situation. When Emmett said it was okay for residents to get out their flat-bottom boats and help out, hundreds joined in the rescue efforts.

Even on issues seemingly down the pecking order of importance, they have moved quickly to avoid a public relations debacle. For example, at a press conference late Sunday afternoon, Emmett told reporters that he and Turner had reversed a policy barring evacuees from taking their pets with them to the George R. Brown Convention Center and other rescue shelters because they noted, during previous flooding issues, some people have been reluctant to leave their homes without their animals.

How can you not root for politicos who fight to reunite flood-damaged Houstonians with their pets?

The duo also stood together after Texas Governor Gregg Abbott interjected himself into the debate last week, calling for Houston residents to evacuate the area ahead of the hurricane although a mandatory evacuation order had not been issued.

"If we wanted to call an evacuation, we wouldn't even know where to call it," Emmett responded, "cause we don't know where the rain's going to fall and which watersheds are going to be affected. So there is absolutely no reason to evacuate from Houston or the greater Houston area."

“For Houston, Harris County, the county judge and I both agreed that for us this was a major rainfall event and so there was no need to evacuate. We are asking people to stay off the streets,” Turner said. “Quite frankly, leaving your homes, getting on the streets, you’ll be putting yourself in more danger and not making yourself safer. And so, we’re just asking people to hunker down.”

Lesson from Rita

Both Turner and Emmett were well aware of the disaster that occurred in the hours before Hurricane Rita threatened Houston in 2005. Government officials issued an evacuation order, and millions of people clogged the freeways in a desperate bid to escape. Several of my friends spent hours on I-45 north and didn't even make it to Greenspoint Mall before becoming frustrated and turning back to central Houston.

Others were not so fortunate. A charter bus carrying people from a nursing home exploded on the side of Interstate 45, killing 24 people inside. Dozens others were injured or died of heat stroke while waiting in the lines of traffic.

Meanwhile, Rita bypassed Houston, leaving virtually no damage in the city.

Although evacuation efforts have improved, getting a large portion of the 6.5 million residents out of the Houston area would have had its special problems this time around. There will be opportunity for second guessing after this crisis is over. For now, getting through the next few days is the prime focus.

In the midst of the crisis, Abbott has backed down as well. "We've moved beyond whether or not there should have been an evacuation or not," he said at a Sunday press conference. "We're at a stage where we just need to respond to the emergencies."

President Trump and elected officials of both parties would do well to follow such an example and work together to solve the nation's problems. But that's probably too much to hope for — even in a crisis.