August 2017 will not be remembered in many people’s minds as a great one for the United States. We edged too close to conflict with a madman in North Korea. Marches over monuments in Virginia devolved into murder. Ugly debates about what America used to be made too many people ask themselves what this country has become.
It’s hard to believe, then, that a devastating hurricane at the end of the month, a once-in-a-generation catastrophe in Texas, could be a catalyst to remind us who we are and what America remains today, but it has. The images coming out of Hurricane Harvey’s path have been heartbreaking and inspiring - every day Americans have transformed themselves into helpers and heroes, rescuing strangers stranded in the rushing, suffocating floods.
There was Joshua Lincoln and the Cajun Navy, mostly survivors of Hurricane Katrina, who left their jobs and brought their boats to Houston to pluck people out of the rising flood waters. Josh was asked on CNN why he was doing it, pulling bodies from the water, and he explained, “In my life, I’ve been through a lot of storms, too.”
More volunteers came on jet skis and surfboards, paddleboards and fan boats, a makeshift armada going door to door, helping to rescue anyone that first responders did not know about or simply couldn’t get to. The first responders had their own miraculous rescues and stories, too
There were the FEMA staff in cargo trucks who rescued more than 80 senior citizens, their medical charts tied around their necks in plastic bags. There was the image of the sheriff who had fallen asleep sitting up straight, still in his waders, after a 20-hour day of responding to calls for help.
Businesses did what they could, as well. The Houston Chronicle made its website free, on what must have been its highest days of traffic in history, to give people access to lifesaving evacuation instructions. Anheuser Busch stopped brewing beer in order to fill their cans with water to send to storm victims.
“No one is asking whether you’re a Democrat or Republican,” Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston told CNN. “No one is asking whether you are here legally or illegally. If you are in need in this city, we band together, work together, to get you the assistance you need to get you back on your feet.”
It has all reminded me of something Secretary of Defense James Mattis said to a group of young American soldiers and sailors last week during his trip to the Middle East. “We as Americans have two powers - the power of inspiration and the power of intimidation,” he said. He told them that the military is the power of intimidation, but that the spirit of the country itself holds the power to inspire others all across the globe.
“You just hold the line until our country gets back to respecting each other and showing it,” he told them. “Take care of each other, OK?”
If anyone knows what power looks like, it’s a retired four-star general who goes by “Mad Dog.” I have to think Mad Dog saw the power of inspiration in Houston this week.
It also has to be said that President Trump, not exactly known as a voice of calm reassurance in a crisis, has done what we need a president to do in these moments. He has let Houston know that it is not alone and will not be forgotten. Even Vice President Mike Pence, who once argued against a massive aide package for Hurricane Katrina recovery because it was a “catastrophe of debt,” assured the state of Texas that between the administration and Congress, “We’ll have the resources that we need” to help the region recover.
And that brings the baton in this relay to Congress. In a month that was already heavy with must-do items on the calendar - raising the debt ceiling, avoiding a government shutdown, reauthorizing CHIP, extending flood insurance and funding nearly the entire federal government - the need now comes for Congress to pass a disaster funding bill.
It should be the easiest thing Congress does this year. But these days in Washington, the House and Senate seem to make even the easy things look hard. Will there be calls for spending offsets? Riders on the bill?
We’re already hearing the charges of hypocrisy against Sen. Ted Cruz and some of his fellow Texans, who are asking for quick relief now but were not so eager to give it when New York and New Jersey were battered by Hurricane Sandy and Cruz and others voted no. In Houston, locals are wondering if federal help will come quickly, or whether there will be payback for Cruz’s votes when others needed help.
When members of Congress return to Washington next week, they will have a chance to act quickly to make sure that Texans and Louisianans have the resources they need to at least begin to put their lives back together.
But is it too much to also hope that Congress follows the examples of the everyday heroes we saw this week and change the way they are doing business in the nation’s capital? Can they for once rise above the bad habits, the ugly precedents and the paralyzing dysfunction and finally deserve the people they lead?
Work together, Congress. Solve these problems. Be at least as good as the people you represent. Inspire us.
Patricia Murphy is a columnist for CQ-Roll Call.