The Perfect Political Storm
For the majority of Houstonians, the instant disaster that poured down on Harris County at the witching hour June 9 was a strange sort of selective emergency. The air conditioner kept running in most homes, as did the fridge, the TV, even the notoriously finicky cable service that used to fritz out during strong showers.
Unlike Alicia in 1983, there had been no real wind with the disorganized Allison, no fallen trees blocking roadways, no downed power lines to cut off electricity, no blizzard of skyscraper glass over downtown. This time, residents outside the reach of the flood's murky fingers could wake up in relative comfort and watch the televised drama of countless rescues and the incredible bathtub-like vistas of water with toy vehicles to the horizon. It was all too real if you were out in it -- yet so surreal if you weren't.
The flood temporarily isolated the Insider's Heights neighborhood from points south by five blocked bridges, and the ice houses along White Oak quickly filled with thirsty, immobilized customers by the following midday. I-10 and I-45 overpasses became magnets for couples and families strolling above drowned vehicles and gaping in disbelief. Bikers on 10-speeds flitted down the blocked Katy Freeway to a point where it vanished into a dead sea of 16-wheelers beyond Shepherd-Durham.
Desperate rescues of motorists from the freeway the night before had ended and a holiday feel pervaded the sightseers. They would shortly trek back to make lunch in cool homes and settle down in front of the TV to catch KHOU's Dr. Neil Frank on a 15-minute rotation from the soggy Spirit of Texas studios. The station's anchors let everybody know ad nauseam that their fortress on Allen Parkway had partially flooded. The message: We're victims, just like you folks!
Because so many people watched from relative security, a massive outpouring of volunteerism from close at hand was possible and quickly became the theme of the news coverage -- Houstonians helping Houstonians. Equally cooperative was the weather, which promptly calmed down as the waters drained southward to the Gulf.
Onto this stage with its captive audience stepped Mayor Lee P. Brown, casually clad and projecting the one image he has spent his life perfecting: the solid, dependable chief of police, not glib and polished (for the mayor, an impossibility) but heartfelt, the master of disaster, in control and on the job. Feeling your pain, wading in the rain.
The gods smiled on Lee again, just as they had during his fortuitous journey to the mayorship in 1997. When the skies opened he was not on tour in South Africa, not inaugurating Continental's service to Japan, not sightseeing in Egypt at Luxor, not jetsetting. For once, he was not Out-of-Town Brown. He should thank the stars and that political consultant who advised him to ditch the travel itinerary in 2001, at least until he bags his third and final term next November.
Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee, whose precinct covered some of the hardest hit areas, was out of town when the storm struck, but no one noticed. County commissioners rarely assume prominent media positions during emergencies. They are secure in their seats and do not have to worry about challengers scoring political points in their absence.
The blame game which inevitably rages after deaths and multibillion- dollar losses also flowed around the mayor to other targets. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, headed by George W. Bush's onetime gubernatorial chief of staff Joe Allbaugh, quickly was hit with complaints about a sluggish response.
Why, asked the Monday morning quarterbacks, had the Texas Medical Center ignored flood studies and placed invaluable research projects and computers in flood-prone basements? Why were its precious backup water pumps partially inoperative due to poor maintenance?
Larger questions of regional flood control policy, or the lack thereof, also flew far above Brown's head.
The mayor's opponents trod carefully into the storm runoff, following the Weather Channel dictum: Never drive or step into water if you can't see the bottom. The trick was to find some political traction without appearing to be exploiting misfortune for personal gain.
Mayoral candidate and Councilman Orlando Sanchez issued a statement calling on the mayor to establish "one-stop shopping" centers where residents could get assistance from local, state and federal agencies. The release contained one gaffe, when Sanchez referred to "many citizens from lower-class neighborhoods" rather than the politically acceptable term "lower income." In America, politicians wrap themselves in the banner of the middle class but no one wants to be considered lower class.
Brown's other declared opponent, Councilman Chris Bell, was even more low-key, meekly requesting information from the mayor's office.
"I am sure there will be great interest in hearing how the City plans to obtain solid engineering analysis of the damage and a recovery/repair plan," wrote Bell. "I look forward to learning how the City is recovering from this disaster and what City Council can do to assist in that effort."
Having watched the Bell advisors at work, the Insider is sure they are even more interested in learning what screw-ups occur along the way and putting them to good use in the campaign.
Not to be forgotten, Councilman Carroll Robinson, self-touted as a possible mayoral contender, hammered out a proposal for a $1.5 billion bond referendum next November. It would pay for flood damage and infrastructure improvements and get officials off the hot seat of raising property taxes in an election year.
"Why," asked Robinson, "is the administration's first answer to every issue advocating that City Council dig deeper into taxpayer's pockets and pocketbooks by raising the city's property tax rate? It simply takes Vision, Boldness, and Direction." Robinson, the flip vote in the tax rollback soap opera at City Hall last year, has clearly taken the early lead in the flood's political grandstanding contest.
Brown, like the rest of Houston, will have a serious mosquito problem this summer, but his tormentors have names: Orlando, Chris, and Carroll.
Alicia spawned the infamous debris dumps and the controversy involving all those trash removal contracts for anyone who had political contacts and a working pickup truck. The fallout created headaches for then-incumbent Kathy Whitmire but no lasting political damage.
This time around the city was ready with preplanned contractor arrangements to assist with heavy trash pickup in areas where homes did go under. It remains to be seen how effective those services will be, and therein lies the remaining risk for Brown.
University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray and his wife, publicist Debbie Hartman, returned from California after the storm to deal with a home that took a foot of water in a subdivision south of Holcombe. Between trips hauling destroyed furnishings and appliances to the curb, Murray suggests the mayor is not out of the water yet.
"If politics is a tennis match, Brown gets first serve, because the challengers don't have much to say other than express concern," Murray points out. "But if he comes across as less competent and concerned, then he's opening up an opportunity for the challengers to say, 'Once again, Brown drops the ball.' "
Memo to Brown campaign manager Craig Varoga: For the sake of the mayor's political health, those hillocks of debris festering outside homes and businesses better not still be sitting there come July.
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