Monday, September 15, 2008

Please Remember Houston

As the fourth largest city in the United States reels from the worst natural disaster ever to hit it, it seems that the people in Washington have already forgotten that Houston exists. At the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff’s statements this morning reflect the exact same kind of confusion that characterized the response to Hurricane Katrina. Clearly, the evacuation planning mistakes of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were not repeated for Hurricane Ike, but the disaster response is sadly lacking. Once again, it is clear that higher-ups in Washington are not returning Homeland Security’s telephone calls, leaving Chertoff to riff optimistically while having no idea himself when the disaster relief effort might get started.

This time, the fat cats in Washington have an excuse. They are distracted by the largest weekend of collapses ever on Wall Street, as two of the largest companies threw in the towel simultaneously — one filing for bankruptcy, and the other acquired by a bank that has troubles of its own and that even before this deal, would be fortunate to survive the next sixteen months. All this happened while two blocks away, the world’s largest insurer seemed to be scrambling to get money together to continue operating. For people who care about money, it’s one of the most gripping tales to come out of Wall Street.

And yet, in spite of the magnitude of the drama on Wall Street, that is a very poor excuse for forgetting about Houston. John McCain this morning made a statement that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.” That is exactly the wrong thing to say to people temporarily displaced after a giant-sized hurricane has just ripped up one of our great cities. The millions of people unable to go back to work this morning are surely feeling uncertain about whether they will have a job to go back to, and it provides no assurance when the people in Washington suggest that their problems will have to wait. To be fair, McCain did not mean to slight the people of eastern Texas, or the people of southern Louisiana, for that matter. It is just that, as he responded to the worries about the billions of dollars at stake on Wall Street, and the complexities of that situation, he forgot about what the Gulf Coast is going through today.

It is a political error for McCain to slight 7 million Texans whose votes he may shortly be seeking, but the omissions at the White House, leaving the disaster relief effort hanging as they tried to work out deals to save Wall Street, are a more serious matter. If Bush had anything to say this morning about the helicopters needed to rescue people stranded in places like Galveston, I can’t find that statement. But he did specifically say that the focus of his team was elsewhere:

Bush said his advisers at the White House and "throughout my administration" are focused intently on the problems and how to "promote stability in the financial system." He said he was remaining in close touch with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and had been throughout the weekend. Paulson was to join White House officials in discussing the situation with reporters at the White House later Monday.

I don’t even have any friends in Houston (that I specifically know about) but I know enough about Houston to know that it is an important city, and that it’s in crisis and needs help right now. Even if money is all you care about, getting people back to work a few days sooner in the Houston area could have a huge impact on the money side of the economy. Wall Street is important, but at a time like this, the top people in Washington could leave it to others to watch over as they address the more pressing problems of the Houston area. Instead, the signal they are sending is that only money matters, and that people will have to take care of themselves. It is the wrong message to send. Especially today, let’s remember Houston and do what we can to get the people there back home and back to work.