On Aug. 29, First Lady Melania Trump grabbed the national spotlight by opting to wear stilettos before departing to survey the damage wrought by Hurricane Harvey. Though she changed into tennis shoes upon arrival, the image of a luxury shoe-clad first lady preparing to greet Texans who had lost everything sparked a social media storm and spawned countless think pieces. How could Trump flaunt her wealth in the midst of a natural disaster deemed “unprecedented” by the National Weather Service? To her critics, this fashion choice epitomized a first family utterly out of touch with the American people and illustrated the new political lows to which our country has sunk.
I, too, considered the situation in Texas through a political lens at first. The hurricane’s severity provided evidence for the perils of climate change. The Houston metropolitan area’s susceptibility to flooding spoke to the dangers of urban sprawl and poor city planning. The numerous Latinx immigrants whose life savings had been wiped out by Harvey highlighted the need for more inclusive immigration policy and rhetoric. As I have continued to follow coverage of the storm, though, these political questions seem increasingly disconnected from the experience of those fighting to survive on the ground. In these near-apocalyptic circumstances, there is no room for the hyper-partisanship that has paralyzed the rest of the country.
While recent political discourse often casts doubt on Americans’ willingness to stick together, the response to Harvey’s destruction has proven otherwise, at least when it’s a matter of life and death. According to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, officials were concerned first with “rescuing every person we can find.” Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement stated that immigration status would not be considered for admittance to emergency shelters. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, promised to defend any immigrant facing deportation after seeking shelter. For Democrats and Republicans alike, the protection of life became the sole priority, even in the state at the center of the divisive national debate on immigration.
Now that the storm has passed, the commitment of government officials from both sides of the aisle to facilitate the grueling rebuilding process speaks to the extraordinary nature of the situation. The White House has requested more than $7 billion in initial aid from Congress, and President Trump is no longer threatening to shut down the government if he does not receive funding for the border wall. Lawmakers from New York and New Jersey have promised to support an aid package despite the fact that their Texan colleagues refused to back relief for Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, encouraged Rhode Islanders to donate to help those affected by Harvey, and Rhode Island Air National Guard troops flew to Texas to pitch in.
Beyond the robust response of high-level officials and the military, the bravery of Americans springing into action to provide help has been heartening. Boat owners from Texas and other states have assisted in rescuing those trapped by the rapidly rising floodwaters. The Austin Independent School District said that students forced to abandon their homes were welcome to enroll in Austin schools. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been donated to Harvey relief efforts by businesses and individuals across the country. Any animus people may hold toward one another on issues such as gun control and racial justice seems to have been put on hold by the four feet of rain Harvey dumped on southeast Texas.
Of course, the numerous displays of bipartisan goodwill churned up by the hurricane do not erase the reality of political polarization. Even as Houston residents are returning home to take stock of what little remains, President Trump has reportedly chosen to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. It is clear, then, that the president has no intention of backing down from his aggressive immigration agenda, despite the temporary concessions made during Harvey. And the lessons offered by the hurricane on issues such as climate change and urban planning must be considered critically as the floodwaters recede. As life slowly returns to normal, it is natural that political disagreements will return, too.
Despite the apparent intractability of the partisan divide, the commitment of Americans from both parties and in every state to support the victims of Hurricane Harvey demonstrates the country’s as-yet-untapped potential to come together. The devastating circumstances of a natural disaster remind us of what we share in common: a fierce will to survive and, even more importantly, to help others. Indeed, it would be a shame to reserve this understanding of our shared humanity solely for use during catastrophic events. Perhaps we can find a way to reach out to our neighbors in good times, too — not just when they’re waist-deep in the rising waters, waiting to be rescued.
Nikhil Kumar ’17 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.