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Houston


(Note: It's been a while since my last post. I spent my last two weeks getting my son Ben ready for college and driving him up to Montreal--more on that to follow.)

It was the late summer of 1987 when I first visited Houston. Our dear family friend Don Prenowitz had suddenly passed away, and my parents, my sister Leesa, and I all went down for the funeral and to support his wife, and our dear friend, Sheila. After a couple of days sitting in the apartment and mourning, the older adults encouraged Leesa and me to go out on our own. We took Sheila’s car and went to a popular Italian restaurant that the locals had recommended. We parked and went inside.

There was a line of people waiting for tables, and we put our names down and sat in a couple of chairs near the window. At some point, we noticed an older man and a middle-aged woman enter and stand near us. The man was holding a cane and had no place to sit, so we offered him our chair, which he gladly accepted.

We finally got our table and ate our dinner. I have no recollection of the meal other than that it was a pleasant diversion from the dour reason for our visit. When we were ready to leave, we asked the waitress for our check and were told not to worry, that Mr. Mitchell had taken care of it. They pointed out the elderly gentleman, now sitting at his table.

Leesa and I went over to the man and thanked him profusely. We mentioned how grateful we were for his generosity, as strangers to the city, and we explained the sad reason we were in Houston. He told us his name was Johnny Mitchell, and that we should stay in touch with him after we left town.

Back to Sheila’s apartment, we told our story, and the Houstonians there were visibly impressed. “You met Johnny Mitchell!” one exclaimed incredulously. It turned out Johnny was a local celebrity, an independent oilman, part of the city’s booming industry. He and his brother George had founded Mitchell Energy and Development, one of the nation's largest independent oil companies.

I did correspond with Johnny a bit (back then, everything was by letter). He sent me some articles he’d written about the oil business, and then we lost touch. In preparing for today’s post, I found his obituary online; he passed away in 1996, at the age of 82. He would have been 73 when Leesa and I met him.

The only other time I visited Houston was for a work conference, and I don’t recall meeting any other local people then. I’ve also visited San Antonio twice, Austin, and Rockwall, a suburb of Dallas. One thing has always been true—there is indeed such thing as Texas hospitality. People have been consistently welcoming, as best evidenced by how Johnny Mitchell treated Leesa and me that evening in 1987.

Now that Houston is under water and its residents are suffering in ways I can barely imagine, I think back to how we were treated. I define myself a great deal by my liberal, progressive political views, and I can well assume that many of the most hospitable people I meet in Houston and other places are at the opposite end of that spectrum. But there is no politics when people are being rescued from the roofs of their houses or being swept away by torrents of water; politics recedes when peoples’ possessions are waterlogged or destroyed. I can even watch Ted Cruz on television and feel less visceral anger toward him than usual (okay, maybe I won’t go that far).

People are making political points in the wake of this catastrophe. It is true that Cruz and other Texas politicians who are asking for federal disaster relief were not forthcoming with such largess after Hurricane Sandy. It is true that our President seemed to use the storm and his appearance in Texas to take center stage, as well as boost his television ratings with his ill-advised pardon for Sheriff Arpaio.

Two other things are true in this story. First, while the devastation wreaked by Harvey shows no boundaries of class or race, people of lower socioeconomic status, African-Americans, and immigrants are likely to face more challenging prospects over the long term. Past history, especially the effects of Katrina on New Orleans, provides evidence of this—people with more limited resources find it difficult to rebuild, have a harder time accessing government resources, and often face permanent displacement.

Finally, while it is unscientific to conclude definitively that this particular storm resulted from climate change, the evidence is hard to ignore. The city of Houston has had two “500 year floods” in two years, and never before has any area in the continental U.S. experienced 50 inches of rain. Even if this is a coincidence, coastal and low-lying areas need to brace for more events of this type.

Given these realities and peoples’ liberality following a disaster of this magnitude, we should channel our inner Johnny Mitchell and be generous to ourselves and to the people around us. If we want to protect Americans and get the most bang for our bucks, we should redirect funding from unnecessary walls and redundant military equipment both to slow the progress toward climate change and to mitigate its effects. We should ensure that programs are in place to help people rebuild their lives regardless of income or race. The capacity to do the right thing exists in us; we need to make rational and warm-hearted decisions that truly move us forward as a country.


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