Last September my monthly column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette concerned record flooding in Louisiana, my native state. A news photo of a flatboat filled with smiling evacuees, equally black and white, became the icon of resilience and regional demography. It was my inspiration for writing.
One year later another news photo has become the icon of Hurricane Harvey flooding and recovery. I must write again.
Associated Press photographer David Phillip captured a tall, strapping, white Houston SWAT team member, wading through the floodwater in camo fatigues. With apparent ease, Officer Daryl Hudeck held Catherine Pham, a diminutive Asian mother with her 13-month-old son in her lap. Amid chaos, the babe slept.
With his Bohemian surname, Hudeck likely springs from Central Texas where 19th-century immigrants from Czechoslovakia’s Vltava River region settled to farm. Pham’s family name is so common in southern Asia and southwest Houston as to be “Vietnamese for Smith.” So both adults are immigrants of sorts and both were captured cradling Houston’s latest generation. Not your typical field of bluebonnets postcard scene. Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city in the nation’s third most populous county, claims no single ethnic majority. Ponder that. Houston is as diverse as or more so than any city up north or on the “other” coasts.
Thankfully for the Phams and hundreds of thousands more along Texas shores, there has been an outpouring of aid. Initially, these included tireless first responders, guardsmen and local volunteers rescuing the stranded and the imperiled.
Then the second wave: Monetary donations, clean-up labor and armadas of semis packed with food, water and essentials. The outpouring from Texas’ favorite grocer, H-E-B, and of our own Walmart embodies the best in corporate response and largesse. You may blame God for the floods, but then thank God for generous souls at chain stores and faithful parishioners with chainsaws arriving in church vans from all over kingdom come.
Yet among the havoc and heroism came the armchair naysayers who question the politics and wisdom of red-staters living in low-tax lowlands. Two examples stand out.
On Sept. 6, tax attorneys Peter Barnes and H. David Rosenbloom, of Washington, D.C., and New York, proffered in the Washington Post that high-tax states should not be expected to bail out low-tax states like Texas for disasters. Their premise was hazy, presuming that state income tax revenue in high-overhead “blue” states somehow funds disaster recovery at higher rates than low-tax “red” states. That is not the case. For one, data show the federal share for the Northeast’s Superstorm Sandy aid was the highest in history: 80 percent.
Secondly, how can it be that states with personal income taxes provide proportionally more to federal coffers than those with no such tax? The opposite is true. Texans, for example, can’t take a state tax deduction on Form 1040s as in New York or New Jersey. Because there is none. Therefore Texans generally pay a higher share of income to the feds. The tax experts came off as elites still miffed that unwashed masses elected Trump.
And then there’s storyteller Garrison Keillor of “Prairie Home Companion” who offered a similar yet folksy argument. As a self-described “bleeding heart liberal” Keillor confessed he favors Hurricane Harvey aid. But he continued, taking Texans to task for their red-state politics, never mind that Houston’s Harris County, next door Fort Bend County and other major Texas metros tipped for Clinton last year.
Secondly, he chided their folly for living in low, damp places, as if Houstonians live there for ocean views! There are none, by the way. They live there for jobs, global commerce, lauded universities, a preeminent medical complex (alone the size of downtown Tulsa) and an international seaport — not for the steam-bath summers, mosquitoes and fire ants.
Living as poor relations next door, we Arkansans know Texans as a vexing, complicated lot. They’re too slow in the interstate passing lane and too loud at tailgate parties. And their congressional delegation should have been taken out behind the woodshed for blustering against Superstorm Sandy aid back when they knew full well the package would be approved anyway.
But we love them still, as we do their droves of children attending our flagship state university. Clueless Yankees maintain the caricature: White, wealthy, conservative oilmen driving longhorn-bedecked Cadillacs. Nothing could be less true.
So learned Northerners, shall we convene later for a broader discussion of disaster aftermath economics? One in which progressive, earthquake-prone Pacificcities and Atlantic metros with subway tunnels dug precariously near sea water are also included?
Yes, please wait. At least until the Garcias, Patels, Hudecks, Phams and Smiths have finished pulling up their carpets and Cloroxing their walls.