As College Avenue in Houston flooded Saturday night, the yellow Waffle House sign at the top of the hill stayed on.
Stranded drivers trudged toward the glow through muck and rain and sat down for a sip of coffee and some eggs-and-grits, glad to be shielded, at least for a moment, from a storm named Harvey.
Sustaining 130 m.p.h. winds, hurricane Harvey slow-walked across the Texas Coastal Bend’s barrier islands and, as the winds eased, sent a conveyor belt of more than 9 trillion gallons of Gulf water so far, inundating East Texas. Even as more than 2,000 water rescues occurred around the city, Waffle House kept most of its restaurants open, booking nearby motel rooms so employees don’t have to go home.
That was true on College Avenue, where cooks and servers are working around the clock to feed the drifting throngs of survivors.
“We’ve become a refuge,” says Waffle House employee Kirby Sherrod, reached Monday morning by phone.
Ahead of the storm, there were questions about whether Texas-style self-reliance or a centralized, civil-defense-era response from the federal government should govern. But as an all-hands-on-deck response to historic floods has unfolded, the all-of-the-above support exemplifies something new, disaster experts say: a template for what the nation’s top emergency managers call “whole-community” response. It’s a dramatic shift since hurricane Katrina in how the United States prepares for natural disasters, encompassing everything from agency leadership in Washington to Mr. Sherrod and his sturdy compatriots from East Texas.
“I do think we’ve seen a change,” says University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, author of “An Army of Davids,” in an email. “But the real difference isn’t citizens getting involved, it’s the willingness of responsible officials to see that involvement as a plus rather than a potential problem. I think the excellent record of civilian volunteer responders in the post-9/11 record is behind that willingness.”
Almost 12 years to the day since a Category 3 storm named Katrina raked Louisiana and Mississippi, killing more than 1,800 people, hurricane Harvey, which came on land as a walloping Category 4, has taken fewer lives in America’s fourth-most-populous city – with just a handful of deaths reported as of press time. (That tally, officials note, could climb.)
For Houstonians, whether to listen to the government or your own common sense played into individuals’ decisionmaking on whether to leave town. But hovering over the call not to order the evacuation of more than 2 million people was the city’s disastrous evacuation in 2005 ahead of hurricane Rita – in which more than 100 people died, some in their cars as interstates gridlocked.
Despite rainfall that’s expected to reach 50 inches in some places, a number of factors have played into the relatively low casualty count in Houston and surrounding towns: geography, wealth, city planning and infrastructure, and Texas’s deep culture of individualism – along with an all-out federal response.
But a new focus put into play during the Obama era – melding private supply chains and social networks with government assistance – has created a sense of preparedness that was lacking pre-9/11, says Professor Reynolds. He cites a member of the Cajun Navy who led rescues during Louisiana floods last year: “We don’t wait for help. We are the help.”
Cajun Navy to the rescue
The Cajun Navy – a makeshift brigade of Jon boats, Go-Devils, and airboats – descended quickly on East Texas, joining official vehicles including 10 helicopters and 19 high-water vehicles carrying out rescues from rooftops and car tops.
“I can't look at somebody knowing that I have a perfect boat in my driveway to be doing this and to just sit at home,” Jordy Bloodsworth, a Baton Rouge member of the Cajun Navy, told The Advocate in Houston. “I have every resource within 100 feet of me to help.”
During Katrina, some rescuers literally had to sneak into the city to help. In Houston, the Cajun Navy has been part of a massive volunteer response, encouraged by officials. Twelve thousand National Guardsman also are being deployed, the government announced Monday.
The Cajun Navy represents both literally and figuratively the importance of neighborhood social networks – what researchers call “social capital” – that has become increasingly part of national response to disaster.
In Houston, citizenry also had help from social media, where some residents were able to get around swamped 911 lines and go directly to the top. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzales answered help calls personally on Twitter, asking residents to stay strong and hold on until rescue arrived. Some of those who sent out SOS tweets say their pleas were answered.
That openness to working around “official" channels suggests a post-Katrina shift within federal emergency management.
Former FEMA director Craig Fugate, who served under President Barack Obama, led the agency toward a national plan that addresses “the hazards we face as a nation and understand[ing] every part of a national response at all levels of government, the private sector, volunteer and faith-based communities, and the public,” he told The Atlantic’s David Graham in 2015.
At its heart, Mr. Fugate noted, a “whole community” response is “pretty basic stuff. But it does force us into thinking about disasters where government-centered problem solving will fail when our communities need us the most.”
So far, the Trump administration, under FEMA director William “Brock” Long, has gotten an A for its response from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican. President Trump will visit Texas on Tuesday, according to his press secretary.
“It’s the recovery where Trump’s leadership will matter the most,” emergency management expert Samantha Montano writes in Vox.
Vulnerable populations bear brunt of storm
For one, Houston has in some ways failed to heed the lessons of hurricane Ike in 2008: Key wetlands keep disappearing around the fast-growing city, many building regulations are voluntary in a state that favors free enterprise, and a planned protective “Ike Dike” is still, nearly a decade later, largely a thought project that may not see shovels in the dirt for another decade.
And as in Katrina, Houston’s most vulnerable populations have borne the brunt of the flooding, and will likely continue to struggle in the recovery phase, says Northeastern University political scientist Daniel Aldrich, who found stark socioeconomic divides in how FEMA trailers were situated after Katrina.
The Trump administration had, prior to Harvey, vowed to cut FEMA state and local program grants by $600 million, fueling broader political questions around what happens to poorer Americans living in flood-prone areas. Proposed cuts to mitigation programs to help bolster coastal defenses have been a particular sore point. Proposed changes to a federal flood insurance program could lift a yearly premium cap to $10,000, putting such insurance out of the reach of poorer Americans.
As a backdrop, the majority of the Texas congressional delegation voted against extra funding to help recovery efforts from superstorm Sandy in the Northeast. And a Republican Congress, and a Republican president, are now tasked with reviewing the country's readiness for disaster – and who pays for it.
The Harvey response, rescue, and recovery – which is expected to take months, if not years – are likely to play into those policy arguments.
“This is a very old debate in North America: Are we a neoliberal state where welfare is going to be there for us or are we a state where communities are expected to solve their own problems?” says Professor Aldrich, a Katrina survivor and author of “The Power of the People.” “The typical American, however, has a very strong assumption that, during a disaster, there’s going to be a lot of help from the federal government.”
At the same time, he adds, “likely what saved lives are these deeper pockets of social capital in Houston.”
Waffle House, which opened its first restaurant in Avondale Estates, Ga., in 1955, is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Fugate coined the term “Waffle House index” as a way for emergency managers to gauge the severity of a disaster by whether its lights are on.
Besides questions about supply chains and infrastructure recovery, there’s also another factor at work on College Avenue – that a light on in the darkness buoys the human spirit.
When asked about his immediate prospects in a soaked Houston, Sherrod, the Waffle House employee, has a simple response.
“We’re going to keep it going until the rain’s gone,” he says.