Friday, 15 January 2021

Political anger eases after Harvey, but remember the sharks of 1916

HOUSTON — Early this year, Betsy Scheer was angry. Really angry.

Her West Houston home was inundated by the historic flooding from Hurricane Harvey, and had faced week upon week of excuses from various officials and agencies on why the debris couldn’t be cleared up, why she couldn’t quickly rebuild, why it seemed to take forever to get a phone call or e-mail returned — if ever.

“Earlier this year, I would probably have said I was going to vote against everyone in office — mostly the Republicans — but I think I’m about back to normal and I’m going to vote for most of them again,” said the retired human resources executive on a recent afternoon outside her home west of Barker Reservoir. “My friends are mostly the same way now.”

Eleven months after Hurricane Harvey upended everything about life in Houston and along the Texas Gulf Coast, the political pushback in the November elections likely will be minor for most Republican incumbents, far from what Democrats were banking on earlier this year — and far from what many residents themselves predicted, say experts who have studied the impact of natural disasters on politics.


“We’re back where we were, and have no complaints now,” said Tran Ng, a Bear Creek flood victim who expressed frustration months ago over the delayed recovery assistance to her flooded neighborhood. “Most everyone I know is the same way.”

Before she moved back into her rebuilt home in May, Ng fumed about most of the same things as many other storm victims: The mounds of smelly, rat-infested debris that took months to disappear in many neighborhoods, lengthy delays for federal and state assistance for housing and business recovery assistance, decisions to lower Houston’s reservoirs that flooded many adjacent neighborhoods, lawsuits that pitted neighbor against neighbor.

Now, with many of those issues resolved, talk about Harvey in many areas is in the past tense, not present. Just as many of the complaints have been resolved, the injection of tens of billions in federal aid to better protect the Texas coast from future storms appears to have calmed some angst, even if the construction of many of those projects is years away.

“Life is almost back to normal,” said Martina Racelli, whose house was inundated by overflow from Addicks Reservoir. She has since moved, and is adjusting to life in a new neighborhood near Katy that is on high ground. “It’s closer to my husband’s (work) and my work. My kids are happy. It was difficult getting through it, but we have moved on.”

As for her rating of state and local politicians almost a year later, she said she may not even vote. “It’s not relevant to me that much,” the 38-year-old software technician explained. “If I have time, maybe. The politicians come and they go, you know. I never expect much.”

For the 64-year-old Scheer, a lifelong Houstonian who has weathered several hurricanes, none as extreme as Harvey, voting this fall has become even more important. She says she will vote again for all Republican incumbents.

“The left is pushing to get a foothold this year by stirring everyone up,” she said. “As bad as Harvey was, I think that everyone starting with Gov. Abbott has done as good a job as they could. Look at the amount of federal aid they got us from the politicians in Washington, which is a mess starting with Trump. But I think Texas has come out of this very well in many respects.”

Such responses don’t surprise Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, who took part in a University of Houston poll taken late last year that found widespread frustration among Houston residents about the storm and its aftermath. A subsequent poll in February by the University of Texas/Texas Tribune showed while local and state officials got generally high marks for their response, the federal response was graded lower — mostly because of lower grades given to Republicans.

“Across the board, there is a noticeable decline in Texans’ assessment of government response,” Jim Henson, head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the poll, said at the time. “The bottom hasn’t dropped out, but Texans are less positive about government response and, most notably, the federal response.”

Since then, Jones and others say, more Harvey victims have had time to rebound. “As far as political priorities for most people, it’s not even a factor any more,” Jones said. “If a Democrat was hoping to make this an issue against a Republican incumbent, the odds are now that won’t happen.”

Still, there are exceptions.

Woodrow Wilson also got bit in shark attacks of 1916

Jack Nito still fumes about how long it’s taken him to get his life back on track, and he blames politicians for most of the delays.

“They all showed up saying they were here to help, they got on TV and then nothing happened — for months,” said the 54-year-old systems technician, who only recently was able to move back into his Memorial Drive home, after haggling for months with federal disaster officials, state and local bureaucrats and insurance companies — much the same thing that happened to his family after Hurricane Sandy devastated New York City and New Jersey in 2012.

The New York native, who has lived in Houston 14 years, lived with friends for a short time, then stayed in a hotel paid for with federal disaster money, then spent months with friends in Rosenberg. Though he is now home, the remodeling work is still wrapping up.

“I went to several town halls and never got answers. Not enough has been done to make sure this never happens again,” Nito says. “Not enough has been done to make sure this never happens again. I’m voting against every damn politician who’s in office this fall.”

Instead of voting Republican, as he says he has in the past, this year he’ll go for Democrats.

Other political scientists note that voter backlash against officials for miscues in storm response and cleanup historically has occurred when elections come soon after the catastrophe, while their anger is still intense, and targets mostly politicians at the local level. This year’s general election takes place Nov. 6, well over a year since Harvey hit.

Jim Granato, a political scientist at the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs who oversaw the earlier poll in Houston, said voter issues dissipate over time — and the Harvey experience may prove that out. A new poll of voter sentiment on the Harvey response is now underway, with results expected in late August.

“People do move on,” he said.

Then again, consider a 1916 shark attack in New Jersey.

Shark attacks had been unheard of in Ocean County until that July when three men were attacked and killed within a matter of days, according to the 2016 book, Democracy for Realists. Mud-covered friends of one victim ran down Main Street screaming about the attack. Panic set in. Resorts became ghost towns as tourists fled to get away from the sharks.

Five months later, still feeling grumpy and panicked, local residents voted against an incumbent, President Woodrow Wilson, reducing his percentage of victory in beachfront communities by as much as 13 percent — and proving that election results can sometimes be driven by events with no direct correlation to political decisions or actions.

Christopher Achen, a Princeton University politics professor who co-authored the book, said floods that occur during an election year historically have had have a political downside for incumbent presidents, as the shark attacks show. After that year, not so much.

“We generally don’t find much electoral effect more than a year after an event occurs. So I would guess no difference,” he said.

Even so, in a year when Democrats are reported to be surging in many areas, “will the flooded parts of Houston move even further toward the Democrats because of last year’s floods, while the unflooded parts also shift toward the Democrats, but less than the flooded areas?” Achen asked.

“I wouldn’t bet the mortgage either way,” he answered, noting that Texas’ strong economy could be a bigger factor come November if history is a clue.


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