Monday, September 18, 2017

Revering the Constitution

Constitution Day—the anniversary of the signing of the US Constitution—was September 17, yesterday. But I’m going to continue celebrating for a few days.
The US Constitution
from the National Archives

The Constitution is the basic law of the land. It is NOT what grants us rights; it is the tool we use to protect our rights, which God gave us. If we could identify that difference, it would make a huge difference in how people approach public policy.

The Constitution is a legal document, not a philosophical statement—after the preamble. So it’s not poetic or exciting. But it is profound. If you don’t admire it, you either don’t understand the Constitution’s meaning, or you don’t understand the principles that lead to freedom, prosperity, and civilization.

So let’s take this day to honor and better understand the Constitution.

Here’s the basic outline: Preamble, Articles, and Amendments.

The Preamble, which lays out the proper role of national government, is short, and beautiful, so here’s the whole thing:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The body of the Constitution is made up of seven articles, most of which are divided into several sections. Here’s a brief summary.

Article 1 lays out the powers of the legislative branch. There are 9 sections, vesting all legislative powers for our federal (national) government in Congress, which is divided into a Senate and House of Representatives, outlining who can serve in the House and Senate, and such things as elections, revenue bills, and other legal details.

Article 2 lays out the executive powers vested in the President. It has four sections, talking about how the president will be elected (the Electoral College), the president’s powers concerning the military, making treaties, and representing our country on the international stage; informing Congress of the State of the Union, and impeachment (removal from office) of the president or vice-president.

Article 3 lays out the judicial powers in the Supreme Court and inferior courts. There are three sections, detailing their powers and the kinds of cases they will cover.

Article 4 covers interstate rules, and guarantees for citizens going state to state. There are four sections, including information about how new states may be admitted, and how the federal government guarantees protection to each of the states.

Article 5 offers ways to amend the Constitution: amendments can be proposed by either two-thirds of both Houses, or two-thirds of the state legislatures can propose an amendment. This option has been talked of more in the past few years, and about a dozen states so far have voted to go ahead (including my state of Texas).

Article 6 talks about paying debts incurred by the national government, and that the federal government shall be the supreme law of the land.

Article 7 talks about ratification of the Constitution, and signatures from representative of the states at the Constitutional Convention, where the document was written and revised.

Then come the Amendments. There are 27. But the Constitution wasn’t ratified until the first ten were included. These are what we call the Bill of Rights. They weren’t originally included, because they were understood by all as a given. But there were those—Virginia led in this—who were afraid if at least some of these rights weren’t spelled out, later generations might try to abridge them (violate them, pretend they didn’t exist).

They were prescient. Not only did that forgetting happen, but even with these rights spelled out, people argue whether or not the government should grant those rights—forgetting that government doesn’t grant them; it only protects them. Think about current riots, from people claiming no one should be allowed to speak things they find offensive, or that they do not approve of. Or claims that religious freedom should be subjugated to popular beliefs about sexuality.

And there has been a great deal of government overreach—taking on authority that is not granted in the Constitution.

We need to return to our Constitution. That is the path back to freedom, prosperity, and civilization. We need all good people to learn the truths our founders knew, and then stand up as our founders did.
We’ll need to start with learning.

I came across a video (see it here) over the weekend, meant for students—probably aimed at upper elementary through middle school. But it’s worth a watch with the kids. The hosts, which include a 10-year-old girl, touring the capitol, and interviewing two senators from the judicial sub-committee on the Constitution: Ted Cruz and and Richard Blumenthal.

If you want something aimed at a little higher education level, try testing your knowledge with Hillsdale College’s quiz on the US Constitution: (here). 

And maybe that will lead you to take their Constitution 101 course, which I’ve recommended before. High school students shouldn’t be scared off by the college label; it’s what everyone graduating from high school should know and understand. In fact, every voter ought to know what’s in this course.

Hillsdale College also has an annual Constitution Day celebration going on, with live streaming on various topics, starting tonight and going through tomorrow. [Schedule here.] I’m especially interested in the “Roundtable on The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom,” at 9:00 AM EDT Tuesday.
available here

If you’re not ready to dive into a college level course, but could handle something about the length of a movie, I recommend A More Perfect Union, produced by Brigham Young University. It’s a beautifully done dramatization of that hot summer of 1786, and the extraordinary men who came together to create our Constitution.

After you’ve done a bit of study, you might want to reward yourself with a bit of humor. Here is Studio C’s frat house version of the founders.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

A Lot of Broken Glass

There’s an economic example often used to illustrate, among other things, how government spending affects the economy. [See here and here.]
From Greg Mankiw's blog

In short, if a vandal breaks the glass display window of a bakery, it stimulates the economy: a glazier gets, say, $500 for the work and materials to replace the window. But what we don’t see is where that $500 would have been spent if the window had remained intact. Maybe the baker could have bought a new suit, and/or hired another worker in his shop. The suit tailor and/or the new employee are out that amount of money.

There is the seen and the unseen.

So, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, here in Houston, we’re looking at an estimated $30-40 billion in metaphorical broken glass, or property damage. What is going to happen next? A lot of renovation and rebuilding. In fact, it will be a boom town for renovators. If they’re mobile enough, it would be prudent for such workers to move to Houston and set up shop for the next year or so. The same is true for drywall and flooring suppliers. And furniture sales. There’s $30-40 billion here, above and beyond what the economy needed before the storm.

Jobs galore! Isn’t this great?

Ask one of those families how they feel about it. Are they better off economically by spending money on flooring, drywall, and furniture replacement—after possibly spending money on hotels or apartment rent during the rebuild, along with clothing replacement and the expense of eating out—or would they have preferred to use their money in ways they had intended before the storm? Things like a new car, education, retirement savings, a vacation?

from the southern section of my neighborhood

Even those with insurance are likely to prefer their own plans for their money, rather than the storm-caused new plans.

People who are charitably giving sense this. They wish to mitigate the damage by volunteering labor, materials, money, or other help so that the cost to the storm victims is less severe.

Let’s take a look at the volunteer labor. The professional cost for mucking out a house—removing flooring, drywall, ruined furniture, and other debris, and then cleaning, drying, and preparing the walls and floor for rebuilding—before any rebuilding is begun, so, separate from those costs—is an estimated $16,000 per house.

Does that charitable giving deprive the economy of money? Technically, it would deprive those particular professionals of money they might have made. But there is a time issue involved. Suddenly there is a shortage of companies that do this service, since in non-storm times such needs are limited to broken pipes or other hit-and-miss personal disasters. And it’s assumed that a home needs to be cleared and aired out as quickly as possible. Any home that remains waterlogged and growing mold for 30 days is likely to be a total loss.

We’re at day 19 today. Some houses are still underwater. But this time issue is why, anywhere the water has receded enough for homeowners to return, you see the debris piles along the streets. They want to give their home the best chance possible for a successful rebuild.

Volunteers are spending their time. But we’re assuming they’re spending out of their surplus. So they’re not short-changing the economy by failing to earn during those volunteer hours. Anyone who would prevent the volunteer neighbor-helping-neighbor work would be doing nothing for the available workers in that field, since they have more work than they can do already. But they would be condemning those homeowners to total loss.

So I think we can agree volunteer work after a disaster is a community good.

While we’re talking about giving, there are plenty of places to give to charity, for anyone who wishes to alleviate some of the pain. Among those that send all donations directly to those in need:

·         Rebuild Texas Fund, which Governor Abbott has endorsed.
·         J. J. Watt Foundation, which has raised $33.5 million, but will be ending fundraising Friday, September 15, at 5:00 PM.
·         LDS Humanitarian Services, which has already provided 22 truckloads of supplies in Houston, including equipment for all those Mormon Helping Hands to use. (We are still housing the generator they provided during Hurricane Ike, for use in our congregation. We shared it with neighbors on both sides during the eight days we were without power.)
Additionally, a number of people have set up GoFundMe sites, to raise money for specific people. In this kind of grassroots arrangement, you know the money you send goes directly to those who need it. I know the people involved in these two:

·         Derrick Campos Family in Houston 
·         Harvey Recovery—Tom Tidwell 
I’ve mentioned Derrick’s story and shared his photos in the past couple of weeks. He lives not far from me. Here'e Derrick talking about coming to be willing to accept this help:


The Tidwells live in Port Arthur. I’ve been friends of their extended family since my first year of college. Both families ended up being rescued by boat and face a long recovery. There are going to be many many others in similar situations. But I know any donation you can afford would be well spent on these families.

Back to our economic discussion. One of the reasons central planning is always a bad idea for economics is that the central planners can’t know what the needs of the individual are. They can’t make better decisions than the people earning the money and deciding how to spend it. They can’t see the unseen—the economic choices that are lost when one choice is made rather than another.

Government has its role: protection of life, liberty, and property. But its economic role is mainly to get out of the way. If only!

One way the private sector has managed disaster recovery in the past is insurance. I read this helpful note earlier today:

Most of the money from previous Texas hurricanes has come from private insurance. And, in some ways, this process of rebuilding restores a balance in the economy. For the past couple of decades, almost all homeowners have paid for insurance but few people make a claim. Most of that money sits on the balance sheet of big insurance companies to pay out future claims, and those companies often invest those dollars on Wall Street and real estate. That’s all fine—good, healthy commerce.
Now the time has come for the flow to go the other way. Big insurance companies will be paying out money to settle insurance claims, and most of that will go to working class Americans who will rebuild damaged property. Demand for labor will rise, as will wages, as the money starts to flow. The tilting of the economy away from physical labor toward the financial sector will reverse – maybe only temporarily, but it will still reverse.
In other words, insurance money has been in the economy all along; this disaster just changes where it is put to work for a while. It has given many homeowners and businesses a chance to get back to their previous economic track more quickly than if they hadn’t been putting money toward insurance all along.

What about government money? If it’s there, we’ll take it. But this same author says something that maybe ought to be obvious but isn’t:

Of course, if the federal government decides to give away money, I suppose people will sign up for it. But this madness eventually needs to end. The federal government is broke, and insisting that folks in Kansas or Vermont pay for a hurricane in Houston is silly on the face of it. This is not an invading army we’re talking about here. It’s a really bad storm. The Constitution doesn’t contain the words “storm,” “weather,” or “insurance.” Why are we continuing to twist its meaning to make Congress and the President look like heroes? If they want to help, let them help with their own time, talent, and treasure. Like the rest of us.
But we also don’t want to be suckers. If Washington DC decides not to help Houston, they should end it for everyone in the future. Which they should, in my opinion.
I’ve had good things to say about Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner during the past few weeks. But earlier this week, he kind of wiped out all that good will. He decided that now is a good time to add an 8.9% property tax hike to all Houston property owners. Rates will be charged at pre-storm property values—even though those values may have plummeted because of storm damage. Why? Because, to a Democrat, paying for government is paramount.

What will the citizens get for this? Not protection from this storm or future storms. Not greater fire and police protection. Not better roads or infrastructure. Nothing but the dubious satisfaction of getting city government fully funded before they even get back into their own damaged homes.

Was there a cost to the city caused by the storm? Yes. It was far less than it would have been without good engineering and planning, based on past storms. But shouldn’t the city economize, as the citizens have to, rather than burdening people who are already suffering financially?

Again, it’s that short-sighted economic view that sees only a chosen segment of society—in this case, city government. If we can get Houston back on its feet, and rebuilt, and economically humming along in its normal healthy way, wouldn’t that benefit the city well enough?

I’ll note that Harris County, a government entity that is larger than any local government entity in the US except possibly the City of Los Angeles, has decided to economize, rather than burden the people.
Fortunately, the mayor must go through the city council, with a final vote in mid-October. It may be that the people can be vocal enough to convince the city that now is not the time to force storm-weary citizens to cough up an additional $100 million in taxes.

So, when there’s proverbial broken glass, that temporarily helps the window repairman. That’s the seen benefit. But unseen are all the lost uses for that money. I hope we can soon get back to letting the people who earned it decide how to spend it.

Monday, September 11, 2017

We Will Rebuild

Sixteen years ago enemy-caused disaster happened on American soil. Our lives changed on that day. We dug through the rubble, and helped one another out of the ashes and debris. We were stunned. But we set our jaws and said, “We will rebuild.”

Sixteen days ago nature-caused disaster happened on Texas soil. Our lives changed on that day. We dug through the rubble, and helped one another out of the flood waters and debris. We were stunned. But we set our jaws and said, “We will rebuild.”

One of the images from 9/11/2001 is of an American flag being flown on a pole among the debris.

Raising the Flag at Ground Zero
image from Wikipedia

In honor of that, a friend who has a pile of debris outside his home, posted an American flag among the debris.

Derrick and Gloria Campos fly the American flag
on the debris in front of their flooded home

He is at the stage of mucking out where they could power wash the floors, which he describes as, “One step closer to being one step closer to being one step closer to being clean.” It’s not an easy process.

He’s had a good attitude about this, considering. This is their third flood: Memorial Day Flood 2015, Tax Day Flood 2016, and Hurricane Harvey 2017. All of these were rainfalls beyond expectation, beyond 100-year flood levels (way beyond). They hadn’t built in a foolish place—unless you expect these crazy storms. Odds are there won’t be another for half a millennium. Yet they’ve come three years in a row.

Derrick told their story on the walls. And they had people from each day’s work crew sign a wall. Here’s the collection.

Wall from Derrick Campos's flooded home
The collection was posted on Facebook by Amy Knight

All I can say is, I admire the good attitude and resilience. It’s exemplary of who we are as Texans and Americans. We get to work, and we rebuild.

I spent a week out of town, visiting my son and his family. This was the view of our entrance when I left.

It was still a few days later before water was down to make the roads passable, and people near us were able to get back to their homes and begin the mucking out process, so they can eventually rebuild. On Saturday I drove through those streets. And this was the common sight.

It’s not going to be easy. But the bones of these houses are still good. Sometimes the insides are back to where they were 25-30 years ago, during the original building process—bare concrete floors and wall studs. But a year from now, barring further disaster, the signs of the storm will be hard to see.

This is still my favorite image from 9-11-2001, “Out of the Ashes” by artist Ken Turner. It shows our indomitable America spirit.

"Out of the Ashes" by Ken Turner

There’s no painting or iconic image yet for Hurricane Harvey. But, as a comparison, I’ll use this group of nearly 500 Mormon Helping Hands gathered yesterday morning for a brief church service and then instructions before dividing up into work crews for yet another day of helping their neighbors dig out of the debris. The photo was posted on Facebook by Melissa Willis, and captioned, "Get on your knees and pray, then get on your feet and get to work," quoting Gordon B. Hinckley. 

Mormon Helping Hands from the Bear Creek Stake
Center is Stake President Scott Welch; at the podium
is his counselor, President Dave Hansen

As I’m writing this, we’re waiting for news about how Florida has survived Hurricane Irma. Early reports are that the storm was not as devastating as it might have been; it had been a category 5 hurricane, but by landfall last night was down to a category 1. But that’s still a dangerous storm. So our prayers are with them today. We’re with them in spirit.

I hope the fear of storms doesn’t interfere with our lives. Or the fear of loss. Or the sadness at lost treasures—photos, heirlooms, surroundings. I hope what lasts is the memory of helping one another, of being in this together, rebuilding together.

Because United We Stand.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Through the Deep Waters

I’ve been away from Houston the past several days, helping out family, as planned well before Hurricane Harvey. But I’ve been following much of the labor and service and heartache, and I’m so proud of my many friends who are reaching out and putting in one heavy-labor day after another, at no cost—simply because it has to be done, and we Texans have compassion for those in need.

Disaster relief comes in stages: preparation, getting through the storm, rescue, mucking out, and then rebuilding. We’re at the mucking out stage now. In some neighborhoods, enough of that has been done to get trucks in to pick up the debris. In other areas, houses still have standing water, and the owners are still waiting to get inside. The longer that takes, the more damage, sadly.

Anyway, as you might imagine, there’s no hiring enough workers to muck out that many homes, and many homeowners are unable to do the job themselves. That means, if it’s going to get done, it’s volunteers who will do it. And that’s what my friends are doing.

So I’ll just share a few of their images that I’ve borrowed from Facebook. I want to note that Mormon Helping Hands aren’t the only helpers. We’re two percent of the population, and no everyone has the right age and ability for this job. Catholic Charities is working with us, and there are many other organizations and ad hoc community groups doing this messy work. But my access to friends who are doing this is mostly Mormon Helping Hands.

This first group is from my ward (congregation) Monday. Similar groups (including many of the same people) have been mucking out homes since late last week. 

Mormon Helping Hands from Copperfield Ward on Monday
Several friends posted this photo, so I'm guessing and
giving photo credit to Janet Taylor

Here’s another crew coming from my church building. Their regular church building got a lot of water damage, so they'll be sharing our building for some time.

Mormon Helping Hands from Bear Creek and Westlake Wards on Monday.
Photo credit to Melissa Willis

And here’s another crew from a little way north. They were lucky to have President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, of the First Presidency (a counselor to the Prophet and President of our worldwide Church) show up for services on Sunday—which were short and followed by work crews heading out to assignments. In every way, it was a special Sunday service.

Cypress Stake Center, which had been a command center
for boat rescue, is now a command center for
Mormon Helping Hands. President Uchtdorf
showed up to join them this Sunday.
Photo credit to Mary Moellmer.

If you wonder what mucking out means, it’s tearing out flooring, moving damaged furniture and debris to the curb for pickup, and tearing out damaged drywall from above the flood line so the insides of the walls can dry out completely before rebuilding can be done.
It looks like this.

Photo credit to Derrick Campos, who hasn't been able to get back in
his own house yet, but has spent the waiting time helping other
people do the mucking out. This is the third time his home has
flooded in recent years. Sometimes life isn't fair.
Another photo from Derrick Campos
This is what's happening inside--cutting out drywall.
Another photo from Derrick Campos
Flooring gets removed inside as well.
Photo from Melissa Willis, who had water up
onto the driveway, but her house was spared.
Some friends of mine, the Siebert family, are very talented. Jim Siebert is the meteorologist for the local Fox television station, and he’s the one many of us tuned in to for constant updates during the storm week. His wife, Debbie, is a musician, with a particularly gorgeous voice. They have been doing short Sunday hymn videos for a while—the whole family. They did one this past Sunday. It’s a hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.” It’s a common Christian hymn, although I think many churches use a different tune (“Old Hundredth,” I think it’s called). But they do the one from our LDS Hymns. The fourth verse, which we’ve sung all our lives, has taken on new meaning these past couple of weeks:

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not thee o’erflow,
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee, and sanctify to thee,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
The Sieberts used photos from the disaster and cleanup as backdrop to their song. When they get to this verse, they change tempo and tone, which brought the tears when I heard it—for the sorrow of loss so many are feeling, because of literal deep waters; for the generosity and kindness of so many who are helping others in their need; and for the love that we feel from our Father in Heaven, who promises to be with us, our troubles to bless and sanctify.

We’ve said for more than a decade now, when the Lord wants His people to turn to him, He sends a hurricane to the Gulf Coast. Mormon Helping Hands have been active here since 2005, the year of Katrina and Rita. Would that we would all turn to Him without these painful reminders. But bad things happen even to very good people. When they do, our job is to serve God by serving one another.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

One More Little Story of Hurricane Harvey

During Hurricane Harvey, and even since, we have had an outpouring of concern for us. But our home was never in danger. As I talked about Monday, we’re just north of the Addicks Reservoir, which filled fuller than it has ever been. Ever!

We looked at elevations. The spillway was breached about 108 feet. As that happened, and more water just kept coming, there was an estimate that the level would peak just under 110 feet. Our street level drain is at about 109. Our house is another foot or two higher. Maybe three feet. With water already going over the spillway, it couldn’t get as high as we are without filling every part of Houston lower than about 112 feet.

But it was close. Our usual subdivision entrance has been underwater since Saturday night. We were concerned that the other entrance would be closed and leave us on an island with no way out. But that didn’t happen.

This is usually the entrance to our subdivision. Neighbors were putting up
a line of sandbags, trying to keep it from coming up on our side.

They ingeniously filled garbage bags with sand
from our neighborhood volleyball court.

During a storm like this, the first concern is personal. Are we going to be OK? And then comes concern for others. Since we felt fairly secure, we have been very concerned for many others, many we know that had to evacuate or suffer damage to their homes. A third of Harris County was underwater, which is only just today beginning to recede.

We haven’t left home much, because we don’t have rescue equipment, and it was often better to be off the roadways and out of the way of rescue personnel.

This is across the main four-lane road separating the upper and
lower parts of our subdivision. I usually take this route
to go to the neighborhood pool. Only high profile vehicles
could navigate this relatively shallow part of the main road.
The neighborhood roads are for all-terrain military
vehicles or boats only.

These rescuers are launching from the 4-lane road so they
can go down into the neighborhood. By Wednesday, people
who thought they could stay might be ready to get out.
But that idleness leads to a sort of survivors’ guilt anxiety. It is better to be out doing something meaningful. My prayers had included being guided to know what to do to help.

Yesterday we again took a walk to our entrance, and down the main street along our subdivision fence. The water was a bit higher than the day before. And boats and military vehicles were still doing work to get people out. There are people who would have stayed in an upstairs floor, where they’re safe, but then after a day realize they’d better get out.

As we were walking, we came upon a man sitting on the grass, with five dogs: a Chihuahua, three Dachshunds, and a Labrador. At first we thought he was just out walking the dogs. But as we talked, we learned he was displaced from one of those flooded houses across the street. We ended up driving him out to Katy, and learned more of his story along the way.
We found Dean and his dogs sitting on
the grass, just up from all that water. They took
a boat ride out just a couple of hours earlier.

His name is Dean. He had spent the night in a shelter at St. Maximillian, a Catholic Church about five miles away, where he reported they treated him very well. The rising waters sort of sneaked up on him, he said. He owns another house in Rockport, where the hurricane landed, and he’d been paying attention to that, and worrying about both the house and his friend who was living there. It’s a 100-year-old house they had just finished renovating. (It survived, by the way, while much of Rockport was completely flattened.)

That would have been how he spent Friday and Saturday. It was Saturday night when the torrents really hit in Houston. He hadn’t been that concerned, because he hadn’t flooded during the Tax Day Flood last year, even when several streets of homes near him had. That was 15 inches of rain. How bad could this be?

Then, all day Sunday the waters rose. Monday, water was still rising. By Tuesday he had water in the house. Who knows how long that water is going to stay there, waiting to drain? His house is, for now, part of the Addicks Reservoir.

Tuesday he saw a military vehicle going down the street, and he realized he’d better take the chance to get out. He had no time to take anything with him. He set up the house so the dogs would have food and water upstairs, and he left for the shelter.

Then on Wednesday he came back to see if he could rescue his animals. On the way in, he had to wade through chest-deep water for about half a mile to get to the house. Inside was a mess, but the dogs were upstairs and safe, just worried. He had to wait for an animal rescue boat to get them out, because there was no way to carry all five, and the water was too deep. The Labrador might have been able to swim, but the little dogs—two of whom were pretty old—couldn’t. So they waited for the boat and got on. Fortunately, he was able to take one small bag with him this time.

But then, once out, he had no transportation. And he realized that he had left his cell phone in his back pocket, so it no longer worked. He had planned to end up in his ex-wife’s and daughter’s house, but he hadn’t memorized the phone number; he always depended on his phone to remember for him.

Dean hesitated to ask, but he ventured to see if we had a vehicle that he could put dogs in. We do. We’re dog people, even though we don’t own one right now. We were going to go back to the house with him, to see if we could find the phone number on a computer. But it was about a mile walk back, and those little dogs have very short legs. By the time we got to the open entrance, Mr. Spherical Model decided he’d leave us there and walk quickly back for the car.

In our haste, we didn’t think to bring water or food. Afterward we learned he had been sitting there with his animals for probably two hours when we came upon him. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast at the shelter. We’re sorry about that, Dean.
I-10, also called the Katy Freeway, was
at a near standstill. This was on a low traffic day.
So glad we hadn't been expected to evacuate
the whole city on this road, even though it's maybe
the world's biggest freeway.

The drive to Katy usually takes about 25-30 minutes in good traffic. We had to go out of our way, since the usual route was right through the reservoir and will be underwater for probably the next couple of months. We went east to Beltway 8, south to I-10, and then west toward Katy. And then hit traffic. There was an accident slowing traffic almost as soon as we got on the freeway. And then traffic slowed because water on the road was taking up a couple of lanes. So it took about half an hour to get past that section. The rest of the way was clear, and we dropped him off safely.

Dean isn’t a neighbor we’d met before, even though we’re within a mile, and are essentially part of the same subdivision. At first he seemed a bit muddled, and was having a hard time explaining things or making decisions. Eventually, though, on our way, we learned about his work (in real estate and related work), and he seemed to be thinking clearer. It helped that the answer of where to go and how to get there were finally answered for him.

I wrote down for him the hotline numbers for the LDS Mormon Helping Hands, Catholic Charities, and others who will work together to do recover volunteer work once people can get back into their homes.

South of the Addicks Resesrvoir, water had covered the much lower
feeder road and, despite all efforts, had taken out a couple of lanes of I-10.

Eventually Dean will be OK. And we felt better because we had found a meaningful way to help. It was only one person (and five dogs), and there are tens of thousands of displaced people. I was reminded of the parable about the starfish left on shore when the tide goes out. You can’t save them all, so why try? Because it will mean something to the one you can save.

On our way home, we stopped by a restaurant where Mr. Spherical Model has been doing performance consulting lately. They had taken on a little water and were replacing a piece of carpet. But they were due to open the bar with limited food today, and a limited dinner menu by Friday night. In the meantime, they were making soup and bread to take to shelters. They’d done that the day before and were just getting ready to provide food for up to 300 people being sheltered at nearby Cy-Fair Lone Star College, where several smaller shelters had been consolidated. The workers were upbeat and willing, and excited to be doing what they do best—feeding people.

It will be a while before Houston and surrounding areas are back on firm ground. But spiritually, Hurricane Harvey showed that so many Texans have been on firm ground all along.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Rains Came Down and the Floods Came Up

We’re in Houston. We’re still OK. It’s still raining.

It’s the fourth day of Harvey, although we only got sprinkles on most of Friday. The winds of Hurricane Harvey did most of their damage Friday night further south, toward Corpus Christi. Entire towns were laid low. Rockport hardly still exists. But very little human life was lost, because people evacuated.
Hurricane Harvey, photo National Weather Service

Wind has not been an issue here in Houston, with the storm downgraded to a tropical storm, but it is stalled and swirling. It is rain like we haven’t seen here—or anywhere—since, maybe Noah. (I’m thinking it must have been challenging for Noah and family to have this downpour for ten times longer than we have faced so far. Although they were probably occupied enough with the animals not to obsess about it much.)

Houston is built for floods. The city is at about 30 feet above sea level and very flat. So we have a canal system in and around every neighborhood to take care of runoff. It’s called the Bayou City, which sounds better than the Drainage Canal City. Also, there are areas set apart as runoff reservoirs. Just south of us is the Addicks-Barker Reservoir. In normal times, it’s a very large park, with baseball and soccer fields, camp sites, a tiny zoo, and lots of biking trails. When it rains, it becomes a lake. 

Sometimes water flows onto nearby roads, and traffic gets diverted to alternate routes for a while.

This setup handled Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, Hurricane Rita in 2005 (two weeks after Katrina), Hurricane Ike in 2008, the Tax Day Flood of 2016.

Actually, the Tax Day Flood—before hurricane season, just a freak storm—showed us the limits. This is like the Tax Day Flood day after day. 

Addicks and Barker Reservoirs Elevation

Last night Harris County officials decided to open the dams, for a controlled release. It will relieve some of the water rising on homes near the reservoir, but endangers more places downstream. But if the dam were to be breached, an uncontrolled release would affect those downstream locations even worse. During a press conference a newsperson asked about that, because it looks like officials are choosing whom to flood. But the official just looked at him and said, “Downtown is already flooded.”

Downtown Houston before and after the flood
photo found here

It was surprising how quickly we got back to normal after that April 2016 flood. Water drained. Much of the building material was designed to handle that and was quickly cleaned and serviceable. I don’t know how long recovery will take this time. Water is higher. It’s staying longer. Downtown could take longer.

Many of the homes affected last year went through a months-long recovery process, and homeowners have probably felt uneasy this entire hurricane season. Many of the same people are being affected again. As well as many who were a close call last time.

This is the front door of our beloved LDS Houston Temple
photo courtesy the Haines family,
more information here

Usually we worry about areas closer to the coast, in southeast Houston. This storm is big enough to affect the full circle around the Greater Houston Area. And that’s a big area—bigger than Rhode Island, and twice the population of Manhattan. Random places are affected that haven’t been hit before. And it is an unimaginable amount of water. (This Washington Post story tries to give perspective.)

At our home wee’re at 30.12 inches since the storm began. We got 15 inches in the Tax Day Flood. We got more than 15 inches the first 24 hours of Harvey, but we’re only getting about 9 inches a day since. Whoever thought saying “only 9 inches of rain” would make sense? I've been obsessed with the Harris County Flood Warning System site, which is full of useful graphics and data.

What I’m trying to say is, this isn’t in any way the fault of people who have built in high-risk areas, or who have done less than they should to take precautions. We have learned with every storm, and have gotten better at handling floods. I’m very grateful to both government and private citizens who are going out of their way to rescue and care for people.

Loss of life count on this fourth day is at three confirmed, including where the Hurricane made landfall—or maybe five in some reports. [While I was writing this, a family of six was washed away in their car. Surely the count will go up a bit.] Each of these is important and unfortunate. But at this point 2000 people had lost their lives in Katrina. That difference is stunning.

Looting has been minimal. A story I read yesterday reported two shootings of home invaders, one killed. And the story pointed out that there are 22 million guns in Texas. So, unlike New Orleans after Katrina, looting here is not profitable.

There was no panic to evacuate. Those who needed to evacuate have done it orderly, as needed. More evacuations are happening, including long-time friends of ours this very afternoon. This evening evacuation orders came out for subdivisions just across the main road from us, and just to the west of us. (Actually, our subdivision has been mentioned, but as a warning, not mandatory, if I’m understanding correctly.)

Our church doors have been opened to about a dozen families. Downtown, the George R. Brown Convention Center is taking in 4800 refugees. Somewhere around 30,000 (estimates keep rising) have been evacuated. Thousands are being rescued in boats and by Coast Guard and Navy helicopters. I heard about a search and rescue team from Utah that traveled here to find and save people in trouble. And people with boats have answered the County Judge’s request to go out in neighborhoods to collect flood victims and transport them to shelters.

People who are dry in homes are asking how to help [some suggestions here], and where they can take donations of water and other basic needs. We’ll get more of those as people can be certain they’re safe to go out.

We went out to the Kroger one mile from home—our first time out in the car since Thursday. Some water was on the main road, and pretty deep the direction we weren’t going. But we got what we needed—except eggs, which were not to be found. No bread or water on the shelves, but we have enough at home, and we covered the rest of my weekly grocery list. People were orderly and cheerful, including our checker, who was uncertain whether she would have to evacuate later today.

We’re about five miles north of the Addicks-Barker Reservoir area. And our elevation is just above the top of the levee. I think we’re going to ride this out without damage. We’ve had power the whole time (except for a couple of momentary blips this evening). A tornado touched down about five miles west on Saturday, but tornado alerts are much fewer now.

Tornado Saturday in Cypress
photo from here

Social media has been very helpful. We’ve been able to check in on one another, and get word out that we’re safe. We’ve been able to share photos and information.

It is touching how many people are sincerely praying for us here. People have called and texted to check in on us. Our church does that; we try to make sure everyone is accounted for and needs are assessed. And once that is settled, the next question is, “How can we help?” We’re organized that way. But, really, all of Houston has developed that attitude.

Thank you if you are praying. Thank you if you are looking for ways to help. I’m sure there will be the need for help with recovery for some time to come.

Someone posted a comparison to Charlottesville, or Berkeley, saying that Houston, with people rescuing one another, is the real America. It’s full of love and caring. And we can feel God’s spirit with us as we get through this unprecedented disaster.

SWAT team member rescues woman and her 13-month old
photo found here

As Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner pointed out, even in this dire situation, people have maintained their sense of humor.

Here’s one example.

I found this on Facebook, but it may have come from here.

And here's another:

I found this on Facebook, but I don't know who to credit.

Again, we personally are among the blessed ones still safe and dry at home, for which we are grateful. We are mindful of our many friends and neighbors who will have some big challenges rebuilding their lives after the rain finally stops. Please keep the prayers coming.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

And the Wall Came a’Tumblin’ Down

The 30th anniversary of President Reagan’s memorable speech at the Brandenburg Gate was in June, but his speechwriter, Peter Robinson, switched chairs on his online interview show Uncommon Knowledge, and was interviewed by longtime friend Pat Sajak, which came out just this week.

They talked about the circumstances that led to that line in the speech: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” And it was a piece of history worth revisiting. I’ll share a few bits of the conversation, and then offer the whole interview.

Here’s the story of how a 25-year-old who had never written a speech got a job as a White House speech writer:

Peter Robinson: This is not a story that reflects well on me or on a couple of people we know or on the federal government. After college, I studied at Oxford, you mentioned I got a degree from Oxford. I stayed in Oxford an extra year to try to write a novel. At the end of the year I had a novel so bad that I couldn't stand reading it, and William F. Buckley Jr, the late and great conservative journalist who much to his credit encouraged young conservatives, suggested that I try to go to Washington and become a speechwriter.
It was 1982 and Bill said get in touch with my son Christopher who was then writing speeches for Vice President Bush. So, I flew from Oxford to Washington, presented myself to Christopher Buckley, hoping he might have a lead on a job writing for a member of Congress or for the Postmaster General. Christopher said, “Well, I'm about to leave this job in two weeks and my replacement just fell through. I don't see any good reason you shouldn't write speeches for the vice president of the United States, and while you're here, go downstairs, downstairs in the old executive office building and talk to Tony Dolan who's the president's chief speechwriter.” I did that. While I was talking to Tony, the phone rang. It was the gubernatorial campaign of a man called Lou Lehrman who was running against Mario Cuomo for governor of New York. Tony Dolan, and they needed a speechwriter. Tony said, “Ah, I have just the man.”
Christopher the next day told the Bush people that he found the perfect replacement for himself, yours truly, but that they'd better move fast because Lou Lehrman wanted me. Tony told Lehrman’s people, “I found the perfect guy for you, Robinson, but move fast because the Bush people want him.” So I went back and forth from interview to interview, New York to Washington, and at the end of two weeks they both offered me a job and nobody asked if I had ever written a speech before.

He worked for the Vice-President for a year and a half, and then joined President Reagan’s staff, so he had five years of speech writing under his belt by 1987. And he knew the President’s mind and voice thoroughly by then.

I was looking at the timeline, to see where I was back then, because I'm only a year or two younger. In 1982 I was married and working as a contract writer for a university, writing curriculum. My academic career wasn’t as impressive as Peter Robinson’s, but I was a working writer, which I thought, maybe rightly so, that I was very fortunate. So I can see how fortuitous his situation was. I suspect he had some writing credentials that he underplays here, or he wouldn’t have been so successful once he got the job.

Robinson explains that the practice was for speech writers to be anonymous, so he never made any claims about the speech—or the famous line—for a good decade. But then he had to:

PR: It was Ronald Reagan from beginning to end, and if we get a chance to discuss how it came to be, you'll see that only he would’ve delivered it. In any event, for the first 10 years I didn't say a peep about it. I didn't associate myself with it in any way. Then I discovered that one of the diplomats who in fact had tried to stop it was in Germany where he was then making, he'd been nominated to a high position in Germany and a friend of mine in Germany sent me a German, I had to have a translator, this guy was taking credit for it. I thought, “That's not right. That's just not right.” It was Ronald Reagan and we speechwriters were, it was our job, it was not, it was not an apparatchik at the State Department. I wrote a piece about it then and it turns out that it's all right, it's easy to live with because people only become interested in it about once every five years. I have the feeling that on this, the 30th anniversary, you and I, I’m discussing it now for the last time. I don't think anybody will be all that interested 35 years from now.
Here’s the story of the research that went into the famous speech.

PR: I was there for research. I was only there for about a day and a half. I went around to various sites in Berlin beginning with where the president would speak, and then that evening I broke away from the American party. That is to say the advance men, the press people and the security and so forth, and got into a cab and went out to a suburban home in West Berlin where the Elz-es, Dieter Elz and Ingeborg Elz, whom I had never met before but we had friends in common in Washington put on a dinner party for me of West Berliners, simply so I could get to know some West Berliners.
We chat a little bit and then I said, “I have to tell you that the ranking American diplomat in Berlin earlier today told me, President Reagan's speechwriter, don't make a big deal out of the Wall. They've gotten used to it by now.” I had been flown over the Wall in a US Army helicopter. So I said, “It looks to me as though it would be the kind of thing it would be hard to get used to. Is it true? Have you gotten used to it?”
And there was a silence, and then one man raised his arm and pointed and he said, “My sister lives just a few kilometers in that direction, but I haven't seen her in more than 20 years. You think we can get used to that?” They had stopped talking about it but they hadn't gotten used to it. We went around the room. Another fellow said, “I walk to work by the same route each day. I pass under a guard tower and there's a young man on that tower with a rifle over his shoulder who looks down at me with binoculars. We share the same history. We speak the same language. But one of us is a zoo keeper and the other is an animal. And I've never been able to decide which was which.”
Then our host is a lovely woman called Ingeborg Elz who just died a couple of years ago. She was a lovely woman. She was a gracious hostess, but she became angry and she said, “If this man Gorbachev means this talk, this perestroika, this glasnost, he can prove it by coming here and getting rid of that wall,” and that was—.
Now by this point I'd been in the White House for five years. I knew Ronald Reagan. I don't mean to say that I played cards with Ronald Reagan or that I was a guest at the ranch. Nothing of that kind. The relationship was entirely professional, but we speechwriters, it was our job to know the mind of the president, to watch which material he liked, to understand how he thought, and I just knew the moment she said that, that if Ronald Reagan had been there, he would have responded to that. The simplicity but the power of that remark. So, I put it into my notebook and went back to the White House and that did become the basis for “Tear down this Wall”.
The famous line was controversial. Reagan and his speechwriters liked it, but the other reviewers of the speech especially wanted that line out—too controversial. But Reagan, Robinson reminds us, besides being a genial and lovely man, was also boldly aggressive, and he saw this as an opportunity to press his advantage. He wanted the line. Robinson knew it he wanted it. And so it stayed. And now it is historic.

It’s history we should remember. There’s something really wrong with a government that must wall in its citizens to keep them from escaping. Tearing down that wall—which happened two years after the speech—was a symbol for freedom for all people. If you don't know this piece of history, you really need to hear him tell the story.

I hope you’ll enjoy watching the whole conversation.