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Editorial: Harvey's destruction will test nation's ability to respond

Even from 1,500 miles away, the suffering inflicted upon millions of people in Houston and other parts of South Texas is heartrending. Torrents of rain have fallen as Hurricane Harvey has virtually stalled over the region, pounding it with wind and water. Thousands of people have had to be rescued as first responders of all descriptions confront the overwhelming demands of an unimaginable crisis.

Consider: Two or three inches of rain in a day can cause flooding in Western New York. Houston got 24 inches in 24 hours, and forecasters say some parts of the region could see as much as 50 inches before it’s all over. That’s cataclysmic. And it’s not just Texas; Louisiana is also at risk of a Harvey-borne calamity.
Matters are likely to get worse before they get better, to the point that the crisis is likely to become the worst disaster in Texas history. Governments must respond as fully and as quickly as possible as lives continue to be at risk.

Among the governments helping out are New York State and New York City. They are sending reinforcements just as Texas, among other states, has done in times of crisis in this state, including the 9/11 terror attacks and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Albany will send members of the state Air National Guard to Texas and Louisiana, while New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is sending 120 emergency workers to Texas.

“After superstorm Sandy, so many cities stepped up to help our people,” de Blasio wrote Sunday on Twitter. “We’ll do all we can to help those affected by this storm.”

New Yorkers understand.

Houston residents appear to have received conflicting advice on whether to evacuate. That is just one of many facets of storm preparation that bear examination and that other states and cities would do well to consider, understanding that their own disasters await.

In the meantime, some 30,000 people could be forced into shelters, at least until the storm subsides and the water recedes. That’s the same number as crammed into New Orleans’ Superdome during Hurricane Katrina and akin to emptying out the City of Tonawanda – twice.

The federal response to Katrina was confused and, at least at first, unhelpful. That was, in part, due to the overwhelming nature of the task but also because of poor preparation. Washington dare not fumble this crisis. It should be focused and thoughtful in how it deploys people and spends money, of course, but it’s not a time to pinch pennies, either.

That was what Washington did after Sandy lay waste to parts of New York and New Jersey. As fiscal zealots began degrading Washington’s commitment to the fundamental tasks of government, Congress sat on its hands while millions of Americans were exposed to the devastation of the historic storm.

That can’t be allowed to happen again. Indeed, it is especially encouraging that New Yorkers continue to understand the requirements of simple humanity, especially in the face of dire need. Congress and the Trump administration must also act quickly.

Whether the severity of this punishing storm is related to a changing climate can’t be known for certain. Severe storms have happened before. But when the storm is record-breaking and is consistent with the warnings most scientists have been delivering for years, it is essential to pay attention and to plan.

Coastal cities will be unwise to assume that Harvey is a one-off.

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