Compassion in the time of catastrophe

By Dr. Tony Pham

I am writing this as I wait out Hurricane Harvey from my home, anxiously checking the weather forecast and looking out at the flooded street in my Rice University area home. I have wanted to write a blog post for months now but patient care has left me with no time. Last week, I vacationed in Maine and Massachusetts, where the weather was no less than perfect. I heard about the impending hurricane, and to my relief I was able to get home on Friday, just before the hurricane hit the Texas coast north of Corpus Christi. Both airports have now been shut down, as has virtually the entire city.

Flooded streets around Rice University near my home

I have been reading the coverage of the storm on the New York Times website. It has been called an unprecedented flood catastrophe. People have been stranded in their homes, without medical care or food. You would think that seeing this immense tragedy would evoke a compassionate desire to help. Well, not exactly, not always so. Reading the comments from readers posted online, have I learned the following: (1) We deserved the catastrophe because of our contribution to the oil and gas industry and its contribution to climate change, (2) we deserved it because we are climate change deniers who put Trump into office, (3) we don’t deserve any help because our two senators (Cornyn and Cruz) voted against federal relief for New York after Hurricane Sandy (I did not know, so sorry about this, New York), (4) we have brought the flood on ourselves because of our unrestrained capitalism without regard for wetland and soil preservation, over-building, and over-population on what was once a swamp, and (5) we are racists and bigots who deserve to suffer because we have denied help to the disadvantaged in the form of medicaid and social assistance.

There is always a bit of truth in what others say about us. Yes, it is true Texans are not known as humble people. Yes, our politicians are not well liked outside of the state (Ted Cruz is regarded as the most hated member of the Senate among his peers). Yes, it is also possible that many Texans are overly righteous and judgmental types who believe in self sufficiency and abhor any type of public assistance.

Yet the Texans I know are good people, eager to help out their neighbor, and who would not consider themselves racists or bigots. We can be proud that Houstonians have come together to help each other during this catastrophe. Ever since I have lived in Houston, I have not encountered an incident where I have been treated in an overtly hostile manner because of my race. I tell people that Houston is a moderately progressive, global city, extremely diverse in terms of its cultures, religions, and origins of its residents. We have not had race riots. We have not had marches of neo-Nazis. We have not had the social unrest experienced by many other cities. It is not the most scenic or glamorous place to be, but it does feel like home.

The other, not so good things about Texas, I try to do something about. It is up to each of us to make right the things we don’t like. If you don’t like our dependence on oil and gas, subscribe to wind energy. I signed up for 100% wind-powered electricity and can tell you that it is not more expensive than conventional electricity. If you don’t like sprawl, live close to where you work. If you despair about our climate future, you can make a commitment to conserve energy. You can set the thermostat higher in the summer and lower in the winter. You can opt to live more naturally, in synchronicity with the seasons. If you don’t like racism and bigotry, you can try to treat everyone with kindness and respect. If we ourselves want assistance in our moment of catastrophe, it goes without saying that we should be kind and giving to others less fortunate or less able.

If you don't like our summer weather, head to beautiful Cape Cod

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