Ike revealed many things. Houstonians saw the city in a new light--or sometimes none at all. One afternoon we drove around our hot city, fully intact, the next we waded through cool streets with water up to our knees. From the comfort of a diner with a generator, I watched one proud anchor utter the most impressive sentence of his career: "Ladies and gentlemen, this may be the most important cool front Houston ever experiences." True indeed. At least in the wake of his destruction Ike brought down temperatures for those of us sweltering in the bayou. Living without AC in our fetid dark jungle might have gotten ugly: people did better dealing with the eight lane intersections sans traffic light than they did without temperature control in their soggy homes. All in all, we escaped hot but safe.
As with most hurricanes, we had no idea what to expect. Would Ike peal the roofs off our houses or pass as a gentle gust? Should we trample each other in stampedes down 1-10 to Austin or San Antonio or bundle ourselves in bathtubs beneath mattresses? Most of bought canned goods, water and gas and nailed wood against our windows, wondering if we were being paranoid for hoarding and boarding or blasé for not getting out of town.
Before the power went down on Friday Sept 12, I sat in my home watching digital images in green and white of Ike spinning towards land. The slowly turning gyre was moving in a direct line towards my little spot on the map, promising to deliver a 110 MPH right hook to Galveston before barreling into the fourth largest city in the United States.
And while Houston residents hedged their bets that Ike wouldn't sweep away their city, Senator McCain made a wager himself. He offered us a prayer and his thoughts and went on demanding apologies for the tastelessness of lipstick on a pig. "Wait, wait," I thought, watching FOX news and CNN and seeing no campaign cancellations. "Is New Orleans really more important than the city that can actually offer McCain the means to 'drill, drill, drill?'" And of course, New Orleans was, if only for Gustav's convenient arrival at the start of the Republican National Convention.
The comparatively limp reaction Ike elicited just days after Gustav illustrated an unfortunate contrast. I guess the threat of weather only matters when you're hosting a party on prime time. How convenient that the Republican rebel got to be a hero, too: deferential to the forces of God and nature and able to celebrate in the end with the appointment of his snowmobiling beauty queen.
But what if more people had died? What if the storm had knocked down Houston's energy grid? What if the United States had faced a sustained increase in gas prices as a result of this extraordinary act of God? Would McCain have felt sheepish for not canceling all of his campaign plans in favor of Ike vigils? This is not to say that I believe Senator McCain should have suspended his campaign (as he is wont to do) in anticipation of Ike. A prayer and a thought would--and should--have been enough.
But the flourish Gustav's arrival elicited made Houston seem like the ugly stepsister. Of course New Orleans deserves special consideration where hurricanes are concerned: I would never equate the damage Houston could have sustained from a potential Category 2 hurricane to what New Orleans withstood under Katrina's Category 5 strength.
However, if I were running for president, I would keep my agenda on track despite the weather. Unless you're willing to lavish every potential storm victim with equal opportunity fanfare, great gestures of concern threaten to come off as political posturing. Nobody can stop a hurricane from coming, no matter how big of an event gets canceled.
If John McCain had really wanted to demonstrate intelligent leadership, he would have gone on with the convention and donated a percentage of the money raised to New Orleans to rebuild after Gustav. Nobody can stop a hurricane from coming, but everyone can do something to help once it has passed. I'm sure the victims of Katrina and Gustav would have the same reaction as those of us who have just lived through Ike: when you've been displaced and powerless for weeks, political posturing seems quaint and exhausting to follow.