Brinkley: What Houston could learn from Katrina

Story highlights

  • Douglas Brinkley: Flooded areas in Houston can't wait for DC support. Texans with boats need to spring into civic-minded action. Right now.
  • Katrina left 72-hour window to get medical help to those with medical conditions, aid elderly, escape dangerous gas leaks and more. People must get out, he says

Douglas Brinkley is professor of history at Rice University in Houston and author of The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)As the floodwaters rush and rage around greater Houston, as thousands of people are trapped in their homes, as the Coast Guard fights the torrential rain and fierce winds to rescue the stranded, more Texans with boats need to spring into civic-minded action. Right now. No urban drainage system can handle this type of deluge.

Flooded communities can't wait for help to materialize from Washington. That is a terrible mistake. The magic cavalry doesn't always arrive after a hurricane makes landfall. Houstonians have to save Houstonians now (as they're already courageously doing).
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This is especially true because President Donald Trump seems preoccupied with tweeting about NAFTA, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and transgender bans, and shamelessly hawking a sheriff's memoir on Amazon instead of being fully engaged as Emergency-Manager-in-Chief.
    As a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, I saw firsthand how recreational boats — used for fishing, hunting and waterskiing — can become a kind of People's Navy. All boats in South Texas and Lousiana that Hurricane Harvey didn't damage or destroy, those anchored in the marinas of Clear Lake City and Baytown, should be deployed into action.
    This must be done, of course, after checking in with state, local and federal authorities about how your vessel can be best utilized -- extremely important for both safety reasons and to avoid duplication of effort.
    A patchwork flotilla of recreational boats — including dinghies, canoes, kayaks and inflatable rafts — needs to be continually dispatched to rescue scores of citizens trapped in apartments, hospitals, assisted-living homes and scrub-land farms.
    With darkness and the worst flooding yet to come, traumatized victims need to get to high-and-dry ground quickly. Right now 600 boats are being used for rescues — that needs to increase to over 1,000 -- to quickly rescue those in harm's way -- operating on an around the clock basis. Victims shouldn't have to wade through floodwaters and risk being exposed to toxic chemicals, dangerous sharp objects, water moccasins, alligators and rats.
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    A grassroots Lone Star Navy — like the Cajun Navy of Katrina — needs to patrol the hazardous bayous, lakes and rivers of the city, and monitor pocket communities cursed with 2 to 4 feet of water. The more helping hands the better. More neighbors helping neighbors. This is essential to minimize the death toll.
    I learned from Katrina that there is a 72-hour window in the wake of catastrophic flooding to avoid unnecessary loss of life. Electrical blackouts will endanger people who need respirators and dialysis machines. Many paraplegics and elders with Alzheimer's left alone will be in dire straits. Diabetics will need insulin. Forgotten Houstonians with heart, kidney and other serious medical conditions will be crying out for help.
    In coming hours, the danger of natural-gas leaks, which cause fires and explosions, greatly increases. Basement flooding will cause electric power systems to short-circuit.
    And the worst is still ahead. There have already been more than 100 tornado warnings in South Texas, and more are likely. A staggering 25 more inches of rain is expected.
    One of the unsung stories of Katrina was how recreational boaters became true rescue-and-relief heroes. There will be plenty of time to blame Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner for not ordering a mandatory evacuation, and President Trump for playing ill-timed Twitter games while America's fourth-largest city drowned.
    But now, as the roads have turn to rivers, and bayous bleed into strip malls, rescue boats are a desperately needed commodity. The overtaxed Texas National Guard and Houston police crews need citizen backup. In Houston, the Capital of Sprawl, the vulnerable are often hard to identify. Locals might know best where people are marooned.
    The National Weather Service has now deemed the Great Houston Flood a catastrophic rain event "beyond anything experienced." History will mark this as a climate-change event. The panoramic helicopter view of Houston looks like a scene from "An Inconvenient Truth."
    There is an absurd amount of high water everywhere. More than 250 Texas highways are now underwater. Exits on flooded interstates, however, can be used as boat launch sites. Recreational boat owners need to deputize themselves and become first-responders. Mayor Turner needs to keep giving locals proper emergency guidance. More 911 operators are urgently needed.
    Out-of-state help is welcome in Texas. The bell of history has rung, and direct citizen action is needed.