As I write, pictures of the flooded streets of Houston are leading news broadcasts throughout the twenty-four-hour news cycle, and more rain is predicted. The power of visual rhetoric is clear as certain photos go viral on social media: a fireman carrying two small children to safety through waist-high water, another catching a few minutes of sleep with his boots still on, water covering portions of the first floor of the world-famous M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, people carrying their pets as they wade through the flooded streets of their neighborhoods. There is scene after scene of people helping people—first responders of all sorts, the National Guard, the “Cajun Navy.” One photo shows private vehicles towing boats lined up to go to work helping rescue the stranded. A television station loses power, and a lone reporter keeps broadcasting from the street outside, taking time to direct first responders to a man trapped in his truck nearby.
At this point, the flooding is catastrophic, but we seem to have learned some things from Katrina because the rescue efforts seem to be more organized. An iconic picture from that disaster showed seventy-four-year-old Edgar Hollingsworth, a black man, being carried from his home fourteen days after the hurricane, aided by rescuers male and female, white and Hispanic. An iconic pair of pictures that appeared in an earlier edition of Elements of Argument showed a young black man carrying food through the flood after “looting a grocery store,” while another showed a young white couple doing the same after “finding bread and soda from a local grocery store.” Yahoo!News had to issue an apology for the suggested racial bias. Today I saw on Facebook the first photo of looters taking advantage of the opportunity offered by Harvey. I am reminded of Guy-Uriel Charles’s essay “Stop Calling Quake Victims Looters,” written in response to a recent earthquake in Haiti. A Haitian American, Charles questions our right to define as looters those who following a natural disaster take needed food from a store when there is no one there to pay even if the banks were open to get money. Contrast the man whose picture I use to illustrate that essay, who is carrying a large carton of infant formula, with those in the picture I saw today taking armloads of clothes still on hangers. (Crudely painted signs following Katrina read, “U Loot, We Shoot.”)
I’m sure that the stress that comes with days of no electricity and the loss of homes and property will bring out more of the negative side of human nature, but as Texas cities and towns—and maybe some in Louisiana—begin coping with the catastrophe that is Hurricane Harvey, images of people of all ages and races and vocations helping each other has been an encouraging contrast to all of the recent ones of Americans facing off in anger and violence across political barriers.