Are we asking too much of Houston’s Good Samaritans?

Susan Keays stands at the water’s edge and shades her eyes to better see an approaching boat. As she holds her cellphone, verifying an address, she quickly counts heads. One volunteer is missing. This morning, they were strangers. Now, they are a sort of family.

She is on Memorial Boulevard, where kayaks and bass boats bob in a river that shouldn’t be. At first, she came to the edge of the flood to save horses. She is staying to save people. 

As a volunteer, she’s amid the jumble of people trying to help the makeshift rescue crews stay safe themselves. 

By profession, she is a business consultant. But on Memorial Boulevard, her face streaked with sweat, she exhorts rescuers to wear life jackets, gauges the stream depth, and cooperates with local law enforcement as boats disperse.

“You could cause someone else harm, trying to save you,” she explains.

Volunteers helping volunteers save lives. If there has been a theme to the first few days after the 50 inches of rain from hurricane Harvey last weekend, that has been it. Call it the Dunkirk-on-the-bayou: the thousands of heroes of Houston. They are not deputized and trained rescuers. They are salesmen, entrepreneurs, teachers, and mechanics. 

And as America witnessed another Katrina-like disaster – the flooding of an estimated 30 percent of America’s fourth-most-populous city – civilian responders have shown an unfettered nimbleness, a rising spirit of can-do-ism, and a self-reliant spirit that helped a government overwhelmed by the storm’s human impact.

The question is whether the civilian army that showed up in Texas is a sign of what’s right or what’s broken. 

So far, there has been no Katrina-like wave of criticism for the federal response. Earlier in the week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott gave it an “A.” Volunteers, it seems, have simply helped the government deal with a disaster of tremendous scope. 

But the challenge of relying so heavily on volunteers comes into focus when their cellphone communications crackle with the question, “There’s looters, should we shoot ‘em?” – as happened this week. Or when volunteer rescuers themselves die, as happened when two were electrocuted by a downed wire. How much is it right to ask of Good Samaritans?

To some, the Harvey response bespeaks a lack of government commitment. But to others, it is an echo of an ethic that existed when the federal government loomed less large.

“Remember, there was no federal response to the Great Molasses…

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