Saturday, December 31, 2005

Dallas declares Houston "Texan of the Year"

In an absolutely amazing display of setting aside city rivalries, the Dallas Morning News has declared Houston its "Texan of the Year" for 2005 (headline, article - goes to print in tomorrow's Sunday edition).
In 2005, Houston became the heart of Texas. For resilience, resourcefulness and good old Texas neighborliness on a scale that did the whole state proud, Houston is the 2005 Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year.

To this day, an estimated 150,000 survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita call the Houston area home, and surveys show that most of them plan to stay. When Katrina hurled them, battered and destitute, onto Houston's doorstep, Houston met the challenge with the largest shelter operation in the nation's history. Singling out Houston is no slight to the scores of other communities that opened their arms to the storms' victims, including those right here in North Texas. They, too, performed nobly and deserve vigorous applause. But the demands on Houston, by dint of simple geography, were of a stunningly higher magnitude.

Talk to the people at the center of the relief effort, and, over and over, you'll hear words that echo those of Issa Dadoush, the city of Houston's director of building services: "These are Americans. They're our neighbors. If not Houston, who else?"

Or, as Harris County Judge Robert Eckels said, "We had no choice. It was just something that needed to be done."

To get it done, "we" became far more than government. The extraordinary effort depended on churches, companies, nonprofits and tens of thousands of ordinary people. Commandeered by fate, they responded with the very qualities that distinguish a Texan of the Year: trailblazing, independence, staring down adversity, and affecting or influencing lives.

In the office of Houston Mayor Bill White's chief of staff sits a large, glossy sign that admonishes: "Put Your Smile On – Company's Coming." It's a souvenir of the city's PR campaign before the 2004 Super Bowl. It's also exactly the mind-set Houston's leaders summoned after the call came from the governor's office to Judge Eckels at 3 a.m. on Aug. 31: A convoy of buses bearing traumatized survivors of New Orleans' Superdome would strike out that day, bound for the Astrodome.


He understands the magnitude of what's been accomplished: Starting from zero, "we have created the largest housing authority in the country." But, like the officials who hired him and did their utmost to insulate his bureaucratic restraints, he's relentlessly modest about their collective achievement.

"This became an urgent, compelling priority," he said. "When the floodlight is on, it's easy to succeed."

The mayor's aide, Mr. Moore, echoed that theme. "People kind of got it," he said. "This was bigger than us."

Bigger than Katrina. Bigger than Texas. Houston continues to perform a national service by modeling the virtues of local initiative and challenging Washington's missteps – most recently FEMA's decision to end the housing voucher program several months early, on March 1. Mr. White has joined that battle with the same energy he has shown throughout the crisis.

One of the latest Houston initiatives is a program that reflects the city's entrepreneurial pedigree: The Greater Houston Partnership is offering help to hurricane survivors who want to rebuild their businesses in their new hometown.

With the new year comes Houston's Phase III. So few empty apartments exist in Houston that Mr. White recently was forced to declare the city full. Now, attention shifts to the lives under the roofs, to helping guests become integral members of the community. Whatever challenges arise, Mr. White, Judge Eckels and others insist that they will succeed.

Says Judge Eckels simply: "We will rebuild, one life at a time."
The end of the article has an interesting set of three sidebars of ways to look at the crisis: by numbers, by personal initiatives, and by personal enounters.

A separate article describes the editorial process for the selection:

We shifted focus to who among these 12 should be Numero Uno, the celebrated top Texan of the Year. Surprisingly – and in sharp contrast to last year's experience – this was a relatively easy decision.

One board member made an impassioned argument for the city of Houston, which he called "the nation's shock absorber" for how warmly it took in tens of thousands of Katrina evacuees, only to wrestle itself weeks later with the onslaught of Hurricane Rita. Others nodded in agreement. Smiles broke out in the room for the first time in hours.

One board member cautioned that citing Houston might seem dismissive of the thousands of Dallasites who stepped up generously to aid thousands of Katrina and Rita evacuees. Others persuaded him that we should be able to recognize another community's monumental generosity without trivializing our own.

Think order of magnitude, we said. Degree of difficulty, volume, storm path.

The choice became unanimous.

Even though I have an obvious pro-Houston bias, I try to stay balanced, fair, and friendly when discussing "rival" cities like Dallas. If I ever have a bad day and start Dallas-bashing, I would appreciate my readers gently reminding me of this day. Thanks.

Also: Many thanks to Erik for the pre-publication tip.


At 9:03 PM, January 02, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


BIGGER print please ~ for my old eyes. Friend of Barry's (Klein)
Tom Beach

At 8:19 AM, January 03, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I apologize, but Blogger doesn't give me much control. Your browser has an option though to enlarge fonts automatically, which you may find helpful.


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