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Spirit of neighborliness in America post-Harvey

Seasons, a kosher market in Pikesville, collects items for victims of Hurricane Harvey to truck down to Houston. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

As much as anything that may be said to be undeniably American, is the spirit of neighborliness that is evident at times of crisis, most notably when the nation is threatened from abroad, a la 9/11, and when Mother Nature reminds us who is boss, a la Hurricane Harvey.

The deluge that followed Harvey has been of such biblical proportions that even a president given to hyperbole cannot overstate its enormity. This felt like Noah's Ark time, as 27 trillion gallons of water fell on Texas and Louisiana over six days. By comparison, Katrina dumped 6.5 trillion gallons in 2005. Even before the rain stopped, when only 9 trillion gallons had fallen, a Harvard scientist suggested that enough had fallen in a 36-hour period to fill 33,000 Empire State buildings — or 14 million Olympic-size swimming pools.

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The cost of recovery could eventually reach $100 billion; but, for its part, Congress is expected to come through "big-ly," as the president might say, acting on an initial White House aid request for $7.85 billion. In something of a miracle, bipartisanship is expected to emerge after the storm like a rainbow, with the Democrats demonstrating more generosity than Scrooge-like Republicans — including that Texas delegation — displayed after Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast in 2013. Back then Sen. Ted Cruz was a leader in the fight against "pork-barrel spending." Now he's groveling.

One Republican strategist told the New York Times, "I don't think this is going to be a moment where Republicans and Democrats start singing 'Kumbaya,' but it's a pretty big crisis, and Congress can't just do nothing."

Washington miracles aside, the outpouring of assistance from regular folks has been the parable of the Good Samaritan magnified. When J.J. Watt, the Houston Texan football star, set up a fund to raise $200,000, the donations poured in and are now expected to reach about $20 million. First responders and AmeriCorps volunteers from the Baltimore area have made their way to Texas, joining their cohorts from all over the nation. People with flat-bottomed boats and high-water vehicles formed rescue flotillas, plucking stranded people from flooded dwellings — sometimes aided by squads of drone operators steering them to where help is needed. Some of them were organized, like the Cajun Navy; others were individuals who on their own just heeded the call.

That brings me to another thing that can be said to be decidedly American: a desire to know that one's charity is going to those for whom it is meant. "Give to the Red Cross" doesn't cut it with a growing number of people these days, though quite a few media organizations and civic leaders have urged people to send their money to the American Red Cross, as they have done for more than a century.

But, as a 2015 investigation by Pro Publica and National Public Radio and subsequent Congressional inquiries have confirmed, the Red Cross has screwed up billions of dollars in major disaster situations of recent vintage. Largely because of that checkered history, people are seeking alternatives with an emphasis on those actually doing the work in the ravaged areas. Texas Monthly magazine has published a list. The mayor of Houston has set up a relief fund that is administered by the Greater Houston Community Foundation. Some donors are targeting their giving to help take care of LGBTQ people or the elderly or veterans or even pets. The small congregation to which I belong, The Open Church of Maryland, has pledged to help specific families with ties to our members.

For those of us watching from afar, the #AmericaStrong response we are seeing has been a throwback to a time before the time we have found ourselves in.

On hold, if not vanished, are the revived battles of the Civil War of 150 years ago and President Donald Trump's foolhardy insistence that he will shut down the government if Congress does not authorize spending for a wall along the southern border. Not content to leave well enough alone, he is pushing policies aimed at harming people he at one time or another has claimed to "love" — namely, transgender people in the military and undocumented young people who were protected by President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy.

As this storm passes, so too, inevitably, will this period of common purpose. But let's savor the moment and do all we can do for the people harmed by Hurricane Harvey and those who will likely face the wrath of another that's on its way, Hurricane Irma.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.

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