11 photos that capture Harvey’s heartache and heroism

A driver walks past an abandoned truck while checking the depth of an underpass during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

The term “biblical” has been used repeatedly to refer to scenes of the “500-year flood” in Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Not since Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago have we seen this kind of storm and such widespread devastation.

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Joe Raedle’s photo for Getty certainly has that “40 days and 40 nights” feel. Both major hurricanes riveted the nation and inspired brilliant visual storytelling. But Harvey has raised the visibility of storm imagery to a new level as the first major (Category 3 or higher) storm to hit the US since the birth of Twitter and Instagram.

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From the earliest photos of the unfurling disaster, the images have touched on the broadest range of themes, from the political on down.

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National disasters pose an enormous challenge for any commander in chief. That applies even more to one with the baggage of Donald Trump. Trump was eager to avoid George W. Bush’s disastrous Katrina performance, and was not shy to say so. Even still, POTUS and FLOTUS were pilloried for this photo-op/fashion statement of the couple stepping out of the White House for their Texas disaster outing, Melania in heels and Donald sporting a hat he sells on his website.

The president’s preparation for Harvey actually commenced four days earlier, upon the first meteorological signs. The photo above was published on Trump’s Instagram page as Trump shifted into full PR mode.

Maps and graphs are essential to understanding a major weather event. But the images are arranged in front of a flustered-looking Trump as if he’s playing “which one is not like the other one.” Ultimately, the photo reinforces what is already widely known — that the man is so challenged by complex information, his team has to serve up the coloring-book version. Meantime, the FEMA administrator at right is showing body language that suggests he’s acting as weather tutor. And Trump’s chief of staff looks on nervously.

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Beyond the implications for Trump, Hurricane Harvey has the potential to alter the political, moral, social, and economic landscape of the United States as profoundly as it altered Houston and coastal Texas this week.

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For several years, America has observed from a safe distance as refugees from the Middle East and Africa descended on Europe. Escaping war and famine, boats and rafts filled with desperate migrants have choked the Mediterranean. The photograph above is of a truck, not a boat, but at first glance it’s hard to tell the difference. I imagined Alyssa Schukar’s photo for The New York Times as an ironic allusion to the President’s disdain for the dispossessed. Beyond the analogy, however, the scale of destruction in Texas is sure to alter and expand the national discussion of what and who is a refugee.

A person’s positive prospects in America have always been defined by that open road. Tamir Kalifa’s aching photo, also for The New York Times, was taken after the hurricane on Highway 188. Already beset by innumerable problems, will Harvey’s destruction further undermine the American spirit?

One of the most horrific stories and photos of the historic flooding involved these nursing home residents in Dickinson. As heartbreaking as the photo that circulated on Sunday, however, were all the accusations of “fake news” in so many comment threads. (This CNN article proved the photo was not only real, but the woman are all safe.) Even at the earliest and most heart-rending stage of the disaster, this photo telegraphed how much Houston, and flood survivors, are facing.

Harvey will certainly heighten the debate over the national budget and infrastructure spending.

This photo from Rosenberg, Texas, taken by State Police on August 27 and circulated by the Associated Press, has already been published over and over. We’ll have to wait for a broader accounting of infrastructure damage, from homes and small businesses, to the highways and levees, to larger interests like the petrochemical industry.

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Many photos reflected the region’s racial and ethnic mix. Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the country. As Tanvi Misra wrote at CityLab (via David Leonhardt): “Like in the case of previous disasters like Katrina and Sandy, the heaviest cost of Harvey’s destruction is likely going to be borne by the most vulnerable communities in its path.”

Her article included interactive ESRI maps based on government data from the organization Direct Relief. The maps show the geographic distribution of immigrant and limited-English-speaking populations, and clusters of poverty. She adds that low income, minority communities are the most vulnerable to storm runoff and other fallout from petrochemical plants and superfund sites. And then there are the homeless, who are mostly forgotten in such cataclysms.

It’s nearly impossible to find a Hurricane Harvey photo that depicts homelessness on the major photo newswires, even though the crisis is almost a week old. In fact, between AP and Getty I could find only one, the Getty photo above by Brendan Smialowski, which shows a man sheltering himself from the rain under a highway bridge.

Undocumented citizens in Houston are also immediately vulnerable. Even the very act of photographing them leaves immigrants at risk. You will excuse me for panicking when I saw this photo by Marie D. DeJesus in a Houston Chronicle Harvey slideshow. At first glance, I thought that was an ICE officer directing people around at the makeshift shelter at the George R. Brown Center in downtown Houston. It took me a moment to realize I was only seeing one side of a “POLICE” windbreaker.

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How do you protect vulnerable residents in a situation like this? Journalists are working around the problem by photographing immigrants, or people one might assume to be undocumented, using shadows, silhouettes, and longer lenses. Take the photo above, for example, by Getty’s Smialowski. It leads an Intercept story headlined, “Are Texas shelters safe for undocumented immigrants fleeing Hurricane Harvey?”

It would be unfair to end on a down note. The truth is, photo after photo from this enormous event reveals extraordinary compassion and humanity. This image by AP’s Charlie Riedel was one of them. And what a departure from weeks of images of racially-charged protests, and a divisiveness engendered over the past seven months by Donald Trump’s dog whistle presidency. What Harvey has demonstrated in abundant measure is that lending a hand, or a strong back, is a natural instinct.

There is an unmistakable theme running through the pictures of one of the worst natural disasters in American history. The message is that, given the opportunity, people want to come together. They want to overcome an adverse atmosphere and be part of the common good.

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Michael Shaw is publisher of the nonprofit visual-literacy and media-literacy site ReadingThePictures, an analyst of news photos and visual journalism, and a frequent lecturer and writer on news imagery, photojournalism, and documentary photography. Follow ReadingThePictures via Twitter and Instagram.