Heard on the Hill

Congress’ Hurricane Caucus Keeps On Growing

Sheila Jackson Lee: ‘You’re answering phones. You’re answering questions. You’re giving hugs’

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s district weathered Hurricane Harvey last year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

In the days after a hurricane, a member of Congress is “an information post, a local comforter, a problem solver,” Sheila Jackson Lee said.

The Texas Democrat knows what her colleagues hit by Hurricane Florence are going through. Her district weathered Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

“Any disaster, expect the unexpected,” she said.

Jackson Lee has spoken to Reps. G. K. Butterfield and Alma Adams — whose districts saw punishing rainfall last week — about the flooding that put Houston underwater. The need to act is immediate, she said.

“Your phone begins to ring in seconds and minutes. In Hurricane Harvey, the night before, I was at the command center for the city with other officials, and it was at that time that we really heard that we were going to face an unspeakable or an unusual type of hurricane, which means it was really pounding us and pouring rain and water over and over and over again,” she said. “Like Florence, it didn’t stop raining and it didn’t move from the region we were all in.”

She added, “As we left, the whole area looked like an ocean. I knew that we were in unusual circumstances.”

Still, she had to hit the ground running.

“You’re answering phones. You’re answering questions. You’re giving hugs,” the congresswoman said.

Her advice to other lawmakers? Put yourself out there. Be visible. Be accommodating.

“You can be someone who — as a member of Congress — can be as helpful to your local officials, your constituents, as you possibly can,” she said. “It is important for everyone … to know that the federal government is there.”

And it doesn’t hurt to get creative.

When executives from corporations and nonprofits called her with offers of help, Jackson Lee said “yes.” She also worked with entertainers.

Rolling up your sleeves sends a message too. Sen. John Kennedy wasn’t yet in Congress when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Back then, as Louisiana state treasurer, he rescued dozens of stranded dogs and took them to shelters around the state, a spokeswoman said.

Counting on neighbors to adopt dogs, or lend a hand in general, was key.

“Good Samaritans want to help, and your phone is the one [that] can guide them,” Jackson Lee said.

The first few days after a hurricane are just the beginning. Recovery is painful, and some wounds never heal.

“I do think every loss of life is insurmountable for that family, and it hurts the community as well,” she said.

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