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Why Haven't Austin's Floods Drawn Political Attention from State Leaders?

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT News
The American Red Cross hands out hot lunches to residents of the Onion Creek community. The neighborhood was devastated by torrential rains that fell on Oct. 31.

When an explosion leveled the town of West, state and federal politicians descended on the town, alongside state and federal aid workers.

But so far, the deadly flooding in southeast Austin and Travis County has not received the same kind of attention.

So why the difference in response?

Minutes after the West Fertilizer Company storage tank exploded, killing 15 people, state and federal officials responded with aid. The next day, state and federal politicians began to weigh in. 

“It is unfortunate for us that we face both natural and manmade disasters all too often in this state," Gov. Rick Perry told reporters at a post-West press conference. "But the bright side of that is that we’ve got the finest emergency management team in this country." 

What may have been a little less expected,was Attorney General Greg Abbott attending a press conference in West, sounding very much like the governor himself.

“Our first responders don’t run from harm, they run toward helping out. That’s exactly what happened here," Abbott said.

Now let’s fast forward to the Halloween floods in southeast Austin. In the days following the heavy rains that damaged and destroyed hundreds of homes and killed five people, plenty of city and county officials appeared. But none of the state or federal politicians.

A cynic might say the socioeconomic status and ethnicity of southeast Austin was the reason for the different responses.

But Brian Smith, a political science professor at St. Edward’s University, thinks there’s a good reason why Dove Springs hasn’t had any state or federal politicians stop by yet.

"Right now, the City of Austin is the one taking the lead on the flood," he says. "And because of that the federal government and the state government are following the city’s lead. So they’re really keeping hands off."

The only real state action, so far, has been a statement that state officials stand ready to work with local and federal officials on recovery efforts. Which, Smith thinks, is really the only thing Gov. Perry, or gubernatorial hopefuls Abbott and State Sen. Wendy Davis could have done.

“If any of the candidates or any of the elected officials do show up, they could be seen as opportunists in the sense that they’re not really there to help the people but they’re just there for photo opportunities in a disaster area," Smith says.

If a politician handles a disaster well, they can be rewarded at the ballot box. But Smith warns it’s a fine line between compassion and phony opportunism.

Ben Philpott is the Managing Editor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @BenPhilpottKUT.
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