But it is often trying times like these that bring out the best in people, and the US is no exception. Officials in Houston, Texas and Washington are preparing for a very lengthy and costly recovery.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbot estimates that Harvey, which dumped more than 50 inches of rain over Houston, caused up to $180 billion in damage. It has also killed at least 50 people, displaced more than 1 million and damaged roughly 200,000 homes. Images of neighborhoods and streets before and after the flooding are mind-boggling.
As one of the richest and most industrially advanced countries in the world, the US is better positioned to handle natural disasters than most countries. There is little doubt that Houston will recover with the help of local, state and federal government.
And while Harvey has shattered the lives of many, there is also little doubt that the victims — and the millions who watched the devastating footage — took solace in the fact that Americans in Houston, Texas and across the US put their differences aside and helped their fellow citizens when it counted the most.
Harvey reminded Americans — indeed people worldwide — that helping those in need is the foundation of every ethos of every civilization since time immemorial. It is certainly a core American value.
It was not long before residents of Houston realized that the unprecedented flooding would make it nearly impossible for local and state authorities to get to every family or person who needed to be rescued or evacuated from their homes. For days, TV screens showed Americans of various races, ages, ethnic backgrounds and religions getting in boats, canoes and jet skis looking to rescue complete strangers. Many succeeded.
But it was not just people who were rescued. So too were pets and livestock, including horses. As Harvey threatened the wellbeing, safety and lives of thousands, empathy and compassion for the sanctity of all life came into sharp focus for many.
The latest display of generosity is nothing new. In 2016 alone, American individuals, foundations and corporations gave more than $390 billion to various charities.
Steve Perez, a 60-year-old police officer who drowned in his patrol car after he left his home to help victims, embodied that selfless spirit. On TV screens and social media, dozens of clips showed people being reunited after one of them had saved the life of the other a day or two before. Strangers had forged permanent bonds.
Images of human chains saving people struggling in the rising waters became ubiquitous. In one of the more dramatic clips, two CNN reporters cut short a live broadcast to rescue a man whose car had been swept in the flooding.
Churches, synagogues and mosques opened their doors to all seeking shelter, without regard for religious beliefs, race or socio-economic standing. Those who were not in a position to rescue others did the next best thing: They volunteered their time by delivering food and much-needed supplies to shelters and other organizations providing assistance.
This volunteer effort included an organization founded by Saudi students, Hand by Hand, which quickly sent students to deliver 300,000 meals donated by Aramco Services to the Houston Food Bank.
While some criticize Americans for being too deferential to celebrities, a number of public figures put their fame and influence to good use. President Donald Trump pledged $1 million to the relief effort, as did actress Sandra Bullock.
Perhaps most admirable has been the effort of J. J. Watt, a football player whose online fundraising campaign has raised well over $18 million in a matter of days. His initial goal was to raise $200,000. This generosity is nothing new to Americans. In 2016 alone, American individuals, foundations and corporations gave more than $390 billion to various charities.
Harvey, like any natural disaster, has caused much pain and loss. We know how many people have lost their lives. It might be a while before we know how many thousands of others have had their lives turned upside down. But many heroes were born out of Harvey — dozens, hundreds or perhaps even more. We know some of them. There are many more we may never hear about. They know who they are, as do the people whose lives they saved.
• Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others. Twitter: @fanazer