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Analysis: A weather map for Texas’ COVID-19 response

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Gov. Greg Abbott talking at a news conference about the damage done by Hurricane Hanna in Nueces and Kleberg Counties, on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. Credit: Courtney Sacco/Caller-Times via REUTERS

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Let’s get this part out of the way: Nobody likes hurricanes.

But it’s great, after all of these months, to see state and local governments putting most of the politics aside and working side by side to keep people safe during a hurricane season that has already seen two storms land in Texas.

It’s a regular routine by now. Somewhere, there’s a stash of work shirts with embroidered mayoral and gubernatorial patches to be cracked open when the weather is threatening. Not all of them get their hands dirty, but they look like they could if they wanted to.

This is a well-established to-do list — heck, it’s probably laminated by now — that tells everyone in power what their jobs are, who to dispatch, where to ask for money, when to evacuate, where to send supplies and helpers, and when to hold briefings to inform and reassure the public.

It would be great to have something like that for pandemics.

It’s odd to have such a well-oiled machine next to such an unreliable one.

Texas has sputtered in the face of hurricanes before — remember the evacuation hellscape during Hurricane Rita in 2005? But the state learned from it: The evacuations in anticipation of Hurricane Laura this week were smooth and orderly, for the most part, without officials at every level of government trying to get a political edge.

The novel coronavirus has turned out to be a novel kind of disaster, and the response seems completely uninformed by the experiences of floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters. Local and state officials have often been at odds, and every response to the disease seems to have an equal and opposite political reaction.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who generally shines when weather assaults the state, floundered during the first months of the pandemic.

First, he gave local officials leeway to determine a proper response.

Pretty quickly, he overruled local restrictions — including some he thought were too stringent — and put state restrictions in place.

He began easing those much sooner than he had planned, giving up enforcement of his own orders along the way.

He let many of the state’s crowd-attracting businesses reopen. The payoff was a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths — along with a body blow to the state’s economy. He brought back some of those restrictions, closing bars again and restricting crowd sizes elsewhere.

The case and hospitalization numbers are moving in the right direction now but remain at about the levels they were in early July, when Abbott issued a statewide mask order. Deaths from COVID-19 were counted differently before and after July 27, making then-and-now comparisons inaccurate. But about 1,500 Texans have died every week since that change.

Testing has been disorganized and frustratingly incomplete. Contact tracing has been too limited to provide much help.

Maybe the current trends are a sign that state officials are better at responding and reacting to the pandemic now. But even Abbott has raised concerns about the effects of reopening public schools and colleges, about how Texans will behave — or not — over the coming Labor Day weekend, and hurricanes.

“If we can continue the downtrends through those three different challenges we’re dealing with right now, then we will be taking a look at further openings in the state of Texas,” Abbott told Houston’s KTRK on Wednesday morning.

That last worry has merged the state’s established response to weather disasters with its uneven response to the pandemic. Many Hurricane Laura evacuees, who would normally have been sent to convention centers and arenas in cities far from the coast for food and shelter, were sent instead to hotels, where social distancing is easier. In the big shelters, the usual array of cots were farther apart than normal.

And state and local officials worked together, reverting to their weather regimens instead of the politics and intergovernmental bickering that has marked their pandemic responses.

Laura might not be the last hurricane of the season to hit Texas. The governor and the mayors and county judges might be donning their disaster wear a few more times this year, maybe even after the storms pass and all of their attention is back on the pandemic.

They seem to do better work when they have their work clothes on.