Troubled Waters: A Year After Harvey, Has Houston Learned Anything?
A year after Hurricane Harvey brought Houston to its knees, the city is still wrestling with how to prepare for the next disaster. There’s no shortage of good ideas, but in Houston, that’s never been the problem.
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue with the headline “Troubled Waters.”
Before Hurricane Harvey, the buzzword that dominated Houston’s leadership circles was “transformative.” As in, the transformative projects made possible in large part by gifts from energy moguls and other vastly wealthy local citizens: an expansive network of hike-and-bike trails that, when completed, will line the city’s bayous; the dramatic new starchitect-designed Glassell School of Art, which opened alongside the Museum of Fine Arts in May; the thirty-acre, double helix–shaped med-tech research campus that will one day serve as a splendid, sparkly addition to what is still the world’s largest medical center.
Sure, like so many cities, Houston had its financial problems; an ongoing, increasingly bitter battle with firefighters over city pension funds comes to mind. But prior to the storm, Houston seemed to have turned a corner in its self-conception. It was the same place, only different. Still steeped in Texas culture—still possessed of the outsized optimism that has always fueled progress here—but with a global, more cosmopolitan outlook. Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, the undisputed energy capital of the world, had become a place where English was just one of many languages (145, according to some sources) heard about town, where saris and burkas and turbans were as commonplace as cowboy hats and Vuitton bags. If a person was hunting for a sophisticated, tolerant, wholly livable city—notwithstanding the heat, traffic, and humidity—Houston was it. Hence, “transformative.” The magic had happened and would surely happen again and again.
That rosy notion now seems like one from a starkly different age, before August 26, 2017, when Harvey arrived and dumped 1.2 trillion gallons of water on Harris County over the next four or so days. Around forty inches of rain fell on the county during that period, more than the average annual accumulation in the U.S. last year. Though Harvey was defined as a hurricane, it was more importantly a nearly unprecedented flooding event that was, indeed, transformative. In Houston alone, it affected more than 300,000 houses and apartments and about 300,000 vehicles. Property damage estimates range as high as $200 billion. The entire downtown theater district was inundated, laying waste to the fabled Alley Theatre, fresh from a redo; the massive Wortham Center, where the ballet and opera perform; and Jones Hall, home to the Houston Symphony. To the east, the jail and criminal courthouse flooded too, along with a state-of-the-art jury assembly building that had been built, like some other downtown buildings’ electrical systems, underground. To the west of downtown, stretches of the once beautifully landscaped Buffalo Bayou—the 53-mile waterway that was also the site of the city’s founding, in 1836—was a murky, muddy, trash-laden mess. When the rain began easing up a few days later, the only part of downtown that seemed functional was the George R. Brown Convention Center, where storm refugees had begun streaming in before city or county officials had the time to set up any kind of system to process them.
Considering the disaster’s magnitude, the death toll in Harris County was a mercifully low 36, in large part due to the bravery and generosity of Houstonians: people who launched their fishing boats to rescue strangers trapped in their homes or on their roofs, people who raced to the convention center with food, bottled water, clothes, and diapers. There was the woman who used an app to send help to stranded people, the surgeon who canoed to his hospital to perform emergency surgery on a teenager, the midwife who paddled an inflatable swan to help a patient in labor. The national media marveled that the lines of volunteers eager to help flood victims were longer than those in need of help. Local furniture tycoon Jim McIngvale, a.k.a. Mattress Mack, opened two of his enormous showrooms so that the weary could sleep on his recliners and Mack-O-Pedic mattresses. Houston Texan J. J. Watt raised more than $37 million for flood relief. Drenched but safe kittens and puppies made a lot of news.
And when the waters finally started to recede, brigades of volunteers braved the sauna-like heat to help residents salvage whatever was left of their homes and belongings. They mucked out mud that reeked of sewage and ripped out moldy Sheetrock. Street after street was lined with mountains of trash, and not just splintered plywood and soaked flooring but mangled tables and chairs, broken lamps, warped bookcases—the detritus of so many creature comforts washed away.
In those early days of the recovery, Harvey was billed as an equal-opportunity storm. Former mayor Bill White was flooded out of his mini-villa in gated Stablewood just like poor families in rickety slab houses on the north side of town. As people were being rescued from their faux Tudor castles in Piney Point, on the city’s west side, boats were rumbling through poverty-stricken parts of south Houston too. We were all in this together. That was the Houston way.
Today, the landscape has changed, both literally and figuratively. The buzzword most commonly tossed around now is “resilience.” The term is, of course, a nod to the heroic spirit on display after the storm. But if “transformative” had a quick, almost magical ring—all it took was a beneficent donor to whip out his or her checkbook and, presto, another temple to Houston’s grand ambition was underway—“resilience” speaks to a longer struggle, a recovery from something difficult and maybe even dire. Houston today can sometimes seem like a city struggling with a massive case of PTSD. When heavy rains are forecast—a frequent part of life here, especially during hurricane season—people think twice about getting in their cars. There are Houstonians with recurring nightmares that the storm has returned and those who struggle with depression. On For Sale signs across the city, “Never Flooded” is now highlighted as a big selling point.
And so the notion of resilience is just as crucial now as it was immediately after the storm. On the one hand, Houston could become a model for how to take on two of the thorniest issues plaguing cities around the world: climate change and increasingly unaffordable housing (the two are, it turns out, nearly inseparable).
And if Houston shies away from these challenges? Well, the world moves on without it. “Investment and capital can go anywhere these days,” says Dale Morris, a director of strategic partnership for the Water Institute of the Gulf, referring to everything from medical technology to the energy sector. “If the money doesn’t feel safe—if it isn’t going to be protected from flood risk, along with the workers who work there—it’s going to go elsewhere.”
The choice is stark: how Houston recovers from the disaster will determine nothing less than its future.
That Houston sits on the Gulf Coast and is vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding has historically been viewed as a minor inconvenience that can occasionally become major. Because it’s a place where memory is undervalued, few people today remember the flood that devastated the city center in 1935. As a Houston Chronicle editorial noted at the time, “We must not forget this tragedy as we did the one in 1929. Houston has been visited by four serious floods in the last 40 years, each worse than the preceding one. The Chronicle has pointed out repeatedly since 1929 that the . . . development of widespread Houston residential sections, with storm sewers turning floods of water into the bayou after every rain, has steadily increased the hazard.”
“No city in the world was prepared for Harvey, but we are gonna see more of these storms.”
In response, the Legislature launched the Harris County Flood Control District, which partnered with the Army Corps of Engineers to develop a flood-control plan in 1940. The Corps marched into the west side of town and built two dams, Barker and Addicks, which are really more like gigantic reservoirs engineered to capture waterflow from several streams and bayous in the region and prevent downstream flooding in the rest of Houston. A third dam was planned but never completed because, well, the land was considered too valuable to waste on such a project. By then, Houston’s infatuation with growth and expansion had already taken root; the city had long ago abandoned its original plan to use one of its most distinctive geographic features, its expansive tangle of bayous and wetlands, for flood control and green space. Instead, the city—especially the west side—soon filled up with housing developments of all stripes, inhabited by folks who might or might not have known they were living in an area subject to flooding. Beginning in the fifties and continuing through the decades, Houston became famous—or infamous—for being a city that just couldn’t resist putting down pavement wherever possible in the name of growth. As famed architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in the New York Times during the boom years of the seventies, “Houston is all process and no plan. Gertrude Stein said of Oakland that there was no there, there. One might say of Houston that one never gets there. It feels as if one is always on the way, always arriving, always looking for the place where everything comes together.”
It became a city of strip malls and highways and, yes, more and more housing subdivisions with deceptively bucolic names like Cinco Ranch and Spring Brook Village. And all along the way, maps of one-hundred- and five-hundred-year floodplains were never updated to reflect the creeping sprawl, even as heavier rains began to fall. Large swaths of the Katy Prairie, a stretch of coastal grasslands that act as a sponge by absorbing excess rainwater, were paved. And no one seemed particularly concerned that, by 2009, as the Houston Chronicle reported, the Corps of Engineers rated the Barker and Addicks among the most compromised dams in the country. All of this added up to a man-made disaster that left the city vulnerable to the fury of the next big-weather phenomenon.
Some of that came to bear during Tropical Storm Allison, in 2001, and Hurricane Ike, in 2008, both of which brought floods and proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the most sensible purchase any Houstonian could make was a generator (in both instances, people went without power for weeks on end). More recently, the Memorial Day Flood of 2015 and the Tax Day Flood of 2016 brought the city, or at least major parts of it, to a standstill once again. And yet denial continued to win out over any meaningful attempts at remedying the city’s problems: sure, these storms were coming with greater frequency and seemed more intense than the average Houston thunderstorm, which, incidentally, was starting to cause more street flooding than usual. But climate change continued to be seen as something to be reckoned with . . . later. In fact, a study published last year in the journal Science found that Texas and other parts of the Gulf Coast are poised for more climate devastation than areas farther north. Which brings us to Hurricane Harvey.
“No city in the world was prepared for Harvey, but we are gonna see more of these storms,” says Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer, Rice engineering professor, and co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center. A thin, silver-haired seventy-year-old with a folksy manner and a bushy mustache, Blackburn has proposed plenty of novel solutions to Houston’s ongoing ecological issues. “We have to learn to live with water,” he says. “Development in the twenty-first century is all about living with water.”
One of his latest suggestions is to exchange our strong mayoral system, which empowers politicians, for a structure that revolves around city managers. “Let’s get professionals to run the city,” he explains. Blackburn also wants to pay the owners of what’s left of the Katy Prairie to leave their land fallow.
Of course, there are a lot of people here with a lot of good ideas for recovering from Harvey and protecting Houston from future storms. In the past year, innumerable let’s-do-this studies have been published, with titles like “Build It Forward,” “Houston at the Crossroads: Resilience and Sustainability in the 21st Century,” and the surely compelling “Greater Houston Strategies for Flood Mitigation.” Most consist of similar concepts, ranging from the mundane to the spectacular: buying out homes in irretrievably flood-prone neighborhoods, building higher foundations in areas that can be protected from all but the worst flooding, improving drainage, widening bayous for more water retention, creating a flood-warning system, and even—wait for it—limiting development. (Insert “horrified Houstonian” emoji.) A report from the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium summarized the challenge succinctly: “We must recognize that there is no one silver bullet solution to flooding and no single policy or combination of strategies and tactics that will entirely prevent damages from future floods.”
Unfortunately, as is the case so often in Houston, a shortage of good ideas is not the problem.
The area outside Rotterdam, a coastal city in the south of the Netherlands, is not the prettiest part of the country. It’s flat, grassy, and fairly sparse—not unlike the Katy Prairie once was—with the occasional windmill dotting the landscape closer to the city. Like Houston, Rotterdam is a major port, the busiest in Europe. In fact, a Houstonian could feel right at home there, what with all the oil storage tanks and tankers and cargo-laden barges cruising the waterways. In one of those waterways is a curious structure called the Maeslantkering storm surge barrier. According to a travel company that offers tours there, “This impressive construction cannot be described in words, only experienced.” And so, in mid-July, I did exactly that.
Though it’s a marvel of engineering, the Maeslantkering’s function is shockingly simple, almost like an oversized child’s toy. Most of the time, the barrier’s two giant, blazing white arms sit in dry dock. Each is roughly seventy feet tall and eight hundred feet wide, and they flank the narrow Nieuwe Waterweg, which connects the Port of Rotterdam to the North Sea. But with a surge of water, a computer automatically activates the two arms, which stretch across the waterway and link together, fill up and sink, and then become a protective wall against storm surges that might otherwise decimate the city. When the water recedes, the excess water is pumped away, and the arms float to the surface and reopen.
It’s not a very seductive tourist attraction, but the story of its development is instructive for people who, like me, live on the Gulf Coast. Thanks to a spate of post-Harvey articles published everywhere from the HoustonChronicle to the Atlantic, many around Houston know that a) the Netherlands floods a lot, and b) because of that, the Dutch have become the world’s leading experts in combating flooding. Dams large and small dot the entire country, along with other projects similar to the Maeslantkering, which dates back to 1987.
Planning for the barrier began after a horrific flood in February 1953 that killed nearly two thousand people. Almost immediately, the Dutch government set up a commission to make sure such a disaster never happened again, and the resulting project ultimately took several decades to complete. “The Dutch take their time understanding their problem,” says Dale Morris, who before joining the Water Institute of the Gulf worked for twenty years as the senior economist and director for water at the Netherlands embassy in Washington, D.C. “But when they go to build something, they do it more quickly. And when you do it more quickly, you save money by doing it more efficiently.”
The Maeslantkering was the last major project in their grand plan, and the flood technology has since been exported everywhere from New Orleans to St. Petersburg, Russia. “There is not a surge barrier around the world that does not have Dutch engineering in it,” Morris says, which is funny, because people used to say the same thing about Texas oil and gas technology.
In fact, what’s most striking to a flood-weary Texan is not that the Maeslantkering barrier functions impeccably but that it exists at all. It’s the kind of grand project that Texans in general and Houstonians in particular used to be famous for—putting a man on the moon, for instance, or even building a massive, first-of-its-kind indoor stadium.
Of course, in many ways the Dutch dilemma was simpler to solve. Storm surge is by far the biggest flooding concern in the Netherlands, while Houston must also account for the overbuilding problem. The Dutch are also more willing to acknowledge that there are things that only government—yes, big government—can do. As one notable Houston booster and benefactor put it, Houstonians are much more comfortable getting their money from private donors. “That works great for hospitals and museums, but it doesn’t work for this. You have to have government action. The dollars are too big, the infrastructure issues too boring. No naming rights,” he cracked.
A somewhat similar problem existed in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. Recovery efforts languished as city leaders failed to rally support for the kind of public projects needed to properly rebuild. But then disgust with Mayor Ray Nagin—who was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2014 for wire fraud, bribery, and money laundering—resulted in the election of Mitch Landrieu, who was intent on restoring his city. “After a few months of fighting the everyday floods and the drama, we got our heads around a bold vision to do different, transformative things,” says Andy Kopplin, who was deputy mayor under Landrieu from 2010 to 2016 and is now president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation. “What I think we did well in Louisiana was establish a consensus on the political and civic level that we ought to use the disaster as a challenge to all of us to address things that had been unaddressed. We were going to rebuild the city as if we had gotten it right in the first place.” The new New Orleans, they decided, would be more “equitable, efficient, and effective,” Kopplin says. “The only way to honor the loss that we felt was to try to make sure we addressed those challenges head-on and with eyes open.”
The difficulty in today’s Texas, however, is that political consensus seems like a fairy tale. In another time and place, the politics of recovery from one of the worst storms in history would have been more muted, even inaudible. But now the war between the (predominantly blue) city governments and the (staunchly red) state government continues to rage on seemingly infinite fronts. You may recall Governor Greg Abbott’s snide remark in June 2017 (before Harvey) that it was “great to be out of the People’s Republic of Austin.” This prompted a retort from Houston mayor Sylvester Turner in the Houston Chronicle. “It’s time to stop the bashing of big cities,” he wrote.
So it wasn’t surprising that Turner and Abbott would clash over Harvey recovery money. In May 2018 Turner, along with political leaders from other municipalities damaged by Harvey, asked the governor to release aid from the Texas Economic Stabilization Fund, a.k.a. the Rainy Day Fund. “As local officials of jurisdictions affected by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the budgets of our jurisdictions have been stretched engaging in direct response and recovery over the past fiscal year. However, if our efforts for recovery do not include disaster mitigation, then the money we have spent is just funding for future failure,” their letter stated.
Someone familiar with the negotiations said that Houston wanted around $250 million from the more than $10 billion fund. Abbott refused, claiming that Houston had spent only $5 million of the $50 million the state had loaned the city back in September 2017. And besides, said the governor, who has always been a vocal foe of federal handouts, there was plenty of Washington money available that Houston had yet to apply for. “All of the above funding that is already available to you, coupled with the absence of requests for those funds, shows that you have yet to even identify what you want to spend money on,” Abbott wrote. “It is perplexing that you are seeking more funding when you have shown no ability to spend what you already have access to.”
It was as if a teenager had asked his rich dad for an advance on his allowance to pay for a hospital emergency, only to be told he had to spend what he had on hand before he could get more. “How can you tell us we haven’t tapped the money yet when the state has a Rube Goldberg system that requires us to set up paperwork over the next few months?” was the way one city hall staffer described it to me.
According to a former aide to Republican speaker Joe Straus, Abbott’s denial of the city’s requests had everything to do with political expediency. Tapping the Rainy Day Fund was, when it comes to the political right, “the third rail for Abbott,” the aide told me. Anything that might appear to undermine the governor’s unyielding loyalty to his base of no-tax, no-borrow devotees was a nonstarter. (Abbott did not respond to a request for comment.)
And then there is Washington. In the aftermath of Katrina, New Orleans received substantial support from presidents Bush (eventually, anyway, after some notorious fumbling) and Obama. Meanwhile, Trump’s first allocation for storm relief was $36.5 billion. Thanks to teamwork from various delegations, that number was increased in February to around $89 billion. But that amount includes relief for Puerto Rico and Florida (which were also struck by devastating hurricanes last year), in addition to Texas.
This gets at the biggest problem plaguing Houston’s recovery efforts: the intersection of money and politics. In the Netherlands, once the commission agreed on a flood-mitigation project, it was funded right away. Remarkably, no one knows how much federal funding Texas will actually get and, in turn, how much will go to Houston and Harris County. This fact alone could damn Houston’s comeback. As Houston city councilwoman Amanda Edwards explained to me, “You can’t roll out a plan if you don’t have funding. If we don’t have funding, we can’t make this a viable recovery.”
Vi Tran greets her husband, Joseph, after being separated during evacuations from their home in Meyerland on August 27, 2017.
Alyssa Schukar/The New York Times
Flood refugees at the George R. Brown Convention Center on August 28, 2017.
Erich Schlegel/Getty Images
Tom McCasland is not someone who operates in the back-slapping, good-ol’-boy, never-met-a-stranger manner that still characterizes many local, county, and state officials. A runner and a cyclist, he’s aggressively fit, with a long, pale face, penetrating blue eyes, and a somber mien that suggests a progressive Episcopalian minister. He is, in fact, a graduate of Hobe Sound Bible College and has a master’s in philosophy from Baylor and a law degree from Yale. After a lifetime of public service, the 45-year-old McCasland is also the current director of Houston’s Housing and Community Development department. Which is how, on a hot day this June, he found himself in a crowded, dimly lit room with cinder-block walls that serves as a meeting hall for the Texas Organizing Project, a nonprofit focused on voter registration and various social justice campaigns in Harris, Bexar, and Dallas counties.
The audience, almost all people of color, sat in rows of metal chairs and listened attentively to McCasland while babies babbled in strollers and elderly folks wheezed in wheelchairs. McCasland, wearing a navy City of Houston polo, moved through a PowerPoint presentation highlighting changes he hoped to make in housing policies so that “next time it rains here, people don’t die in Houston.”
In the end, the contest between flood prevention and growth had come to a draw. In Houston, that counts as progress.
He has a lot of personal experience to draw on. It was McCasland who, with several close associates, organized and ran the refugee center at George R. Brown from the time the first Harvey refugees arrived until it closed down, three weeks later. McCasland’s devotion earned him community-wide kudos, but he also came down with a serious case of physical and mental exhaustion. He, too, is in recovery mode.
While everyone knows that Houston has a flooding problem, fewer are aware of its housing problem. Houston used to be a cheap place to live; it isn’t anymore. And as the availability of affordable homes has declined, wages have also flattened, even while the city continues to grow. Just as in so many other American cities, the Houston neighborhoods most targeted for gentrification by developers are some of the last affordable footholds for people of color. The expansion of Midtown, for example, has endangered historically black neighborhoods like those in the Third Ward; town house developers saw the restoration of historic Emancipation Park not as a boon to the longtime black residents but as a lure to millennials. Across the country, poor people are now spending around 70 percent of their income on housing. When Harvey hit, irreparably damaging 150,000 or so homes, that squeeze got even tighter for folks in Houston. In other words, Harvey was an equal-opportunity flood only in the earliest stages.
For anyone concerned about the future of the city, this is a major problem: without reasonably priced homes and apartments, the creative class, the middle class, and lower-income people move on, taking their skills and diversity with them. That diverse population has long distinguished the city (google “Houston most diverse,” and you’ll get hundreds of laudatory articles from outlets across the country) and helped burnish its global reputation. Thus, McCasland is trying to accomplish several things at once, including providing housing for those who lost their homes in the storm and making sure they and others like them aren’t priced out of their own neighborhoods in the future.
The novelty of the scene at TOP HQ might be lost on people who live in places where “community engagement”—another buzzword of our time—is more common. In Houston, however, the idea of a city official actually spending time—a lot of time—with the poor and ill-housed, much less a bunch of community organizers, was as rare as a cold front in August. Housing was something for real estate developers and city and county officials to manage; no need for the hoi polloi to get involved. But there in that packed room was Houston’s housing director assuring his audience that he wanted “a system in place to make sure all areas are treated equally.”
Around $1.15 billion in federal aid will be coming into town from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and McCasland wants residents of poor and working-class neighborhoods—like everybody else in Houston—to have a voice in how that money is spent. (New Orleans’s post-Katrina revival has been impressive, but a lot of hardworking folks were gentrified out of their neighborhoods by well-meaning millennials who came to rebuild the city and stayed.) McCasland wants to restore Houston’s affordability, not just for the post-Harvey era but for the long term. “My long term is one hundred years,” he told the audience soberly, which made for another moment of cognitive dissonance—it wouldn’t be a stretch to call Houston the Short-term Capital of the World.
It’s a radical project in many ways. Going forward, he hopes to put in place land trust programs that will limit who can build in certain neighborhoods and what they can charge for homes there, along with a voucher program that helps poor families live in areas with better schools. And for the first time anyone can remember, a public official is trying his damnedest to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table.
Tom McCasland, the director of Houston’s Housing and Community Development department, on August 3, 2018.
Photograph by Tamir Kalifa
Hailey Nelson volunteering with Pastor’s Army, a nonprofit helping Harvey victims, on August 4, 2018.
Photograph by Tamir Kalifa
Of course, McCasland’s purview is limited. He reassured the audience that glitches in FEMA reimbursements are being worked out—some homeowners got big checks, while their neighbors with identical damage were denied. “Two hundred people were served through the FEMA program. It should have served two thousand,” he said. The housing department expects to process about 10,000 applications for Harvey home repairs. McCasland is trying to speed up work and cash flow in neighborhoods where people need it most, but it’s still a slow process. Some of the city’s biggest and most creative local developers have been eager to get into the affordable-housing business, but they are thus far frustrated by the glacial pace.
Others are just as happy to go on as before, building houses in floodplains, contributing to Houston’s urban sprawl—and increasing the prospect of more flooding. Exhibit A is the Katy Prairie. One proposal brought before city council earlier this spring required that new homes built in the floodplain be constructed two feet above five-hundred-year levels. (Post-Harvey research showed that 80 percent of the homes that flooded in Houston could have been saved if they’d been built just a few feet higher.) Then the Kabuki set in: builders claimed the rule would add $32,000 to the cost of an average home, while the city countered that it would be closer to $11,000. Mayor Turner argued that if the vote had “the probability of letting people know in our city and those who are looking to come that we are taking measures to be stronger, to be more resilient, then that’s positive for the city of Houston.” The city council voted 9–7 in a combative meeting to make the change.
“I think Harvey is the moment that could be the turning point for Houston,” Morris told me.
A few weeks later, a big land developer and a big home developer went before the council trying to close a pre-Harvey deal to build hundreds of homes in the floodplain out west. Prices would range from roughly $200,000 to $500,000, which might or might not do much to ease the affordable-housing crisis. Turner agreed to the deal after they had met all the requirements laid out in the new ordinance. Opponents of the project protested that Houston shouldn’t be building in the floodplain at all. Turner stood firm, asserting that the passage of the ordinance showed that builders wouldn’t skedaddle in the face of tighter restrictions.
In the end, the contest between flood prevention and growth had come to a draw. In Houston, that counts as progress.
One of the biggest conundrums in creating a successful recovery is that the public’s enthusiasm for massive projects has a life span of about a year, but it takes a lot longer to actually fund, develop, and execute them. Once the immediate crisis is past, it’s difficult to keep the public invested, even when the prospect of another storm looms large—we are once again in the middle of hurricane season, after all. And as catastrophic as Harvey was, an even worse disaster is still plausible. Slow-moving tropical storms, the kind that dump biblical amounts of rain over an isolated area, are becoming more common, as Dale Morris reminded me. “We have to deal with the reality of these slow-moving, heavy-rainfall storms,” he says. Even still, the language of relief and prevention—words like “mitigation,” “drainage,” “watershed,” and “infrastructure”—just doesn’t get people very excited.
The widest-held complaint from those outside city hall is that the recovery work is somehow both redundant and understaffed. Former city councilman Stephen Costello, for instance, is the city’s chief resilience officer, charged with acting as Houston’s liaison between local, state, and federal agencies and the city to “collaborate and design strategies for resiliency and mitigation of flood risk.” He works on stormwater detention and channel storage capacity, and there’s an Adopt a Drain program that encourages locals to keep their storm drains clear.
Meanwhile, the city also has a chief recovery officer, Marvin Odum, the retired president of Shell Oil Company. Odum has a staff of two, including himself, though he meets weekly with other city staffers who are ostensibly assisting. He was the primary force behind the passage of the ordinance ensuring that houses are built higher in floodplains—future buyers will be grateful. So progress is being made, but what’s missing overall is a sense of cohesion, a sense of shared mission. A committee of Houston’s best and brightest thinkers, similar to the one created by Landrieu in New Orleans, would be a good start. That, and a unified master plan for the recovery, which so far does not exist.
Harvey may have frightened enough people (read: business and political leaders) to try to change not just Houston’s complacency but its culture of denial. “I think Harvey is the moment that could be the turning point for Houston,” Morris told me. “You see the flood consortium really coming up with ideas, you see philanthropy engaged in Houston, you see the mayor and the councilmen as well as the Harris County Flood Control District saying things in the last six to eight months that they weren’t saying before. Something has changed.”
Indeed. Much of the blame for Houston’s problems has fallen on county judge Ed Emmett. With his team of county commissioners, Emmett prioritized all sorts of real estate developments over flood-control projects throughout Houston’s boom years. Emmett, in defense of his actions, told me that the county is not responsible for real estate development. “Harris County only ensures the developments comply with regulations,” he says, which is the point of his critics—that the county was all too amenable when it came to compliance. It was also the county that allowed for housing sprawl on the Katy Prairie, which is outside the city limits.
But this June, Emmett stepped forward and proposed a $2.5 billion bond vote to finance everything from home buyouts to drainage improvements to detention pond construction. “We must take steps now to make our county more resilient,” he said. “Now is our chance to work together to protect each other proactively.” He was promptly criticized by Democrats for purposefully tanking his own deal by scheduling it in August rather than November, when voter turnout would be much larger and broader. Emmett claims he chose the date for several reasons. “First, the November ballot will be long and partisan, meaning the bond measure would be at the bottom, making it difficult to get voters to focus on it. Second, I knew there would be a lot of attention on August 25th because it is the one-year anniversary of Harvey, thereby refreshing voters’ memories of the need for action. The earlier date also ensures access to federal matching dollars that are immediately available.”
After rocky polling in the beginning, it looks as if the bond will pass after all. (“Support Prop. A—because there’s no plan B,” urged a HoustonChronicle opinion piece.)
Other polling shows that pre-Harvey newcomers to Houston are far more willing to pay higher taxes for—yes!—flood and storm protection. Mayor Turner, for his part, remains optimistic. “We are making progress, one ordinance, federal funding mechanism, bayou widening, and home elevation at a time,” he says. “We have already learned how to do things better in dealing with epic flooding.” By way of example, he tells me that the city has acquired more rescue boats.
Clearly, the hardest work is yet to be done, and it won’t happen overnight. “You can’t dramatically underfund the government and expect the government to be a world-class institution the moment you need it,” one city hall staffer working on the recovery told me.
Willow Meadows, a neighborhood just to the southwest of the Houston Texans’ NRG Stadium, is the kind of place where everyone knows their neighbors. It has long been home to a few hundred members of an Orthodox Jewish community; on the Sabbath, they walk together to the synagogue. It was a small but thriving area, neither rich nor poor, like so many in Houston used to be. Then Harvey hit, and along with precious Torahs in the temple, most of the homes were devastated by flooding from nearby Brays Bayou. The resulting damage looked like a bomb blast. “We lost a neighbor who drowned in her home,” said Holly Davies, a warm, foward-looking resident who founded Willow Meadows’ community emergency response team in 2004.
In early August I went for a drive in the neighborhood to check on its progress. Scraggly weeds grew in vacant lots where homes had been bulldozed, and many of the houses had boarded-up windows and doors. Davies pointed out that some residents had lost their life savings trying to rebuild or salvage what was lost. Others were still waiting for help from FEMA, living in homes without Sheetrock or walls. “We need coordinated planning at the state, federal, and local levels,” Davies told me. “Water has no respect for political boundaries.”
Several of the homes that had survived—the ones that were built or raised after previous floods—had For Sale signs in the front yard. “We’ve had people move out who said one flood we could take, two we could manage, but three was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Davies explained. “It’s like a ghost town.”
People had packed up and moved on, taking their resilience with them.
This article has been updated since publication to correct the timeline of a source’s work under Speaker Joe Straus, which was not during Hurricane Harvey as initially stated. It has also been updated to include responses from Harris County judge Ed Emmett.