[Marxism] A Storm Forces Houston, the Limitless City, to Consider Its Limits
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 31 07:01:53 MDT 2017
(This article is must-reading. The bottom line is that Houston was a bad
idea from an ecological standpoint. As I will be pointing out in a
Counterpunch article tomorrow, so were New Orleans and New York City
particularly because of their hell-bent drive to remove all of the
natural barriers to flooding such as prairie grass and wetlands.)
NY Times, August 31, 2017
A Storm Forces Houston, the Limitless City, to Consider Its Limits
By MANNY FERNANDEZ and RICHARD FAUSSET
HOUSTON — Not long after a pair of New York real estate speculators
founded this city on the banks of a torpid bayou in the 1830s, every
home and every business flooded. Though settlers tried draining their
humid, swampy, sweltering surroundings, the inundations came again and
again, with 16 major floods in the city’s first century.
And yet somehow, improbably, Houston not only survived but prospered —
and it sprawled omnivorously, becoming the nation’s fourth-largest city
and perhaps its purest model of untrammeled growth.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the disaster played out
in an eccentric anachronism, a city of modest economic heft proudly
tethered to its exotic past. But Harvey has inundated a city perpetually
looking to the future, a place built on boundless entrepreneurialism,
the glories of air conditioning, a fierce aversion to regulation and a
sense of limitless possibility.
The result has been a uniquely American success story, the capital of
the world’s petroleum industry, and the place that sent a man to the
moon, built the world’s biggest medical center and became a model of
dizzying multiculturalism, with 145 languages spoken.
But Harvey’s staggering flooding is raising very un-Houstonian questions
about whether there are, in fact, limits to the Houston model of
perpetual growth, and whether humans can push nature only so far before
nature pushes back with catastrophic force.
Though its breakneck development culture and lax regulatory environment
have been lauded for giving working people affordable housing — and thus
a shot at the American dream — many experts and residents say that the
developers’ encroachment into the wetlands and prairies that used to
serve Houston as natural sponges has inevitably exacerbated the misery
that the city is suffering today.
“There could have been ways to have more green space and more green
infrastructure over the years, and it just didn’t work that way, because
it was fast and furious,” said Phil Bedient, a civil and environmental
engineering professor at Rice University. Many developments were not
built with enough open land or enough detention areas to take in
floodwaters, Dr. Bedient said. “It’s been known for years how to do it,”
he said, “it just costs the developers more money to do it that way.”
The post-Harvey rebuilding drama here is bound to unfold as a frontier
nation increasingly faces up to limits — as southern and western cities
mature, as resources are strained by a growing population, and as
climate change, exacerbated by Houston’s signature industry, threatens
bigger, wetter, ever-more-dangerous storms.
Greater Houston has always been a precarious place for a boomtown. It
sprawls across a flat coastal plain, crisscrossed by slow-moving bayous,
with clay soils that do not easily absorb water. The average annual
rainfall is 48 inches. For years, locals kept track of the hurricanes
brewing in the Gulf of Mexico with magnetic maps hung in their kitchens.
In fact, it was a bold spate of post-storm improvisation that helped
truly put Houston on the map. In 1900, a Category 4 hurricane virtually
leveled Galveston, the nearby coastal port city. At least 6,000 people
were killed. The fear of another direct hit like that helped spur the
dredging of the Houston Ship Channel, a 50-mile waterway completed in
1914 that allowed ships to come up from the Gulf of Mexico to Houston, a
relatively safer inland port.
But Houston continued to go underwater again and again, with a
particularly costly flood in 1929 and another in 1935. In response, the
state legislature, in 1937, created the Harris County Flood Control
District, in an effort to finally build a modern flood-control system.
Eventually, with federal assistance, two huge projects, the Addicks and
Barker reservoirs, were constructed to protect downtown from flooding.
The city grew rapidly in the postwar years, and in an effort to control
storm water and direct the runoff to the Gulf of Mexico, two key bayous
through the city were channelized — essentially converted to concrete
culverts — while a third was widened, Dr. Bedient said. A network of
channels — 1,500 of them, today totaling 2,500 miles — were built to
move storm runoff out of neighborhoods and down to the sea.
But in the end, they may have provided a false sense of security. “And
so the building just went rampant, and there weren’t many controls,” Dr.
Bedient said. “We had no zoning. It was like the Wild West, and you just
built housing subdivision after housing subdivision up close to the
bayous, up close to the channels.”
By the 1980s, Dr. Bedient said, officials came to realize that the
system could not handle big rainfalls: the green space that could have
absorbed much of the water from a big storm was now paved over with
parking lots, houses, churches and malls.
Houstonians felt the impact in June 2001, when Tropical Storm Allison
hit Harris County and dumped 80 percent of an average year’s rainfall on
the area, killing 22 people and leaving behind 73,000 damaged residences
and $5 billion in property damage. Since then, scientists have warned
that climate change could produce rainier, more frequent and more
damaging storms in the Gulf Coast region, turning what were once minor
annoyances into major disasters.
Yet through all of this, metropolitan Houston has kept growing. Though
the region suffered some tough years after the 1980s oil bust, Harris
County, which includes Houston, experienced the highest annual
population growth of any county in the United States in eight of the
last nine years, according to census data.
Developers both responded to and fueled the boom, often doing what they
wanted in Texas’ relatively laissez-faire regulatory climate. In 2015,
the Houston Chronicle examined a sampling of permits issued to
developers, and found that more than half the developers had failed to
follow through on Army Corps of Engineers directives meant to mitigate
the destruction of wetlands.
Two years ago, Erin Kinney, a research scientist with the nonprofit
Houston Advanced Research Center, wrote that 65 square miles of
freshwater wetlands had been lost in the Houston-Galveston Bay region,
largely because of development and sinking land, and that 30 percent of
Harris county was covered with impervious surfaces like roads, parking
lots and roofs.
Much of the development in recent years has occurred on the Katy
Prairie, a vast stretch of land west of town that was once covered in
native grasses and wildflowers, a place where rainwater often pooled
before soaking into the ground or slowly running into creeks and bayous.
Gavin Smith, the director of the Coastal Resilience Center at the
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said some of the land in
the Houston area had been made more vulnerable to flooding because of
the amount of groundwater that had been pumped out of it. That, he said,
actually caused the land to sink, a process called subsidence.
Even before Harvey, Houstonians had become acutely aware that the
flooding question was central to the discussion about their city’s
future — although political solutions have not always been easy to come by.
Critics have debated the efficacy of regulations, dating to the 1980s,
that require developers to build “detention ponds” to store rain water.
In 2010, city voters narrowly passed a major financing mechanism,
ReBuild Houston, to improve roads and an out-of-date drainage system.
But some have bridled at the idea of the new taxes and fees involved,
and the program has been the subject of at least two lawsuits.
New, devastating floods kept coming — on Memorial Day in 2015, and in
April 2016 (the so-called “Tax Day” flood) — killing a total of 16
people and causing more than $1 billion in damage. They were major local
news at the time: “Is this the new normal?” the Chronicle asked in an
April 2016 headline.
The way forward is not clear. In May 2016, Mayor Sylvester Turner
appointed Houston’s first “flood czar,” Stephen Costello, an engineer
and former at-large City Council member. Mr. Costello was too busy with
the unfolding crisis on Wednesday to comment for this article.
Gerald E. Galloway, an internationally recognized expert on flood risk
management and water policy at the University of Maryland, said that
Greater Houston could benefit from effective regional planning, with the
patchwork of local governments working together to take into account
their developments’ effects on their neighbors.
“But that’s not the style in Texas,” Dr. Galloway said. “You drive and
drive and drive, and you’re going from one community to the next. How do
you get all those communities to agree on what needs to be done?”
A number of experts have said that local governments will have to
consider buying out homeowners who live in flooded areas, returning the
land to green space that can absorb the floodwaters. But as Katrina
proved, such efforts can generate tremendous pushback.
And if the region begins to put stricter regulations on building, there
is a chance that one of Houston’s great lures — affordable housing — may
disappear. This is a concern for Joel Kotkin, the urban theorist and
author who has been a great champion of Houston’s lax regulation policies.
“If you put the kind of super-strict planning shackles on Houston, that
would be the way to kill it,” he said. “Why would you live in a hot,
humid, flat space if it was expensive?”
Like many others, he was quick to praise Houston’s energy and optimism,
and said the city would recover. The Texas author Larry McMurtry, a
former Houston resident, agreed.
“Houston will accept anybody who’s got hustle — it respects energy more
than any place,” he said. “Houston is a very resilient city, and it will
Manny Fernandez reported from Houston and Richard Fausset from Atlanta.
John Schwartz contributed reporting from New Orleans, Jess Bidgood from
Boston and Malachy Brown from New York.
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