[Marxism] A Storm Forces Houston, the Limitless City, to Consider Its Limits

Louis Proyect 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

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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