Houston and Harvey – a cautionary tale
I bristle when someone asks, “Where’s your southern accent?”
I have to explain to them that, while located in the south, my hometown of Houston is a huge metropolitan city, a rival in size to Chicago. And it’s an international city, a second home to people from all over the world and capital for international big business.
I’m proud of my hometown. And even though I made the move to Seattle three years ago, I still consider myself a Houston girl.
Houston has finally been recognized as the most diverse city in the nation, more diverse than even New York.
Houston is a place where all walks of life, all nationalities, are welcomed with open arms. Houston is home to the second largest working population of artists, has the second most theatre seats in the nation and has a vibrant arts, culture and culinary scene.
The past few days, I have been watching as Harvey decimated my city.
At first, my friends posted photos of empty shelves in stores. Shoppers were stocking up on water and canned goods – and supplies were running out quickly.
Houstonians are used to rain, pros at weathering a good thunderstorm. My friends were optimistic. They are used to people panicking as well. They do their best to remain calm.
But the downpour was unrelenting this time. Roads turned into rivers. Homes became islands. Some rain gauges revealed records of 50 inches or more.
An article in the Washington Post said the total rainfall in the greater Houston region’s 20,000-sq. mile area was “19 times the daily discharge of the Mississippi River, by far the most of any tropical system ever recorded.”
I watched from safety in Seattle on CNN – worried sick about my family and friends. In Houston, neighbors rescued neighbors. Volunteers came from all around to help.
Tens of thousands of residents continue to pile into shelters. The New York Times reported the death toll climbing to 30 so far.
My friends rejoiced when the rain stopped. They posted photos of the sun peaking through the clouds on Instagram. But when I called, they told me about the new curfew that’s been imposed, the damaged buildings downtown, the loss of homes and property, the inability to go to work or school.
USA Today said Harvey “could be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history with a potential price tag of $160 billion . . . equal to the combined cost of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.”
How will Houston – and the nearby Texas towns -- handle that type of blow? For a minute, I’m taking comfort that my friends and family are safe and sound. But it only lasts for a moment. I’m worried about their jobs, their living situations, the schools. I’m worried about the theatres and galleries filled with water – and how that will affect the arts. I’m worried about the pollutants released from refineries and chemical plants along the port. How will that affect the local environment, the water supply, the ocean?
I know Houston is a resilient city. I know that the people there will join together and get through this.
But that’s not the point.
In 2005, I was living in Houston when Hurricane Rita hit. Only since I’ve moved to Seattle, did I realize it’s a storm most of the country doesn’t seem to know about.
The hurricane was actually stronger than Katrina. When you wonder why people didn’t evacuate from Houston for Harvey – Rita is the answer.
The highways of Houston were so crowded with people fleeing from that storm the traffic flow ground to a halt. People ran out of gas. Some even died in their cars.
Then three years later, I was living in Houston when Hurricane Ike struck.
We lost power for a month. We were stuck home with curfews. We couldn’t get food or water or gas. There are reports that 37 people died in the storm. Galveston was shut down and beachside towns were completely wiped out.
After Rita and Ike, my friends and I all believed our lives were changed. We vowed to keep our pantries storm-ready, our gas tanks more than half full. We were going to buy generators and camp stoves. We wanted to be better prepared.
But that all stopped when the fear faded away.
I believe similarly, the city itself threw caution to the wind. Developers built along the bayou.
Government officials, along with leaders of industry, discussed taking proactive measures to protect against storm surges and floods – but did nothing.
Arguments continued to wage about whether global warming exists – even as rising sea levels were evident in the city’s more frequent floods and increasingly strong storms.
As a country, haven’t we all become a little too complacent as well? Aren’t we all a little too surprised whenever we’re hit with a natural disaster?
Have we considered the safety of our drinking water, sewage treatment facilities, highway systems and mass transit routes – are they in harms way? And will they continue to function during a disaster, natural or manmade?
Maybe you think Houston is just some city 2,000 miles away. Maybe you think that the only way this story applies to you is as an appeal to your pocketbook, an appeal to your heart to have some sympathy.
But really this story should serve as a parable, a forewarning even.
How are we as a nation preparing for the long-term effects of global warming? Are we truly considering the environmental impact of constant development, ever-expanding pavement?
Are we building safely and investing in needed safeguards for industry? Or are we just doing the minimum? Being reactive instead of proactive?
Houston is not the only city in the U.S. placed perilously close to the ocean. Look at those maps displaying the cities and regions will be under water in the next decade. Where will all those people go? And will you – or the people you love -- be among them?