Naming a storm in the Gulf of Mexico during hurricane season can be like playing Russian roulette. Sometimes an endearing, even musically named storm turns lethal in a sudden atmospheric spin. Take Hurricane Rita, for instance, a category 5 tropical storm that in 2005 brushed past Houston while inciting deathly traffic congestion as Houstonians attempted a massive yet futile vehicular evacuation (fearing a repetition of the fate visited on New Orleans by Katrina three weeks earlier). Or Hurricane Ike (2008), which swept through Houston with militant thunder, targeting every electrical line in its path.
Now comes Harvey, a monster storm pounding Houston with almost 50 inches of rain in four days (the total precipitation the city normally receives per year), a slow, stalled, lingering deluge that spooked the indomitable capital of energy, the fourth largest city in the United States.
Harvey also exposed the extent of the damage brought on by years of unmitigated development in flood-prone areas, initiatives fueled and manipulated by the unquenchable appetite of developers, whose vision of a sustainable city goes no farther than a single mortgage cycle. Their rapaciousness sanctions Houston’s lack of public planning and its political resistance to land-use regulation. This single-minded dedication to short-term financial gain (ruthless capitalism at its best) results in long-term human and economic costs to society, which feed exponentially on natural disaster in the way that a hurricane expands when it encounters warmer air and water. Now that Hurricane Harvey has become one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States in economic terms, a more attentive and demanding public might challenge Houston’s unwillingness to, as a friend and colleague said in jest, “to call in the Dutch.”
The God-given imperative of individualism at any cost that drives Houston must give way to a more sustainable enterprise of collective benefits and survival skills, skills that depend on improving Houston’s infrastructure but also on reclaiming permeable wetlands from the horizontal concrete surface that the city aspires to morph into. Destruction of the magnitude of Harvey and refusal to heed the warnings of climate change have not only economic but also ethical and philosophical consequences for the future of the city. To ignore these consequences is tantamount to elevating ignorance to a new level of irresponsibility.
The world saw Houston’s fragility before nature but also the effects of the ideology of no planning. Our city can take solace in the generosity of countless volunteers coming to the rescue of citizens trapped by rising water. But if the song of Houston’s native son Johnny Nash – “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone” – is an optimistic elixir for a city humbled by water, the song’s next line might prove more daunting: “I can see all obstacles on my way.”
Carlos Jiménez, professor at Rice University, lives in Houston.