The alligator in the water. On Hurricane Harvey and the lurking threat to the Texas way of doing business.

An alligator moves along flood waters from the Guadalupe River spilling over Texas Highway 35, Friday, Sept. 1, 2017, near Tivoli, Texas. The river carries water left by Hurricane Harvey. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Good morning Austin:

Yesterday morning, our two senators appeared, one after another, on the Senate floor, to talk a little bit about Hurricane Harvey.

Cornyn, the senior senator and number two Republican in the Senate, went first.

He reeled off numbers to suggest the dimensions of the storm and its path of destruction.

And he also took a literary turn.

From a 2015 piece in the New York Times Sunday Book Review by Walter Isaacson – On Walker Percy’s Theory of Hurricanes. 

Walker Percy had a theory about hurricanes. “Though science taught that good environments were better than bad environments, it appeared to him that the opposite was the case,” he wrote of Will Barrett, the semi-autobiographical title character of his second novel, “The Last Gentleman.” “Take hurricanes, for example, certainly a bad environment if ever there was one. It was his impression that not just he but other people felt better in hurricanes.”

xxxxxxx

“Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, N.J., on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon?” Percy wrote in one of his essays. “Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?” Part of the answer is that when a hurricane is about to hit, we no longer feel uncertain about our role in the world. Everyone is focused, connected, engaged. We know what we’re supposed to do, and we do it.

 But Percy’s theory about the redemptive power of hurricanes goes beyond the fact that dangerous situations allow us to become action heroes or saints. “True, people help each other in catastrophes,” he wrote in “Lancelot.” “But they don’t feel good because they help each other. They help each other because they feel good.” The hurricane blows away our alienation. “I knew a married couple once who were bored with life, disliked each other, hated their own lives, and were generally miserable — except during hurricanes,” Lancelot recounts. “Then they sat in their house at Pass Christian, put a bottle of whiskey between them, felt a surge of happiness, were able to speak frankly and cheerfully to each other, laugh and joke, drink, even make love.”

Cornyn didn’t go there. He was speaking even as the House was about to approve the initial $7.88 billion in Harvey aid and probably didn’t see how that image would help.

And, anyway, it was Cruz’s turn to talk.

Cruz also did some Harvey-by-the-numbers, some recounting of the individual and communal acts of extraordinary heroism in the thick of the storm, and painted a vivid word picture of some Harvey scenes.

 

This was the frame of much of the official reaction, from President Trump to Gov. Greg Abbott on down, that everything is bigger in Texas and that a Texas-sized storm requires a Texas-sized federal response, which Abbott has projected could require as much as $150 to $180 billion from Washington, the $7.88 billion approved by the House yesterday merely a good faith down payment. (The Senate was expected to approve nearly twice that amount Thursday, making it a $15.25 billion relief package.)

The governor and Sens. Cornyn and Cruz have praised the Trump administration for its swift and sure response to the disaster, and expressed confidence that it will continue to make sure Texas gets everything it needs as quickly as possible.

And yet, as the headline in the New York Times put it yesterday,  Hurricane Irma, One of the Most Powerful in History, Roars Across Caribbean

What if Irma is as bad or worse than Harvey? Would Washington be able to keep the same focus and commitment to Texas?

On Wednesday I listened to a truly bracing interview on the Texas Standard with Jim Blackburn. co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disaster Center at Rice University.

“First of all, we need to know what didn’t flood,” Blackburn says. “That’s going to be the spine of future development.”

In parts of the city where flooding has occurred often, government needs to step in, Blackburn says.

“There are areas that have flooded multiple times. I think we’re going to have to buy out a lot of the homes that have been flooded three times, four times in the last several years, and just remove them from harm’s way because we’re not going to be able to protect them,” he says.

But listen to Blackburn and the truly frightening part is that Harvey wasn’t hardly thew worst-case scenario, that Houston and Texas are still vulnerable to a far, far more devastating storm, one that could lead to the greatest environmental disaster in American history.

Blackburn and his colleagues at Rice were among the sources for the extraordinary Texas Tribune/ProPublica report last year: Hell and High Water: Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country. It’s home to the nation’s largest refining and petrochemical complex, where billions of gallons of oil and dangerous chemicals are stored. And it’s a sitting duck for the next big hurricane. Learn why Texas isn’t ready.

From Hell and High Water:

If a storm hits the region in the right spot, “it’s going to kill America’s economy,” said Pete Olson, a Republican congressman from Sugar Land, a Houston suburb.

Such a storm would devastate the Houston Ship Channel, shuttering one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Flanked by 10 major refineries — including the nation’s largest — and dozens of chemical manufacturing plants, the Ship Channel is a crucial transportation route for crude oil and other key products, such as plastics and pesticides. A shutdown could lead to a spike in gasoline prices and many consumer goods — everything from car tires to cell phone parts to prescription pills.

“It would affect supply chains across the U.S., it would probably affect factories and plants in every major metropolitan area in the U.S.,” said Patrick Jankowski, vice president for research at the Greater Houston Partnership, Houston’s chamber of commerce.

Houston’s perfect storm would virtually wipe out the Clear Lake area, home to some of the fastest-growing communities in the United States and to the Johnson Space Center, the headquarters for NASA’s human spaceflight operation. Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses there would be severely flooded.

Many hoped Ike’s near miss would spur action to protect the region. Scientists created elaborate computer models depicting what Ike could have been, as well as the damage that could be wrought by a variety of other potent hurricanes, showing — down to the specific neighborhood and industrial plant — how bad things could get.

They wanted the public to become better educated about the enormous danger they were facing; a discussion could be had about smarter, more sustainable growth in a region with a skyrocketing population. After decades of inaction, they hoped that a plan to build a storm surge protection system could finally move forward.

Several proposals have been discussed. One, dubbed the “Ike Dike,” calls for massive floodgates at the entrance to Galveston Bay to block storm surge from entering the region. That has since evolved into a more expansive concept called the “coastal spine.” Another proposal, called the “mid-bay” gate, would place a floodgate closer to Houston’s industrial complex.

But none have gotten much past the talking stage.

Hopes for swift, decisive action have foundered as scientists, local officials and politicians have argued and pointed fingers at one another. Only in the past two years have studies launched to determine how best to proceed.  

A devastating storm could hit the region long before any action is taken.

To know that Harvey hit and that it wasn’t nearly the big one is frightening, and, as taxpayers from across the country are asked to foot much of the bill for our state’s recovery and rebuilding, questions will be raised about why Texas hasn’t done more, isn’t doing more.

From the Washington Post on Aug. 29: Houston’s ‘Wild West’ growth. How the city’s development may have contributed to devastating flooding

Houston calls itself “the city with no limits” to convey the promise of boundless opportunity. But it also is the largest U.S. city to have no zoning laws, part of a hands-off approach to urban planning that may have contributed to catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Harvey and left thousands of residents in harm’s way.

Earlier this summer, after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s comment that “all of problems in America” were in cities and they were run by Democrats, I called Steven Conn, a historian at Miami University in Ohio, the author of Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century.

The book has a great chapter on Houston –  The biggest, boomingest city of them all – from which I quote here at length.

Conn’s recounting  the history of Houston’s resistance to zoning is fascinating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I spoke to Conn yesterday about Houston in light of Harvey.

I think plenty of people at this point have said that Houston got what it deserved, or Houston made these choices and now has to live with them. The specter of Ted Cruz saying he really didn’t vote against the Hurricane Sandy money that he was misunderstood, etc. etc. 

One of the points I made in the book and that I would stress here again is that Houston, as much as any other place and more than some, was a place that was built by the federal government, so this notion that this was all independent cowboys who just happened to strike oil at the turn of the 20th Century is kind of a crock. The federal government has always been involved. It’s been involved since the building of the canal, since the locating of NASA facilities there, etc., etc.

Maybe this is a time to reckon with  the dependence the city has always had on public money and particularly public money that comes from Washington since that’s now what Congress is going to be debating. 

Conn noted the difference between the $7.88 billion Congress appears ready to approve and the $180 billion Abbott says Texas may need.

That’s a large gap between those two figures. So, we’re going to see how this plays out.

It was Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, William Cohen, who was a Republican, it was his wonderful line about how the federal government is always the enemy until you need a friend and that more or less sums up the situation that people in the Houston area now find themselves in. And so it might be a nice time to sort of reckon with all of this as a historical phenomenon, not a one-shot, we’re having trouble right now. It’s the highway spending, it’s all the infrastructure spending. it’s all the things that made Houston what it is.

About two years from, three years from now, what’s going to happen to people’s insurance rates as Houston moves forward? There are a couple of major actors in the whole climate change discussion that don’t get a lot to attention and one of them is the insurance industry, who see climate change coming like a freight train and are adjusting premiums accordingly.

And so, it may be the case that it’s not a good idea to build in those areas that get flooded repeatedly. It may also be the case that if you want to build there, the insurance on that will just be astronomical when this is all done and so, yes, those market forces may come back to bite some of this development in the ass.

The other thing that will unfold over time, which is related to this, is the question of environmental damage left over from various plants, refineries and what-not and maybe it won’t be quite as bad as some people are fearing, or maybe it will be, but at a moment when environmental regulations and enforcement are on the chopping block, you’ve got people who are worried about what just plumed into the water because some plant just caught on fire.

In the meantime, Cruz’s bracing image of that alligator on the flooded road where he found his faith may fade as the horror and exhilaration of Harvey subsides, and we can return to Walter Isaacson’s contemplation of Walker Percy’s theory of hurricanes.

The problem with storms is that they pass. After the winds subside and the earth begins to heal, the malaise and alienation creep back. The last time I saw Walker Percy, he made that point. He was fighting prostate cancer, but he faced his end with the inner calm of the deeply faithful. As he sat on his dock, his face was as placid as the Bogue Falaya, rippled occasionally by a smile. He reminded me of what had happened with the couple in Lancelot. “After the hurricane they took a good hard look at each other on a sunny Monday morning and got a divorce.”

But I think that Hurricane Katrina, which struck 15 years after Percy died, was an exception to the second part of his theory. It jolted New Orleans so brutally that even a decade after the waters receded, the malaise has not crept back in. Instead, the memory of Katrina and the excitement of having to rebuild something better continues to keep people in New Orleans engaged and connected. There’s an edgy creativity that comes from the shared aftertaste of danger, a sense of community that comes from knowing you’re in the same boat.

Surrounded by alligators.

Reader Comments 0

0 comments