Houston before and after Harvey

November 1, 2017

Houston Skyline. Photo by Om. Creative Commons license.

Despite being the nation’s fourth largest city and fifth largest metropolitan region, Houston is one of America’s least known cities. Petrochemicals are huge here, but the city’s economy is quite diverse. It is the nation’s second busiest port, and the biggest employer is the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical complex in the world with over one hundred thousand employees and ten million patient encounters annually. Within the complex, the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center and the Menninger Clinic are perhaps best known, along with Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children’s Hospital, and the Texas Institute for Rehabilitation and Research (where Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was treated). Houston is the most ethnically diverse major city in the nation, with no racial group in the majority. Visitors are seldom surprised that the Hispanic population is large (38 percent of the population), along with the African American (17 percent), but they often do not expect the very substantial Asian population (9 percent). Along with this diverse population base is an enormously diverse variety of restaurants offering high-quality and often relatively inexpensive cuisine. This is one of the features new Houstonians and long-timers most enjoy. There is a vibrant cultural life, ranging from the Houston Symphony to the Houston Grand Opera to the Houston Ballet, along with major museums like the Museum of Fine Arts–Houston and the Menil Collection, and a very large Museum of Natural Science. The museum district contains many other institutions, including a children’s museum, a health museum, a holocaust museum, and the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum. There is a lively arts and music scene as well.

Houston is devoid of spectacular natural scenery such as mountains and lakes, though it is a very green city with a canopy of trees. Beauty is found in smaller gardens and parks. The typography is flat, the city being built on a prairie, not a swamp, as often inaccurately reported. With no geographical boundaries to expansion, and a creature almost entirely of the automobile age, Houston is characterized by sprawl, and this has resulted in a maze of freeways. The city has no formal zoning policy, but deed restrictions and land use ordinances play the same role: Houston looks like other post-automobile cities. People generally move to Houston because of the jobs, but as they remain, they become increasingly pleased with the convenience of living here and the availability of good restaurants, multiple cultural amenities, and major league sports. Recruiters note that sometimes it is difficult to attract highly specialized employees, but after staying here several years, they don’t want to move. For such a big city it is amazingly friendly. The Houston population is younger than the national average, and it is drawn from across the nation and from abroad, giving it a cosmopolitanism that outsiders seldom associate with Texas.

The attractiveness of Houston as a destination for job-seekers and young homemakers has promoted the population grown and the rampant expanse of home-building. While some housing has been located in regions that should have been recognized as flood prone, most have been located in areas that never before flooded. But of course never before in the nation’s history had rain fallen as it did during the last week of August 2017. Unlike Hurricane Irma, which was tracked as a major storm for more than a week across the Atlantic (allowing time to execute a mass evacuation of some areas), Harvey sprang up quickly in the Gulf of Mexico, seemed destined to be a minor hurricane, and was aimed toward Corpus Christi almost two hundred miles from Houston; then it intensified quickly, and after going ashore, it slowed down, surprisingly meandered north and east toward Houston, and proceeded at a snail’s pace, bringing unprecedented rainfall. Every square foot of Harris County received at least thirty inches of rain, and many sections to the east of downtown received more than forty inches, with one area measuring 64.58 inches! The city had built retention dams beginning in the late 1930s—these are the ones that were recently over the spillways and flooding regions above as well as below them—and excavated huge retention ponds within the last decade or two. Along Brays Bayou, bridges have been raised to speed water flow, and the bayou has been being widened for months now in a major construction project to hold floodwaters. The Texas Medical Center had been fitted with submarine doors at the entrances to pedestrian tunnels and garages to prevent flooding, and similar small-scale projects have been underway around the city. Over the past twenty-five years more stringent control measures (for example, concerning rain run-off) have been imposed on developers, but not enough and too late for some housing developments. It is not true that the city has blithely ignored the potential for flooding, though far more should have been done, and done earlier. But the fact is that no city, especially one built on a flat terrain, can avoid at least some flooding in the face of rainfall on the order of what fell last month. Since the terrain cannot be raised appreciably nor rainfall limited, the city must seek new ways to mitigate the potential for flooding. What is certain is that the can-do spirit of Houston, exemplified by the army of citizen volunteers that turned out to rescue and assist Harvey victims, will begin to accommodate itself to the stark reality of new climate threats. Cities across the South—New Orleans, Tampa, Orlando, Miami, and Norfolk—will have to do likewise. National politicians may refuse to utter the phrase “climate change,” but local officials, builders, and home-owners will, at tremendous expense, begin adjusting their life styles to the new conditions. They have no other realistic options.

John B. Boles, William P. Hobby Professor of History, Rice University, and native Houstonian.

Editor’s note: Readers may also wish to consult Houston Reviewed: A Selected Bibliography. A collaborative effort of the American Historical Review, the Journal of American History, and the Western Historical Quarterly, Houston Reviewed consists of book and film reviews all pertaining to the city, its people, and its history. Houston Reviewed may be read here. The introduction, written by Merline Pitre, a historian and resident of Houston, is reproduced here.