Hurricane Harvey, and Public and Private Disaster in Houston

This article originally appeared on this site.

When Houston floods, it turns into a locked circular labyrinth. The city, my home town, is laid out like a wagon wheel: downtown sits at the center, surrounded by three concentric circles, which are bisected by highways in every direction. The first loop, Interstate 610, is thirty-eight miles long, and corrals the Inner Loop neighborhoods. Another round of suburban neighborhoods surrounds the Loop, and is bounded by the eighty-eight-mile-long Beltway 8. Then, the truly sprawling suburbs (Spring, Sugarland, the Woodlands) surround the Beltway. All told, the Greater Houston Area is gargantuan—at over ten thousand square miles, it’s bigger than New Jersey—and, with upward of six million residents, it’s far more populous and diverse than outsiders tend to guess. Houston is also, famously, largely unregulated: zoning laws are minimal, and the unceasing outward development has, with official permission, drastically inhibited drainage. The freeway system holds the city together, keeping a huge, dispersed population connected. But in a storm this lifeline becomes a trap. Houston is flat, and it sits just fifty feet above sea level; after the bayous overflow, the rain collects on the roads. When a flood hits, driving in Houston feels like a video game turned real and deadly. There are sudden impasses everywhere; ingenuity can’t save you; once the spokes of the wheel go under, there’s nowhere to go.

Houston is the fourth-largest city in America, and right now, much of it is underwater. Things will get worse this week. Tropical Storm Harvey, which made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, is sluggishly lingering, and will continue to pummel the flooded city. Forecasts say that Houston may get fifty inches of rain from this storm—which is the city’s average annual rainfall. Five people have died; many more will be injured. Houston’s safety-net hospital started evacuations on Sunday. The Texas Medical Center, the largest medical complex in the world, closed its submarine doors, designed, after Tropical Storm Allison, to protect the facility from flooding. Local news crews have struggled heroically to report out the disaster; one newscaster saved a truck driver’s life on air. The National Guard saved between twenty and twenty-five nursing-home residents in Dickinson after a harrowing photo went viral. My dad, who got stuck in high water on Saturday night, is one of thousands who have been rescued by Houston police. Harris County has been calling for citizens to help conduct rescues. All over the city, the roads have turned into rivers. Much of what’s visible looks like a nightmare; what makes me even more sick is imagining all the fear that we’ll never see.

People have criticized Houston residents for not evacuating. Plenty did, and with more understanding of the context, you might excuse many of those who didn’t. Evacuating a city like Houston, on these interlocked freeways—where a one-way commute might take two hours on a normal day—can very easily turn into a secondary disaster. The majority of Hurricane Rita deaths in Houston occurred in the evacuation, and two-thirds of flood fatalities happen in cars. Without financial resources, evacuation is a uniquely difficult experience, and 22.5 per cent of the population in increasingly unequal Houston lives under the poverty line. Official messages have also been uneven: Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, advised evacuation; the mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner—likely warding off the worst-case scenario of a hurricane hitting gridlock traffic—advised sheltering in place. (In Rockport, the pro tem mayor issued a mandatory evacuation order, telling people who refused it to write their social-security numbers on their arms.) President Trump, who has been tweeting about Harvey as if it were a thrilling reality-show finale, and who recently rolled back an Obama-era executive order that infrastructure projects be designed to survive rising sea levels, offered a helpful “Good luck to everybody!” on Friday, before the storm.

Eight years ago, I spent all summer driving around Houston’s endless looping freeways, passing picnic-table icehouse bars and stadium churches and the nondescript streets that birthed chopped-and-screwed. I was canvassing for an environmental nonprofit that was pushing for a long-overdue citywide recycling program, and we drove for hours to reach our neighborhood targets. The job was hard: we looked like scammers, and we were proselytizing about environmental responsibility in a city that at the time recycled less than three per cent of its own waste. But I liked the effort of trying to understand and appeal to a dizzying variety of strangers. I knocked on the doors of McMansions and decrepit bungalows, talked to immigrants and Texas-born white people, pitched liberals and conservatives and the politically averse. Houston, which is by one measure the most diverse city in America, took shape in my imagination as an enormous canvas of unpredictable, heterogeneous people who were connected, somehow, by a confusing combination of independence and generosity. As a state, Texas is fiercely individualistic—the land of bootstraps and no income tax and privatized solutions for all. Houstonians absorb this; they are loyal and responsible in a way that rarely extends across the city, which is, again, so big as to feel unfathomable—and those freeways, effectively, are our only public space.

And yet, this week I suspect we’ll mostly see another side of Houston: its scrappy sense of humor, and its extraordinary and very Texan largesse. Houston responds to disaster with fortitude: the city absorbed two hundred thousand Vietnamese refugees in the nineteen-seventies, and it currently resettles twenty-five of every thousand refugees that the United Nations resettles anywhere—that’s more than any other city in America, and more than most countries. After Hurricane Katrina, Houston took in a quarter of a million evacuees, and, aided by Mayor Bill White’s multi-million-dollar resettlement program, as many as forty thousand people stayed. Over the weekend, Houston teen-agers were out in the streets rescuing people via kayak. As Rebecca Solnit argues in her 2009 book, “A Paradise Built in Hell,” disasters create a window into social desire and potential. We’re normally encouraged to think of private life as precious and public life as a nuisance, she writes, but “disasters, in returning their sufferers to public and collective life, undo some of this privatization, which is a slower, subtler disaster all its own.” Disasters remind us that ambitious, difficult things are not just possible but necessary; in Houston, Harvey is already showing how an individualistic work ethic and a spirit of collective generosity can and have to coexist.