Troubled Waters: A Year After Harvey, Has Houston Learned Anything?

Aug 22, 2018

Before Hurricane Harvey, the buzzword that dominated Houston’s leadership circles was “transformative.” As in, the transformative projects made possible in large part by gifts from energy moguls and other vastly wealthy local citizens: an expansive network of hike-and-bike trails that, when completed, will line the city’s bayous; the dramatic new starchitect-designed Glassell School of Art, which opened alongside the Museum of Fine Arts in May; the thirty-acre, double helix–shaped med-tech research campus that will one day serve as a splendid, sparkly addition to what is still the world’s largest medical center.

Sure, like so many cities, Houston had its financial problems; an ongoing, increasingly bitter battle with firefighters over city pension funds comes to mind. But prior to the storm, Houston seemed to have turned a corner in its self-conception. It was the same place, only different. Still steeped in Texas culture—still possessed of the outsized optimism that has always fueled progress here—but with a global, more cosmopolitan outlook. Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, the undisputed energy capital of the world, had become a place where English was just one of many languages (145, according to some sources) heard about town, where saris and burkas and turbans were as commonplace as cowboy hats and Vuitton bags. If a person was hunting for a sophisticated, tolerant, wholly livable city—notwithstanding the heat, traffic, and humidity—Houston was it. Hence, “transformative.” The magic had happened and would surely happen again and again.

That rosy notion now seems like one from a starkly different age, before August 26, 2017, when Harvey arrived and dumped 1.2 trillion gallons of water on Harris County over the next four or so days. Around forty inches of rain fell on the county during that period, more than the average annual accumulation in the U.S. last year. Though Harvey was defined as a hurricane, it was more importantly a nearly unprecedented flooding event that was, indeed, transformative. In Houston alone, it affected more than 300,000 houses and apartments and about 300,000 vehicles. Property damage estimates range as high as $200 billion. The entire downtown theater district was inundated, laying waste to the fabled Alley Theatre, fresh from a redo; the massive Wortham Center, where the ballet and opera perform; and Jones Hall, home to the Houston Symphony. To the east, the jail and criminal courthouse flooded too, along with a state-of-the-art jury assembly building that had been built, like some other downtown buildings’ electrical systems, underground. To the west of downtown, stretches of the once beautifully landscaped Buffalo Bayou—the 53-mile waterway that was also the site of the city’s founding, in 1836—was a murky, muddy, trash-laden mess. When the rain began easing up a few days later, the only part of downtown that seemed functional was the George R. Brown Convention Center, where storm refugees had begun streaming in before city or county officials had the time to set up any kind of system to process them. Story continues here.