With all of the sturm und drang of last night I didn’t get much sleep. I could tell that we would be fine here at Casa Burnett but I was worried about people that I know who were reporting that they were stuck on Houston Freeways. We didn’t get as much total rain as Tropical Storm Allison but what did come down came very quickly and overwhelmed the drainage systems. All of that made for a frightening evening for lots of folks and many of them are still attempting to find a way to get home.
We seem to have feast or famine here in Texas when it comes to the weather. It wasn’t that long ago that I was commenting that there were too many places where the vegetation had turned a crispy brown color due to lack of precipitation. My what a difference a few weeks make! This spring has brought us rainstorm after rainstorm and our local waterways are full to the brim.
My guess is that Houston has always been like this. My mother told me about a time when she was just a child when downtown Houston streets were filled with water after a big storm. She and my mother-in-law remembered hurricanes and rains that turned into major events. I too recall times here and again when the road in front of my childhood home became a lake. We always celebrated the fact that our house had been built on a terraced lawn so that it was not level with the street. It was a fortunate situation on more occasion than one. The major thoroughfares of Houston were sometimes impassible but my brother was like a trekker when it came to finding ways to get around on side roads that tended to stay high and dry. With a bit of ingenuity we always seemed to be able to get from one place to another even in the worst conditions.
Houston of course is ribboned with bayous that were once wild and beautiful. My mother and her brothers swam in Buffalo Bayou and played along its banks as children. Sims Bayou ran through my neighborhood and it was the site of many of my childhood explorations. There were still plenty of places for the water to drain back then. Sometimes we would see huge fields that looked like lakes. There wasn’t much damage because nobody had not built anything there. That was back when the population was under a million people and the freeway system was still in the making.
My husband, Mike, lived a block off of Cavalcade near what is now I-45. He remembers a time when that now inadequate highway had not yet been built. The area where it now stands was wooded and quite lovely. He often played in the shade of the trees. Several members of his family lived nearby. They had homesteaded back in the early years of Houston and had chosen their land for its beauty. It was heartbreaking to Mike’s elders when the bulldozers came and pushed down the trees and began building the concrete behemoth that would eventually change the face of their once beautiful neighborhood. Mike had fun riding on the concrete ramps before the freeway was opened. He would race up and down on his bicycle. Soon enough the traffic came and nothing was ever quite the same after that. On this day after a night of driving rain I-45 at North Main and Patton Street are littered with cars that were consumed with water during the storm. It is as though the bayous have conspired to remind Houstonians that they were here first and that they should have been respected.
When the first people came to Houston they encountered swamp-like conditions. Many of them died from yellow fever. The place was filled with mosquitoes that thrived in the standing water that always seemed to be present. The Houston Heights were built because of the higher elevation that allowed for better drainage and healthier living conditions. Today people refer to anything that is located even remotely near to the Heights as being part of that neighborhood but those of us who are old timers know that it is really and truly a very specific area that is truly the Heights. My mother-in-law grew up just north of downtown Houston. She was always able to tick off the exact names of every neighborhood in the area and she was meticulous about insisting that we refer to each section properly. She was like an encyclopedia of the history of Houston and she was able to tell stories about virtually every part of town.
I presently live in west Pearland. My mother-in-law remembered visiting friends “out in the country” not far from where my home is located. She spoke of riding horses and seeing herds of cattle. She once told us that after hurricane Carla she drove around to see what kind of damage had occurred and near what is now highway 288 there were unmoored boats floating in floodwaters that had drifted into Pearland all the way from Freeport. She also spoke of seeing rice paddies in what had once been the number one production area for that crop in the entire world. It was located right here just a few miles from where I live.
My guess is that Houston was never meant to hold over four million people. We’ve had to build in areas that our ancestors would have questioned. We attempt to engineer our way out of trouble but when we have an especially bad storm like we did last night somebody is bound to suffer the consequences of our hubris. We’ve worked on our bayous so much that they have become concrete laden monsters instead of the lovely natural wonders that they once were. My mama always spoke of the wild magnolia trees that perfumed the air along their banks and of the amazing wildlife that skittered under the canopies of the lush flora. One of my father’s cousin began collecting arrow heads along White Oak Bayou when he was a boy. Just a bit of digging revealed treasures from those who had once peopled our city.
We’ve already let the genie out of the bottle here in Houston. Instead of attempting to invest in the neighborhoods that have withstood the test of time we have had a tendency to abandon them and move farther and farther out, requiring more and more roads to get us where we need to go. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of vast eternal plan for making our city really work and we have scarred our bayous beyond recognition. We fix things haphazardly and then scratch our heads in wonder when a major storm wreaks such havoc.
Mike and I actually took a small tour of southeast Houston just yesterday. We had gone to Forest Park Cemetery to leave flowers for my dad and on the way back we noticed that I-45 was crowded, no doubt with folks driving to Galveston. I showed him how to take a route along the side streets of the area where I had grown up as a girl. It saddened me to note just how shabby that once gloriously wonderful part of town had grown. I wondered why we just move away rather than repairing and improving. It was actually depressing to see just how much things had deteriorated. I could not help but wonder why we are such a throw away society.
We fared well here in Pearland. I imagine that my former home near Hobby Airport did okay as well. It always stayed high and dry even in the worst of situations. I still miss that old place and feel guilty for criticizing others when I too moved out into the suburbs rather than attempting to hold the line in the place that I called home for over thirty years. Maybe it’s time for all of us who live in the Houston area to demand that our city fathers finally develop a plan that will improve the quality of life for everyone. We need to study our infrastructures and find ways to improve drainage in the worst areas. We need to ask ourselves how best to conserve and respect our bayous while also taking the needs of nearby residents into account.
Houston and its surrounding area is still full of potential just as it was back when the first people answered the call from eager real estate hucksters wanting make a few bucks. Somewhere along the way we let progress overwhelm us and we turned our backs on the areas that were struggling to keep pace. The problems that we saw last night really can be fixed if only we have the will. Houston deserves to be a beautiful city not just in the area near Rice or Memorial but all over town. We need to take a closer look at places that were once quite nice and see what we can do to return them to their glory rather than moving farther and farther away. We need parks, drainage systems, mass transit, and fewer stretches of concrete. That’s how nature intended it. That’s what we need to consider.