Normally I am a pluviophilia, someone who loves rain. I enjoy the mornings when the house is dark and all is quiet outside. With little fear that a random visitor will come knocking on my door I lounge in my pajamas and leisurely eat my breakfast while watching the precipitation fall on my garden. I feel safe and warm and think of how often my mother reminded us to be thankful for the roof over our heads whenever the weather turned frightful. Now that I no longer have to travel to work on inclement days I especially enjoy the roll of the distant thunder and the pitter pat of the raindrops on my roof.
Unfortunately today is not a normal day. My city and my state has been pounded with punishing storms for weeks now. Our waterways are full. The situation is dire in some quarters where rivers are cresting and reaching historically high levels. The price of human pain has been high. People have died, including a group of soldiers whose vehicle was swept away by raging waters. Homes in some areas are being inundated for the second and third times in only weeks. While the view from my window is still lovely I can’t help but feel for the good people in the path of nature’s destructive force. I think once again of my own blessings but somehow feel that but for the vagaries of nature I might be the one seeking refuge with a relative. I long for the sun, not so much for myself but for my Houston neighbors who have had enough.
Mother Nature appears to be on a rampage right now. Even as my city braces itself for the possibility of more flooding throughout today and tomorrow, the streets of Paris are filling from its own storms. The Louvre is closed so that workers might move priceless pieces of art to higher ground. Parts of Germany and Austria are also reeling from the punishing rains. Our precious planet seems to be in a state of feast or famine as some of us drown and others experience crushing drought. I have to wonder what we as people might have done or not done to prevent the unfolding tragedies.
Meanwhile back in Houston we will ask ourselves if the city’s romance with real estate may have gone too far. We now blithely build on plots of land that our ancestors would have avoided. Huge subdivisions spring up on river bottoms or former rice fields. We erect retention ponds, levees and pumping stations believing that we will be protected. Our city is beribboned with miles and miles of concrete, not just on our roads but in massive parking lots and even along the banks of our system of bayous. In our hubris we build and build and build with little regard for the consequences.
I’m a native of Houston and so is my husband. His mother and mine were both born here. We have watched our city change dramatically in our lifetimes. Ironically the places where our mothers lived as children rarely experience problems with floods. Their 1920s era homes are always safe, even in hurricanes. They were built at a time before the city was looped with highways that lured the populace far from downtown. Both of our parents often spoke of playing in wooded areas near their neighborhoods. The city was small and had a more rural feel. My mother’s family even owned livestock. While there were sometimes terrible storms that flooded the streets inside the business district, there was plenty of open land where the runoff might meander without doing harm to people or homes.
When I was growing up our family moved to a neighborhood in the suburbs. It was located just outside of Loop 610 and at the time seemed to be at the far end of city. Our subdivision was built near Simms Bayou, a mostly quiet and meandering ribbon of water that was once home to birds and fish and other creatures. Back then only a few people were willing to tempt fate by building along its banks. For the most part the land adjacent to the waterway was left in its natural state and I fondly recall spending hours inside the woods that graced the area. Eventually the beautiful forest was eliminated as first one and then another home was erected where nature once reigned. Today there are few signs of the serenity that once marked the edge of my neighborhood. It is instead one vast intersection of concrete roads that scar the beauty of Simms Bayou. Now when seasonal rains bear down on that area the streets become impassible and the waters of the bayou encroach on the properties that have tempted fate.
It doesn’t always rain in Houston. We are not Seattle. There have been years when the ground was parched and dry, times when a single cigarette thrown from a car window might set a field on fire. Our lakes and rivers have often faded to low levels that are as frightening as the moments when they crest. With regard to weather Houston has never been an easy place to live. Many of the early settlers died from yellow fever and other diseases caused by the swampy breeding grounds. The area known as The Heights was created on land that towered over the rest of the city. I suspect that if truth be told nobody ever dreamed that Houston would one day be home to the fourth largest population in the country.
We have done our best to create living spaces for the people who have flocked to our city. It has always been a place of opportunity and promise. For the most part the people are friendly and even someone whose entire family history is one of struggle and poverty can make it big here. There was a time when our city was led by visionaries, men who created Rice University and the Texas Medical Center. They actually took the time to carefully plan expansion projects. Now, in many ways Houston is experiencing the fruits of neglect. We worry about potholes in the streets while the movers and shakers of old built dreams. I fear that our city will go the way of other urban centers until and unless we once again envision more than just knee jerk reactions to problems. Building more roads and leaving fewer and fewer open spaces will only complicate the situation.
My son-in-law’s Uncle Don grew up in the same Houston that I did. He loved this city, especially its bayous. He was devoted to showing our citizens the majesty of the waterways that drew people here in the first place. He advocated for returning them to their natural state, the way my mother and mother-in-law remember them. He was not just a quaint dreamer but someone who had navigated and studied the many outlets and the effect that concrete and construction was having on them. He firmly believed that in saving the bayous we would also save our city. He died before realizing many of his ideas but he is remembered to this day for his efforts to redesign the places that he so loved. I suspect that if he were still around he would see the massive problems that we are experiencing this week as more evidence of our tampering. He would urge us to respect the laws of nature believing that in doing so we would actually help ourselves.
I can only pray that the worst is over for our city. I’d like to think that we might learn from what we have seen during the past few weeks but I doubt that this is so. We are a hard headed lot and we tend to just patch things up and move on. There are more potholes to fill and dreams don’t appear to be in fashion right now. I just hope that one day we will finally realize the error of our ways.