It’s true that the city of Houston floods, and that flooding affects large numbers of people whenever it happens. What is not necessarily true is that the floods that we see are something new in the grand scheme of Houston city life. As a matter of fact there are recorded incidents of inundated streets from time to time dating back over one hundred years. Both my mother and my mother-in-law spoke of witnessing Mother Nature’s soggy fury in their childhoods. The city’s proximity to the Gulf of Mexico which is only about fifty miles away makes it vulnerable to violent storms that dump indescribable amounts of rain in a short period of time. Add to that the countless bodies of water that dot the landscape and a recipe for periodic trouble emerges.
Before World War II Houston was a rather small town. Neighborhoods ringed the city center which has the highest elevation in the area. People studied the behavior of the bayous and the patterns of storms and built homes accordingly. To this day it is extremely rare for the houses near where my mother and mother-in-law grew up to flood. There was a certain care taken in choosing a site on which to build a homestead but the war created a demand for oil and Houston became a boom town with its location near production sites and its port to deliver the products.
The growth of Houston necessitated new neighborhoods and the new suburbs were sometimes built rather hastily with little regard or knowledge of flooding patterns. Nonetheless there was still so much open land that drainage was often accomplished by vast open fields. In the meantime the population continued to expand so that more and more of the raw land was being developed into roads, businesses and houses. The prosperity continued without any sign of slowing all the way into the nineteen eighties and with it came construction in areas that previously might have been considered unsuited for safe habitation. The old timers had always had a sense of where the water might flow in a big storm, but the push for expansion negated all of their concerns.
All of the places where I lived as a child in Houston often became islands when big storms came but literally they have never once taken on water inside. Not Allison nor Harvey nor our most recent Imelda have encroached on them. My husband’s experience has been the same. Many of the places around town that flood regularly were built from the nineteen sixties to the present. They were erected on land too close to bayous and river ways which made them attractive in dry spells but posed danger when the rains came. The demand for housing created more and more risk taking thus increasing the likelihood of damage and loss when the inevitable storms come our way.
My husband lived within walking distance of Interstate 45 and remembers when it was being constructed. He used to watch the construction crews create the roads and the overpasses. In the evening when they went home he rode his bicycle on the unopened highway. He pointed out that the massive system was actually designed to serve as a place for water to go when it rained so that the side streets in the neighborhoods would be spared. Whenever he sees images of a flooded freeway near his home he notes that the construction is working as it was supposed to do. His old house is always high and dry and the addition of that massive expanse of concrete has actually protected it from harm.
It has only been recently that there have been serious discussions about how to deal with the big storms that are certain to rage over Houston and flood the streets just as they always have. The question becomes how we might manage to provide housing that will withstand the effects of the weather. It is apparent that some areas will need to be turned into parks or wildlife refuges and construction will need to take storms into account. Hunkering down in safe conditions until the rains end is not all that inconvenient, but having to repair thousands of homes that fill with water is unnecessary and untenable.
Stricter rules about where and how construction takes place have to be considered. Advanced drainage systems should be installed. More land needs to be left open. Bayous should be deepened and widened. The city should invest in studies and partnerships with engineers in places like the Netherlands where once historic flooding has been virtually eliminated with modern technologies. There are things that can be done with a bit of imagination and sacrifice if only we have the will.
Houston proves again and again that it is a magnificent city because of its people. When disaster strikes ordinary folks come to the rescue without regard to race or socioeconomic status. Nobody riots or loots or burns places down. Instead they rise to the occasion again and again. Perhaps the time has come to think of improvements that might prevent some of the destruction. It won’t be easy and it will cost a great deal but the investment will make Houston stronger in every conceivable way. Our ancestors understood the dangers from the periodic flooding. They built for safety and long lasting value. With all of the modern technology that we have we should be able to do things even better than they did to transform this glorious and worthy city into a model of human ingenuity.