Houston Has Got a Problem

The catastrophic flooding in Houston is going to get a lot worse in the coming days – especially in its poorest neighborhoods

I posted on social media Friday night – and reiterated on KEXP Saturday morning – that Harvey directly hitting Houston would be a worst-case scenario as natural disasters go, because the city is so badly situated (and unplanned) to deal with catastrophic flooding – built on swampland, nowhere for floodwaters to rapidly drain, and no way to move around (let alone evacuate) the millions who live there.

The worst case is happening in real time now. The flooding is already horrific, and as Harvey inches along, the forecast is for four or five more days of rain – at least two or three feet of more rain to come (beyond the 20 inches forecast for today alone), to go along with the torrential rain it’s gotten already.

Most of the flood photos I’ve seen so far are from relatively affluent parts of town: the areas along Allen Parkway and Buffalo Bayou (which always floods in heavy rain), I-610, the Galleria neighborhood, the Montrose, etc.

But as with New Orleans 12 years ago, some of the worst flooding with rainfall like this will be in the poorer black (Third Ward) and Latino (Second Ward and East End) neighborhoods on the east and southeast sides of town. In Houston’s case, the problems won’t end once the rain does: as rainfall and floodwaters from other parts of Houston and areas upstate sloooowwwly make their way to the Gulf of Mexico, mostly without the benefit of river banks, those are the neighborhoods that will be inundated. What the emergency response will be like in the poor, non-white neighborhoods likely to be hit the hardest? And will the local, national, and international media even notice, or will they be too busy training their cameras on damage downtown and the pricey homes in, say, Hilshire Village?

The financial costs of Harvey, especially in Houston, are likely to be record-breaking – but those poor neighborhoods are where the risk of loss of life is going to be highest. Keep your eye on them. And not coincidentally, this is also where the risk of serious environmental damage (along the Houston Ship Canal in the Second Ward) is greatest; and, once mosquitoes have their delirious, end-times breeding orgy in all the stagnant water afterwards, such areas are also the risk of outbreaks of third world diseases like malaria and cholera are greatest as well. (When I lived in Houston, I taught industrial hygiene at the Univ. of Texas School of Public Health there; don’t even get me started on the state of Texas’ approach to environmental and public health spending, which has gotten even *worse* in the intervening years.)

At least 100,000 mostly poor, mostly black people who were evacuated from greater New Orleans and “resettled” to Houston in the wake of Katrina still live in Houston. I can’t begin to imagine what they’re feeling right now.

And like New Orleans a dozen years ago this Tuesday, the rest of the world is going to watch Houston’s human drama and be astonished at how ill-equipped, slow, and indifferent to human suffering a city and country of such wealth can be. I wonder if ICE will be grabbing people from the emergency shelters.

As with New Orleans, what would already be a bad situation is being made far worse by past political choices. When sprawl, no zoning (and almost no urban planning at all), and climate change intersect, this is what it looks like.

We’ll see how much the Texan and Trump governments care about Harvey’s poor and non-white urban victims. I hope everyone who needs help gets it.

I’m not optimistic on that point.

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I’m a low-income activist, disabled, and dedicated (despite money and chronic health pressures) to reporting and commentary from and for those of us fighting to stay in a city, Seattle that has turned its back on many of us. Since 1996 I’ve also offered news and commentary, with my colleague Maria Tomchick, Saturday morning at 8:30 on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle.

If you find my reporting and analysis valuable – and would like to help me spending more time doing this and less time scrambling to pay for my food, rent, and medical care – please consider donating whatever you can to help support my work. The PayPal button is on the lower right on geov.org’s home page. Many thanks for your help! – Geov Parrish

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