The Nation Should Invest in Houston — But Not the Way Texas Will Want to Do It

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, whose most important issue is bathrooms, is not the person who should decide how to rebuild Houston, especially not with other people's money.
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, whose most important issue is bathrooms, is not the person who should decide how to rebuild Houston, especially not with other people's money. Gage Skidmore
At some point in the weeks ahead, Congress will commit the nation to an immense investment in Houston and Beaumont/Port Arthur. The opening bid from the White House last week was almost $8 billion in federal funds, probably a mere fraction of the ultimate disbursement.

The country should view this as a great investment opportunity. In the aftermath of Harvey, the world has witnessed the tremendous spirit and broad shoulders of this region, not to mention the enormous economic engine humming at its heart.

But the last thing the country should do is let the White House or, God truly forbid, state officials in Texas decide how to spend the money. Before handing over a check for tens of billions of dollars, the nation needs to take a good hard look at what that would mean.

The governor of Texas, a gender- and immigrant-bashing, far-right-wing pot-stirrer, makes President Donald Trump look like FDR. The lieutenant governor, whom some people believe to be more powerful than the governor, is a shock-jock radio host who faults the governor for not being crazy enough. What does any of that mean for hurricane recovery?

Everything. Here’s the question: invest in Houston to do what? To learn from Harvey and build back in a way that reflects new wisdom? Or just hand Houston and Texas huge sums of tax money so they can dish it out to their developer cronies and rebuild Houston as exactly the same kind of unsafe Wild West hodgepodge it was before Harvey?

Even smart people — persons who are not Tea Party wackadoodles like the people running Texas right now — have trouble getting their minds around the problem. They can’t bring themselves to say what needs to be said about building back Houston.

Don’t do it. Don’t do it the way it was. What the nation needs to do with this enormous investment is use it to spur the creation of a new kind of Houston. Houston’s got the heart. It’s got the broad shoulders. It has the brains and the muscles to be a better, smarter city. Invest in that.

A good example of a smart person not getting it was an essay written by Henry Grabar for Slate last week. He argued that Houston’s lack of zoning was not at fault.

“No city is or should be designed to accommodate a one-in-a-million-year flood, which is what Harvey turned out to be," he said. “If our probabilities about the likelihood of such storms are wrong because of climate change, and it sure seems they are, that's a separate problem and one for which local planners shouldn't be held accountable.”

OK. They’re not accountable. And?

“Widening the bayous to 100-year-flood protection level,” Grabar went on, “would have required buying 30,000 acres of land, displacing homes, and digging up 8.7 billion cubic feet of earth. It would have cost $27 billion. That is obviously impractical.”

Wait. Hardening Houston to resist climate-change disasters like Harvey is “obviously impractical” because it might cost $27 billion? But the estimates for Harvey damage at the end of last week were at $200 billion and climbing.

Andrew in Florida in 1992 did $48 billion in damage; Sandy on the Atlantic coast in 2012 was $70 billion; Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 cost $160 billion. So why would a price tag of $27 billion for hardening Houston necessarily stop us in our tracks?

Grabar is not wrong when he says zoning alone would not have prepared Houston for Harvey, but he’s only right because zoning is too small a matrix. The effective way to protect urbanized humankind from flooding, as the Dutch learned decades ago, is at the more macro scale of land use. A significant portion of land needs to be closed to residential development so it can be set aside for absorption.

Is that crazy? Tell me something. How crazy were the images you saw last week from Houston? How insane were those videos of entire cites under water and babies and grandmothers swinging through the air in helicopter rescue baskets? That’s not crazy?

You and I already know exactly what the top officials in Texas will demand and what this president will endorse — handing over truckloads of federal tax dollars with no strings attached, no rules, no new guiding philosophy, with liberty and money for all.

Then what? Does anyone really contend that building Houston back exactly the way it was before is not insane? But building it back in a way that would be more resilient is insane? If the nation really believes that, then this country needs to gets its meds adjusted.

Land use alone is not the only answer. Last week, David Tarrant of The Dallas Morning News interviewed an academic expert on hurricane death tolls, John Mutter at Columbia University, who explained why the tally of deaths in Harvey, predicted to be less than 100, will not approach the disastrous count for Katrina, usually estimated at 1,800. One of several significant factors identified by Mutter’s study of hurricane death tolls is that numbers soar where a population is poor, densely settled and without access to transportation.

But that, too, is a solvable problem. Even if we can’t figure out how to lift everybody up out of poverty — even if we don’t believe it’s our job —– we can still make sure people can and will get on a bus when they need to.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's urban planning tools
Texans for Greg Abbott
In fact, a great deal is known and has been known for decades about protecting urbanized humankind from the worst of nature’s ravages. But of those answers, especially tough land-use regulation and the use of infrastructure to offset hardship, most can only be instituted through the kind of communitarian planning that the Texas cowboy culture hates.

If anybody who’s not familiar is listening, here’s a thing to know about Houston. Houston is home to Rice University, an intellectual center of global stature. The Houston medical and research community is global, again, in reach and reputation.

The energy business has helped make Houston a truly and wonderfully international city. Pay attention to Sylvester Turner, the mayor of Houston: He is sophisticated, smart and not a cowboy by a long shot. Houston is easily the closest thing to a world-class city in Texas.

Texas is not all ultra-right-wing nutballs. There is a smarter, wiser element to appeal to here. Why do the nutballs run the state? OK, we have some work to do. I admit that. We should get going on it. I’m not asking Massachusetts to come in and take us over by force, even though more people could go to the bathroom that way.

Let’s just say we all take what Harvey is telling us seriously. We have witnessed what some scientists are telling us was the most severe rainfall inundation event in recorded history. We assume it can and will happen again. We assume we need to prepare. And now we have to write a check.

Maybe Harvey has done us a grim favor. Maybe this is the moment when global environmental sanity finally begins to be translated into dollars and cents — a language that everybody ought to be able to get. Let’s not blow our investment.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze