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Return to Houston

Photo: Kenneth Surin.

“Parts of Houston in the floodway, parts of New Orleans submerged during Katrina, parts of Florida—these places never should have been developed in the first place.”

Thomas Debo (emeritus professor of city planning at Georgia Tech)

I’m in Houston for a week, not having been here since the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.

Houston (population of 6.1 million in the greater metropolitan area) is built on an ancient network of rivers (“the bayou”) that has been increasingly prone to flood over-run in recent times.

Houston is the largest American city without zoning laws. This has resulted in haphazard urban sprawl, as a drive around the city confirms–  mile after mile of housing tracts are interspersed with strip malls, with no coherence to their respective locations– a brand-new McMansion, fronted with fake Greek columns, will be plonked in the middle of an unprepossessing row of older shops.

Then there is exurbia, that is, self-contained satellite towns, capable of existing independently of the downtown, while still being linked to the downtown area by a system of overpasses and highways.

Exurbia has been let off the leash here.

The ensuing sprawl on the flood plain (the city stretches over 600sq miles) has encroached on absorbent prairies and wetland. This sponge-like terrain has been replaced by impervious hard surfaces which cannot contain storm water, thereby overwhelming the drainage capacity of Houston’s bayou-network.

Between 1992 and 2010, almost 25,000 acres of wetlands were lost, decreasing Houston’s water retention capacity by 4bn gallons, while at the same time many thousands of housing units continued to be built on the flood plain.

Harvey was estimated to have dropped more than 15tn gallons of water in the metropolitan area and its suburbs and exurbs, and the built-upon flood plain was simply unable to cope.

Building on “virgin” flood plains is in principle cheaper than building in an established area, and in the absence of regulation, the former option will seem more attractive to the many who see Houston as a place of economic opportunity.

Trump’s inane denialism where climate change is concerned will make any kind of regulation harder to implement, so for the foreseeable future, more of Houston’s adjacent flood plain will be claimed for property development.

Moreover, the creation of flood-prevention schemes will require a significant infusion of public money, at the very moment the Trump administration is committed to reducing funding for such projects (using the bugaboo “big government” as its stale and meaningless alibi).

Some people, however, have heeded the message from Harvey.

In the prosperous subdivision on the flood plain where I stayed, 3-4 houses on every block were up for sale, nearly a year after the hurricane. Several properties not up for sale there are still in the process of being restored.

Nearly every major intersection has make-shift signs put up by someone wanting to buy properties “as is”, and for cash (see the photo below).

The people who left clearly don’t want a repetition of the experience they had with Harvey.

Houston is surrounded by oil and petrochemical facilities, and those that were flooded in numerous cases released unquantifiable amounts of toxic matter into the flood water.

The people I spoke with said there is as yet no precise way to ascertain the impact of these toxic releases, and that so far, the authorities have taken a default “wait and see” attitude to the potential impact of these toxic releases.

Houston, like the other major cities in Texas (Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio), is more progressive politically than its hinterland. This is not saying much, because, to resort to understatement, electing a Democratic city council in the US South is not always a marker of a significantly progressive politics.

Corruption is ingrained in Texas politics, and this corruption is “equal opportunity”, so that neither of the two main US parties is less culpable than the other.

Hey, even LBJ was known to steal an election or two in Texas!

Any reader of the political commentaries of the late Molly Ivins will have a sense of how most successful Texan politicians of any stripe rely on “money men” to get anywhere, and my conversations indicated that Houston was no exception to Ivins’ sardonic observations about the state’s corrupt (and often stupid) politicians.

An example of such an observation by Ivins regarding a Texan politician:  “If his IQ slips any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day”.

Think also of the viciously amusing joke made about Rick Perry when he was governor of Texas (he’s now Trump’s secretary of energy): just like Dubya Bush, but without the brains.

Houston is politically divided between the two major parties at the city council level.

It is the most ethnically diverse US city with immigrants from all over the world, and this has repercussions for its politics.

The latest figures indicate that approximately 28% of the Houston’s population is immigrant.  No single identifiable ethnic group holds a majority in the city.

My conversations with Houstonians showed something of a convergent attitude to immigration that would dismay Trump–  Houston would “fall apart” without its immigrants, said one person. As was the case in New Orleans after Katrina, nearly all the post-Harvey reconstruction work seems to be undertaken by immigrants.

This impression of Houston’s reliance on immigrants (even those who are undocumented) is supported by the underlying evidence.  According to The Houston Chronicle:

Immigrants — about half of whom are undocumented — make up about 21 percent of Texas’ workforce, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. The Pew Research Center estimates that there are 575,000 undocumented immigrants in Houston alone, and 475,000 in Dallas. Undocumented immigrants contributed $17.7 billion to the state’s economic output, a 2006 analysis by the Texas comptroller’s office found, and pay more in taxes to the state than they consume in services.

Also, as expected, the affluent, and mainly white, parts of Houston are reliably Republican, while their less affluent inner-city counterparts are heavily Democratic.

Most of Houston is in Harris County, whose population of 4.5 million is 42% Hispanic, while whites are 31%, blacks 20%, and Asians 7%.

In the 2016 election Hillary Clinton defeated Trump, who carried Texas by 9%, by a whopping 13% in Harris County. Clinton’s margin here over Trump was bigger than Dubya Bush achieved in his two presidential campaigns.

In 2016 Republicans also lost every race in Harris County (incumbents included) and 24 of 24 judgeships.

The politics of Texas is dominated by a  combination of economic liberalism (also known as the “free market” dogma or illusion), social conservatism (upholding “traditional” values, which in many cases turn out, unsurprisingly, to be pretty modern in their provenance), and populism (sometimes of the craziest variety–  witness the loony Tea Party congressman Louis Gohmert with his theories about “terror babies”, allegedly born to Middle Eastern women who come to the US on tourist visas intending to give birth to future “terrorists”).

Unsurprisingly, Loony Louis has a following in his mainly rural district–  he was reelected in 2016 with over 73% of the vote.

It perhaps reflects well on Houston’s politics when I was told by a couple of people that Loony Louis would not fare well in their city.

More articles by:

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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