Short-term Memory Loss of Long-term Needs
By Debbie Z. Harwell
When we conceived the idea for this issue almost a year ago, we planned to focus on examples of industrial accidents and environmental improvement. That was before Harvey hit. Those of us who are Houston natives, or almost natives, are no strangers to flooding but not of this magnitude. The Washington Post reported that Houston and Southeast Texas received 19 trillion gallons of rain, or a trillion more gallons of water than fills Chesapeake Bay, the largest U.S. estuary.
Harvey was our third 500-year rain event in less than three years and, in the end, was deemed a 1,000-year storm. These are misleading terms that actually indicate the chance, 1 in 500 or 1 in 1,000 respectively, of such an event occurring in any given year rather than how often. Flood plains based on 100-year events are similarly confusing and, perhaps, cause us to be somewhat complacent about our risk. No wonder we frequently hear, “I don’t need flood insurance. I’m not in the 100-year floodplain”; or, “I didn’t flood in Allison, so I don’t need to worry.”
What people may not realize is that where floodplains stood when they bought their home could have little relevance to those lines today. Take Meyerland, for example. In the 1950s and 1960s it did not see the levels of rising water it has experienced recently, flooding some homes three times in twenty-eight months. Yes, this occurred with Harvey in part due to the record rainfall, but it is also due to development in other areas that created more run-off and prevented natural water absorption, redefining the area’s susceptibility to a 100-year flood.
In 1929 Houston experienced major flooding that was seemingly forgotten until another catastrophic flood followed in 1935, prompting Houston to establish the Harris County Flood Control District. The U.S. Congress passed the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1938 that included funds for Addicks and Barker Reservoirs, opening in 1945 and 1948 respectively. The Weather Research Center reports Houston has had about 175 significant floods since 1837 (120 of them since the reservoirs opened). Experts have warned Houston another catastrophic flood was coming, just as they had warned the levees would break in New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina, but government entities did not adequately address how to prevent future flood damages.
As a city and as a country we seem to suffer from short-term memory loss. Our memory of the flood is wiped out not by old age but by the next big news story, or even the next tweet. Past floods have similarly faded from the collective memory (until it happens again), with few willing to spend money on the necessary infrastructure to produce real change.
If you flood, you don’t forget, though. I lived in a house in Beaumont that flooded twice in the 1980s. The first time I was home with our four children ages eleven to two when rapidly rising water started pushing mud and mulch through the weep holes about 6:00 p.m. We scrambled to put things up while keeping our toddler out of the water. Still at work, my husband contacted the fire department who came to get us as night approached. Leaving our dog behind, we waded in water half way up my chest, and up to the shoulders on the older kids, to a high-water vehicle waiting nearby. Some neighbors evacuated by boat. During Harvey, as our oldest daughter sent pictures of her and her family being evacuated from their Friendswood home and we saw our neighbors’ homes go under water in Kingwood, it brought back many painful memories. I can only imagine how people with water in their homes from Harvey (and the time before that, and the time before that…) must feel.
Other articles in this magazine also reflect the importance of remembering our history so we can develop sound policy that enables the people in our region to live healthy, happy, productive lives. The Frost Town archeological dig illustrates the changes that occurred as Houston’s first suburb transitioned from a predominantly German neighborhood to an African American and then Mexican American community, followed by a railroad yard and a section of road right of way. Over the years, decisions on whether or not to provide infrastructure to the area dictated the (mis)fortunes of those residing there, whether citizens or businesses.
The articles on the Texas City Disaster and a deadly 2008 crane collapse demonstrate the importance of protecting safety in the workplace, both for those who labor there and those nearby. The Air Alliance Houston piece reminds us of instances of our most reckless pollution, like burning car batteries at an incinerator near the Astrodome in the 1970s and industrial emissions today, to our efforts at redemption by the nonprofit sector to insure we monitor and protect air quality going forward. Likewise, the article on Habitat for Humanity illustrates how everyone benefits when more people get a chance to share in the American dream of homeownership.
Historians often say that we cannot know where we are going until we know where we have been. We know where Houston has been. It is an amazing city with tremendous resilience and a giving spirit that has too often found itself under water. We cannot let our short-term memory fail us—not about flooding, pollution, industrial accidents, or anything that puts us at risk. If we have to consider adding regulations to protect against flooding and over development in certain areas or spending more to improve our infrastructure, then we must open to that if we want Houston to continue to grow and prosper in the future.