Hous­ton af­ter the storm

Hous­ton après la tem­pête

Vocable (Anglais) - - Édito / Sommaire -

Re­tour dans « la ville sans li­mites ».

Après le pas­sage de l’ou­ra­gan Har­vey, l’heure est à la re­cons­truc­tion pour les ha­bi­tants de Hous­ton. Face aux dé­gâts, cer­tains mettent en cause l’ex­pan­sion ga­lo­pante de la mé­tro­pole texane, qu’ils jugent peu adap­tée aux pluies tor­ren­tielles. Le dé­ve­lop­pe­ment ur­bain de la qua­trième ville amé­ri­caine s’est-il fait en dé­pit du bon sens ?

Asym­bol of Hous­ton? Ma­ny would say the As­tro­dome, the in­door are­na dub­bed the Eighth Won­der of the World when it ope­ned in 1965. But I might sug­gest Zone d’Ero­ti­ca, a 24-hour sex toys bou­tique at the throb­bing core of a dis­trict with some of Hous­ton’s swan­kiest shop­ping malls, ho­tels, res­tau­rants and homes.The jar­ring pla­ce­ment is em­ble­ma­tic of Hou- ston’s heed­less, any­thing-goes-anyw­here at­ti­tude to de­ve­lop­ment. An en­tre­pre­neu­rial mind­set has flou­ri­shed, im­bued with a chan­cer’s ethos in an oil town de­fi­ned by cycles of boom and bust.

2.Hous­ton did not be­come a great Ame­ri­can ci­ty – the fourth big­gest – through ca­re­ful plan­ning and aes­the­tic at­ten­tion, like Chi­ca­go, or be­cause of an im­mi­grant-ma­gnet lo­ca­tion like New York, or thanks to the wea­ther and sce­ne­ry of Los An­geles. It is above all prag­ma­tic. Des­pite alar­ming in­come in­equa­li­ty and air pol­lu­tion, Hous­ton pro­mises abun­dant jobs and a cost of li­ving low en­ough that even with a mo­de­rate in­come you can own a car and a nice big sub­ur­ban fa­mi­ly home.

3.But as the clea­nup conti­nues af­ter Hur­ri­cane Har­vey, we should find time to ask whe­ther the ci­ty’s struc­ture is as re­si­lient as its cha­rac­ter and if the seeds of Hous­ton’s suc­cess are a fac­tor in the scale of its

losses. Sure, it rains a lot here in an ave­rage year, let alone this one; and it is not sur­pri­sing that a place ni­ck­na­med the Bayou Ci­ty would have an in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with water. But this was the third bad storm in three years. Some parts that floo­ded were pre­dic­table, the usual sus­pects in hea­vy rains; others came as sud­den shocks.

UR­BAN DE­VE­LOP­MENT

4. The flood plain map feels like guide, not gos­pel; af­ter Har­vey there are no gua­ran­tees in a ha­pha­zard­ly-ar­ran­ged ci­ty that does not care if a sex shop sits at the heart of a chic quar­ter or if homes and apart­ments sprout next to vul­ne­rable bayous and re­ser­voirs.

5. As ma­ny have ob­ser­ved, ab­sorbent prai­rie­land was sa­cri­fi­ced for concre­te­co­ve­red pro­gress. New malls and of­fices, their par­king lots gent­ly an­gled to guide water in ano­ther – any other – di­rec­tion. Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, Hous­ton­style, is buying a lot, ra­zing the old home and buil­ding a big new one, ele­va­ted for self-pro­tec­tion – so water de­flects el­sew­here, per­haps to your neigh­bours in their aging single-sto­rey ranch house.

6.It’s no­table that mo­dern, so-cal­led mas­ter-plan­ned com­mu­ni­ties in the far sub­urbs floo­ded bad­ly too. Those four-bed houses for $350,000 came with a hid­den cost: not such a bar­gain if water mi­ti­ga­tion strate- gies were built on the cheap. Cons­truc­ting de­fences to handle mo­de­rate storms, not ex­treme ones such as Har­vey, now looks like a fai­led bet gi­ven what we know about cli­mate change.

7.But Hous­ton would ra­ther ex­pand than pre­serve; that it is al­ways fa­cing for­wards is both a strength and a curse. Even in elite neigh­bou­rhoods, ol­der roads are so po­tho­led that dri­ving them is like being in the saddle of a bu­cking bron­co. You don’t move here for the ocean, moun­tains, or beau­ty – you come for the deal. Hous­ton feels like one of the last places where it’s still pos­sible to at­tain the post­war ma­te­ria­lis­tic vi­sion of the Ame­ri­can Dream, whe­ther you’re es­ca­ping high prices on the US coast or ar­ri­ving from abroad.

8.Will people still come if they do not trust lo­cal, state and fe­de­ral go­vern­ments to keep them dry? If in­su­rance be­comes pro­hi­bi­ti­ve­ly ex­pen­sive? Will they still think of Hous­ton as a sus­tai­nable place to build a fu­ture?

RETHINKING THE CI­TY

9. A friend and his young fa­mi­ly bought a house in an af­fluent area next to a bayou on­ly a couple of months ago. They got a good price be­cause of its so-cal­led “100-year flood­plain” lo­ca­tion – a risk es­ti­ma­ted at a 1% chance in any gi­ven year. “Do you think it’ll be OK?” he as­ked me at the time. Last week he got his ans­wer as it swift­ly filled with three feet of water, for­cing them to eva­cuate. Al­rea­dy, he is thin­king of mo­ving; now, his chil­dren are frigh­te­ned when it rains. “I’m sick of this 100-year bull­shit; this is the new norm,” he said. 10.To live in a place where ex­treme wea­ther is com­mon and laws en­cou­rage the ow­ner­ship, dis­play and use of wea­pons is to ac­cept a cer­tain le­vel of back­ground threat, an un­ders­tan­ding that vio­lence is in­grai­ned in­to the culture, whe­ther in­flic­ted by people or by na­ture. There seems lit­tle pros­pect of trans­for­ma­tive change that might take the ser­ra­ted edge off Texas’s fron­tier spi­rit.

11. As for the As­tro­dome, it is long-shut­te­red, su­per­se­ded by a shi­ny ve­nue next door as de­bate conti­nues on whe­ther to save it or raze it. In 2005, it shel­te­red thou­sands of re­fu­gees from Hur­ri­cane Ka­tri­na. Ma­ny stayed for good in hopes of fin­ding a bet­ter life here and ma­ny found it; such is the pro­mise and po­ten­tial of Hous­ton. It is too large, too im­por­tant, too dy­na­mic, too am­bi­tious, not to re­co­ver from Har­vey. But wi­thout a ra­di­cal re­think of how the ci­ty ma­nages de­ve­lop­ment and pro­tects its re­si­dents, it seems in­evi­table that it will be soa­ked and sad­de­ned again.

Ab­sorbent prai­rie­land was sa­cri­fi­ced for concrete-co­ve­red pro­gress.

(John Gla­ser/CSM/REX/Shut­ter­stock)

Hur­ri­cane Har­vey eva­cua­tions, Hous­ton, 31 Aug 2017.

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