Houston after the storm
Houston après la tempête
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.
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.
Hurricane Harvey evacuations, Houston, 31 Aug 2017.