‘Don’t California My Texas’
Jim Blackburn, a planner, environmental lawyer and something of a lightning rod around here, has been warning for years about climate change, the decrepit state of Houston’s reservoirs and the perils of developing the Katy Prairie. He remembers escaping years ago to the prairie to bird watch. One recent morning he drove me out there along the Grand Parkway and pulled into an unfinished subdivision.
A saleswoman in a model home boasted about $1 billion worth of box stores and malls being built nearby. The development, she said, adheres to county standards requiring that houses be raised above the 100-year floodplain. The woman handed Mr. Blackburn a glossy brochure and a disclaimer, which he scanned before climbing back into the car, shaking his head.
The disclaimer explained that roads outside the development, linking it to the parkway, occupy the 10-year floodplain, meaning they would have about a 10 percent chance of flooding every year.
“These days that means they’ll flood anytime you look at them funny,” Mr. Blackburn said. “It’s the new normal.”
That’s not far-off. The number of “heavy precipitation” events in the United States has skyrocketed since the 1960s. Since 1980, instances of extreme weather — hurricanes, floods, heat waves — linked to climate change have cost the United States $1.1 trillion. Studies show that for every dollar spent upfront in preparedness, American taxpayers could save $4 in emergency relief and reconstruction — not counting health costs, the impact of lost jobs and business revenues and incalculable grief.
But that requires politicians to agree.
“We suffered nothing short of a catastrophic disaster,” a veteran Texas lobbyist, Bill Miller, said. “It happens at a time when the people in the governing class in this state don’t believe in taxes and government. But they also don’t want anybody discouraged from coming here, because that’s bad for business.”
An upbeat narrative casts business-friendly Texas in the loner role of swashbuckling cowboy, disdainful of coastal elites. “Don’t California my Texas” has become a rallying cry for Republican state lawmakers and a theme repeated by the governor, Greg Abbott, who has complained about “a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model.”
He believes cities are the culprit. For years, Texas Republicans promoted local controls to push against federal court orders on issues like desegregation and same-sex marriage. Now state leaders have made a U-turn. Mr. Abbott has complained about “political demagogues using climate change as an excuse to remake the American economy.” At a Republican gathering in June, he talked about the experience of driving out of the state’s capital, Austin.
“It starts smelling different,” he told the audience. “And you know what that fragrance is? Freedom.”
Little wonder, post-Harvey, that state and local officials have anointed different flood and recovery czars. Texas is sounding these days like Russia under the Romanovs. The system ensures nobody is clearly in charge.
Least of all in Houston. A bill that would have allowed Harris County merely to issue the equivalent of parking tickets to developers violating floodplain regulations — the sort of regulations that control flooding — was vetoed by the governor. Two other bills to study flooding in the Houston region, introduced in the last legislative session, died in committee.
And not long ago, when Houston’s Democratic mayor, Sylvester Turner, petitioned the governor to tap into the state’s multibillion-dollar Rainy Day Fund for post-Harvey debris removal, Mr. Abbott said he would not authorize money before 2019, when the Legislature is next scheduled to meet.
I met with the mayor in City Hall at the time. He noted that the Legislature had convened a special session to ban gender-neutral bathrooms. “If they can meet about toilets, why can’t they meet when the toilets overflow?” one frustrated city official said, before Mr. Abbott came up with $50 million from a separate fund to stem growing criticism.
Another official, this one with the county, made the point that the area around Houston is a patchwork of counties and municipalities with different rules and no coordination because Texans believed the upside of what became, in essence, institutionalized entropy was that it allowed residents to avoid the encumbrances of city governments, regulations and taxes.
The problem is that hurricanes and floods, worsened by climate change, do not recognize political borders or county lines. Their toll is shared by everyone. The latest estimate from Moody’s puts recovery from Harvey at $81 billion, much of which will end up paid by taxpayers across the United States.
“The whole trans-Mississippi pioneer enterprise was in fact brought to you by the federal government,” says Steven Conn, a historian and author of “Americans Against the City.”
The hypocrisy of Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, resisting federal aid to the New York region after Hurricane Sandy but then requesting it for Texas after Harvey, is in fact part of this same history.
Houston’s unregulated sprawl, Mr. Conn added, gives physical form to this politics of “decentralization and anti-statism.”
A Houston Selling Point: It’s Not New York
At the same time, Houston is in many ways a forward-looking, progressive city. Before it elected Mr. Turner, it elected a mayor who was a lesbian. The city is in thrall to cars and highways and has precious little mass transit, but the municipality of Houston relies more on renewable energy than any other big city in America. Houston has more green space, relative to paved, than New York.
And what many Houston residents like about it, its supporters say, is precisely that it isn’t New York or San Francisco or Boston. They insist that its business-friendly, light-on-regulations approach helps account for a big rise in employment since 2000. A report by the city’s Center for Opportunity Urbanism, a pro-development organization, which cautions against overreacting to Harvey, said: “The city emanates a conviction that people should have the freedom to determine their destiny.”
Thomas Cole, director of the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics at the Texas Medical School of Houston, recalled how, during the 1960s, business leaders and politicians conspired with media executives to desegregate Houston quietly, seeing the turmoil that desegregation was causing elsewhere in the South. Decades later, Houston boasts of becoming the most diverse big city in the country, with comparatively low housing costs that translate to higher levels of minority homeownership.
But what does “affordable” really mean if residents have to pay hefty transportation costs and rebuild, time and again, after floods? Houston’s affordability leans on loosely regulated, low-cost immigrant labor providing an abundance of cheaply made, slab-on-grade, single-family houses that sprawl on all that open land, in areas like the Katy Prairie.
And it relies heavily on American taxpayers providing government tax credits, mortgage interest deductions, gas subsidies, artificially low flood insurance rates, highway construction money — and emergency relief, including buying out homeowners to remove their properties from harm’s way.
Harris County officials say they have received as many requests for buyouts since the hurricane (3,000) as there have been buyouts since the mid-1990s. Harvey turned out to be an equal opportunity disaster. In Meyerland, an affluent district where Brays Bayou burst its banks, Steve and Julie Sacks’s house flooded for the third time in three years. They are among the homeowners hoping for a buyout.
“But I’m not counting on one,” Mr. Sacks told me. Buying out rich homes to repurpose vulnerable areas like Meyerland for flood detention, as Mr. Sacks notes, would require loads of money and remove valuable properties from tax rolls in a county that relies on property taxes.
Bruce Hooper would move, too. During Harvey, he woke up to crackling sounds, when floodwaters started to seep into his appliances and electrical outlets. Mr. Hooper lives in a poor area called Kashmere Gardens. I found him sitting on a tattered lawn chair outside the shell of his tumbledown rental. An unemployed former parks employee, Mr. Hooper told me that he and his family of five had to be airlifted out by the Coast Guard after a detention pond overflowed and water inside the house rose from ankle to chest high in an hour. He would live elsewhere, he said, but like many others without flood insurance or savings, “we got nowhere else to go.”
As for Andy and Christine Kahan, they were among thousands who had no inkling they were especially vulnerable before Harvey. The Kahans own a single-story home in a middle-class neighborhood, Bear Creek Village.
“The damn dam did us in,” Mr. Kahan said. The Kahans’s home was among those houses flooded by the reservoirs, which Harvey for the first time filled and threatened to overflow.
Christine Kahan and her husband had lived for 28 years in their house without a flood. Now Ms. Kahan said she would entertain a buyout. A part-time real-estate agent, she advises clients to think twice about buying any home that flooded. Hers is now one of them.
But Mr. Kahan says they will stay, for the time being. “I’m not a skeptic about climate change,” he told me. “It defies logic not to believe something is going on.”
I asked how that lined up with his desire not to leave Bear Creek. “Harvey was an exception, an act of God,” he said, then added, “I know it doesn’t make sense. But I’m an optimist.
“At least, I am until the next flood.”
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