Thinking about Harvey – three weeks later

Image credit: Pixabay

Three weeks ago, Hurricane Harvey ripped through our state and dropped an extraordinary amount of rain on the Houston area in a very short time. Aside from District G, which experienced additional flooding thanks to the need to relieve an overflowing Addicks reservoir, much of the city is well into the recovery process and even getting back to “normal”. Opinions have been freely flowing on what Houston did right, did wrong, and needs to do in the future. And now that recovery is well underway, it seems that much of the opining has grown silly (of course, the middling regional newspaper has now moved on from generally strong reporting on the crisis to… analysis and editorializing, which are not strengths).

Now is as good a time as any for a recap on some of the more interesting perspectives that I compiled over the last few weeks, starting (where else?) at the beginning.

Should I stay or should I go?

We had a pretty good idea for some time beforehand that our area would be on the “dirty” side of Hurricane Harvey, and that  (thanks to a lingering high pressure system) we could be looking at a significant rain/flooding event (think Allison) rather than a significant wind event (like Ike). For that reason, local emergency officials did not advise an area-wide evacuation (indeed, they advised against a mass evacuation).

There was momentary excitement among local chatterers when Gov. Greg Abbott committed the unforgivable act of being honest in the face of a public emergency, saying “If I were living in the Houston region as I once did I would decide to head to areas north.”

Photo credit: Timothy McIntosh/Twitter

This comment caused an undue amount of screeching from local officials, who were quick to insist that THEY KNOW BEST and no mass evacuation was warranted. And, indeed, that was the case, for all the reasons Bill King laid out in the New York Times.

That said, the moment of honesty from our governor was, narrowly speaking, not as controversial as some were determined to portray it. Two key takeaways from this unprecedented storm event are that: 1) If you are located near bodies of water that are prone to flooding in our area, you really might want to consider evacuating in the event of predictions of widespread flooding and 2) in the future, emergency officials may want to consider a more proactive approach to dealing with our most vulnerable communities.

It would probably be preferable for people like our governor, who is confined to a wheelchair, to be proactive in thinking about their options when a major flood event is predicted — rather than awaiting rescue in waist deep water like some vulnerable communities were forced to do. That’s not crazy; that’s how responsible adults behave. That’s not the same, of course, as suggesting that every single person should leave town when some rain is predicted, which would be irresponsible and dangerous.

“Don’t listen to crazy social media sources saying we might get 50 inches of rain!”

One woman’s facebook post, and its predictions of 50 inches of rain, thousands of home underwater, and the city being without power for three days drew the ire of Mayor Sylvester Turner and other public officials for spreading false news.

Now, granted, the woman’s conspiratorial tone and some of her apocalyptic predictions verged into InfoWars territory, but the mayor batting down that crazy talk of 50 inches of rain? The truly crazy part is that some areas got MORE.

Generally, this area’s emergency management is very good, and officials have earned the public’s trust with a history of solid performance. That being said, it’s not shocking that segments of the population don’t exactly trust a local political class that has been known to mislead the public on the true cost of a rain tax (and how the money will be spent), or mislead the public by saying that a vote against a quarter-billion dollar boondoggle proposal will likely spell the end of the Astrodome (still waiting!), or mislead the public by promising residents a 50% increase in bus service if they’ll just vote FOR METRO, or… well you get the idea.

And yeah, we DID get 50 inches of rain and a lot of flooded houses. Looking to the future, we might want to think about offering folks who are situated close to water in Houston better advice on how different rainfall amounts might affect them. We suspect a lot of folks in District G might have appreciated that sort of information.

No, more zoning and less “sprawl” wouldn’t have averted the flooding

Even as flood waters were rising, the usual suspects (and some new ones) started chirping that Houston’s “unfettered” development and “lack of zoning” and culture of “paving over all the wetlands” and “climate change” had combined to give the area what it deserved.

Those notions got pushback from various quarters, including the mayor:

But perhaps the strongest, most articulate, pushback came in the following two articles (one from one-time Houston blogger and current economic historian Phil Magness):

Houston Flooding in Historical perspective: No, zoning would not have stopped Harvey – Phil Magness

We’ve seen a flurry of commentators in the past few days attributing Houston’s flooding to a litany of pet political causes. Aside from the normal carping about “climate change” (which always makes for a convenient point of blame for bad warm weather events, even as environmentalists simultaneously decry the old conservative canard about blizzards contradicting Al Gore), several pundits and journalists have opportunistically seized upon Houston’s famously lax zoning and land use regulations to blame Harvey’s destruction on “sprawl” and call for “SmartGrowth” policies that restrict and heavily regulate future construction in the city.

According to this argument, Harvey’s floods are a byproduct of unrestricted suburban development in the north and west of the city at the expense of prairies that would supposedly absorb rainwater at sufficient rates to prevent natural disasters and that supposedly served this purpose “naturally” in the past.

There are multiple problems with this line of argument that suggest it is rooted in naked political opportunism rather than actual concern for Houston’s flooding problems.

Go read the entire article for Magness’s four well-defined points.

Piling on Houston – Charles Marohn, Strong Towns

Harvey is not normal times. We can’t look at this event the way we look at other flooding events. The devastation in Houston from Hurricane Harvey is not the result of the accumulation of many bad decisions. It was simply a huge storm.

The Texas A&M research I highlighted above suggests reckless wetland filling robbed Houston of 4 billion gallons of stormwater storage capacity. For context, the Washington Post is reporting now that Harvey dumped 19 trillion gallons on Texas—a large portion of that hitting the Houston area. That means that, had those wetlands never been filled, they could have accommodated at most .02-.1% of the water that fell in Harvey—a minuscule amount.

[snip]

Anyone suggesting that more wetlands or more pervious surfaces would have done anything to mitigate what has just happened is lacking a proper sense of scale.

And that’s being kind. To say that Houston is “paying the price for ignorance” and is “drowning from its own freedom from regulations” is the kind of snarky, reactionary rhetoric that’s sadly become all too familiar. Wrapping that kind of ideological cheap shot in the veneer of science discredits the meaning of science.

This one is also worth reading in its entirety.

The finer points of defining “catastrophe”

Leo Linbeck III wrote a fine “rebuttal” article himself that might have made the list of articles directly above, save for one unfortunate line:

A dispassionate weighing of these facts would tell you that while stressful events always help identify areas for improvement, by and large our infrastructure and leadership performed admirably well under extraordinary circumstances.

It other words, the facts would tell you that Harvey was not a catastrophe for Houston; it was our finest hour.

This article drew a lot of criticism based on that one unfortunate clause, including this understandable, but still overly emotional, reaction.

The fact is, we all need editors (or perhaps to be better self editors). Leave out the second line above, and we’re talking about this article — and its many fine points — much differently. It’s still worth a read.

Journalists/partisans behaving badly: Texas Tribune pushes a narrative (never mind the facts)

The Austin-based Texas Tribune, a left-leaning, non-profit conference and online news narrative project, has become highly invested in the notion (largely debunked above) that “Houston’s explosive growth is largely to blame [for flooding], along with climate change.”

Even as a major catastrophic flood event was bearing down on Houston, the Texas Tribbers were almost giddy with some of their tweets about the same:

Some of the almost celebratory tweets from the Tribbers and fellow travelers were fairly easily dismissed:

A tweet querying the Texas Tribune’s Celebrity in Chief (by one of the authors of the lengthy piece linked above) went unanswered, unsurprisingly:

Houston-area journalist Jon Cassidy went much further than those dismissive tweets, taking apart point-by-point the narrative about Houston that the Texas Tribune was determined to advance:

Year after year, Big Journalism recognizes work that is neither fine nor good. It is only, at best, the best of what exists. The right way to understand the practice of journalism is not from the standard framework of the right (bias!), which is correct, but boring and mostly irrelevant. Instead, regard journalists the way scientists do, as practitioners of an art that has nothing to with their own pursuits, as scribblers with little capacity for mathematical or abstract thinking,

As a method for approaching the truth, a narrative based on two anecdotes, three half-relevant statistics, and a bit of misguided paraphrasing is no substitute for controlled experimentation. It’s not even a substitute for a decent argument. Yet mainstream journalism foregoes even this simple tool, available to all, in favor of simply pronouncing the world to be a certain way.

The Texas Tribune is guilty of this, and of misleading its readers and other journalists into believing that Houston is somehow to blame for its devastating floods. For those not familiar with the name, the Texas Tribune is a conflict of interest organized as a 501(c)3. The Austin-based conference production/journalism outfit covers state politics, and takes lots of money from people who do business in the capitol. It covers for its biggest institutional backers, such as the University of Texas, while occasionally doing serious work that doesn’t threaten its bottom line.

This year, the Texas Tribune won Peabody and Murrow awards for a collaboration with ProPublica that blamed Houston’s flooding problems on global warming and unregulated overdevelopment.

That description of the Trib is one of the best we’ve seen, as is Cassidy’s point-by-point takedown of Tribune narrative. Do read the whole thing. And when more awards from the Trib’s ideological allies are bestowed, maybe even tweet the link into some timelines just for fun.

Journalists/partisans behaving badly: The Greg Travis “gotcha” that wasn’t

Austin news personalities weren’t the only ones determined to advance a narrative. City of Houston District G, represented by Greg Travis, was devastated by the floods of Harvey (and associated floods of Addicks), with homes underwater for days/weeks after much of Houston had gotten back to normal. KTRK-13 news personality Miya Shay Wu apparently thought she had quite a “gotcha” to wield against CM Travis:

This led liberal Democratic State Rep. Gene Wu to post an idiotic LOL-tweet followup (Wu is married to the news personality in question):

Wu later deleted this tweet, after twitter criticism of the idiocy of LOL-tweeting while hundreds (or thousands) of District G homes remained underwater, hence the saved screenshot above.

Of course, these tweets took place BEFORE the news personality half of the Wu Duo actually bothered to get CM Travis’s explanation, which he later provided on twitter (he was out of town on official business during the storm — since he got back to town, he has seemingly been EVERYWHERE working for his district).

When Jim Bigham pointed out to the Wus that their behavior was unbecoming, the news personality half of the duo apparently decided she’d had enough of the public discussion about their bad behavior:

How condescending. KTRK doesn’t seem to have standards for their news personalities these days, but the state rep half of the Wu Duo really should have apologized for his bad behavior.

Journalists/partisans behaving badly: Good at snark, bad at science

Several Chron journalists seemed to take exception to the scientific description of toxic materials and decomposition:

I minored in chemistry, and am familiar with the language of toxicity and physical reactions (or, as the kids like to say these days, SCIENCE!). This leaves us thinking that maybe J-Schools should encourage their students to spend a little more time studying technical subjects, and a little less learning the fine art of Twitter Snark (or maintaining Public Enemy lists, for that matter).

Journalists/partisans behaving badly: The New York Times and Texas Monthly “explainers”

There is one editorial personality in town who specializes in the art of explaining the behavior of natives in the area she has called home for decades to folks who are more “sophisticated” and more “refined” in their politics and understanding of the world (say, Austin denizens, and those who subscribe to the New York Times).

Right on cue, before all the water had even drained from District G, we got these explainers:

Climate change caused this (or is at least “the biggest cause”), and big (HUGE) government must fix it. That message will resonate with its intended audience.

A few more perspectives

We’ll be seeing lots of perspectives on the meaning of Harvey and how to move forward over time — and we may even be offering some of those perspectives here or via another project (no promises!) — but I wanted to capture this roundup of thoughts within the first couple of weeks of the event (and having failed at that goal, three weeks; real life intrudes on blogging). Here are a few more articles that didn’t make their way into the roundup, but that are also worth your time.

And finally, a sad note. We lost Jim Simmon, a great journalist and a great blogger, to Hurricane Harvey. Deepest condolences to his family. RIP, Slampo.

Kevin Whited
About Kevin Whited 4237 Articles
Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX