Houston! We Have a Situation: It Is Too Damn Hot

By William R. Morrish, Professor of Urban Ecologies

Thank you for the invitation to add my thoughts to these very important questions. I have spent many hours in rubber boots working with many heroic, dedicated and persistent people operating as “the city” during recovery and the rebuilding of infrastructure. I would like to offer the following three lessons:

1) there is an existing disaster of failure to invest our infrastructure which is made clear at times like this;

2) there is no generic solution to rebuilding the acute disaster involves everyone and every living creature, but on different timeframes, so people are quickly out-of-step with one another;

3) the acute disaster is followed by a long, grueling, second disaster, as the society fails to adequately fund recovery and deal with pre-storm system inequities and injustices.

“Disasters don’t just destroy lives; they mock them.”

Susan Neiman, “The Moral Cataclysm,” New York Times Magazine, January 16, 2005

When a tsunami, hurricane or major earthquake strikes a city and metropolitan landscape, the winds, storm surges and tremors immediately strip away the veneer of everyday life, uncovering the hidden fragility of local life-support systems such as water supply, waste disposal, flood control, telecommunications, public health and personal mobility—to name just a few. System weaknesses usually are matters of public record long before disaster strikes but the decision to tackle the tough political and financial issues that come with each upgrade is routinely deferred “to another day” for the sake of budget deficits and political expediency. In the grim aftermath of the storm, responders discover that the day of reckoning has arrived. On top of the chaos and hardship of disaster recovery, the city now faces multiple system failures intensified by prior neglect. Urgent rebuilding demands have to compete with long-overdue infrastructure reconstruction. Meanwhile, besieged residents cope with added risks, such as cholera and other water-borne diseases, which seem unimaginable in modern-day America.

Source: National Geographic

Source: National Geographic

Q: Given what we know about the impacts of previous hurricanes in the Gulf Coast region, what will the impacts of Hurricane Harvey be on urban infrastructure in Texas and Louisiana?

This long coastal region is crisscrossed and patched together by three competing and separate infrastructure systems: the corporate lattice, the small community patchwork, and the coastal bayou ecology.

Corporate Lattice

The region’s urban landscape is dominated and subdivided by corporate petrochemical and big agribusiness, pipelines, channels, highways, drilling platforms, well heads, pipelines, elevators, logistics facilities, ships, barges and refining/processing plant   Their giant logistical geometries combine into a hard technological web or lattice that reaches inland to the north, along the Christopher Columbus Highway and into the Gulf of Mexico. Trucks and autos cut across this private corporate network, heavily subsidized by federal, state and local money with very little oversight. Traveling by car at night in the rain or on a foggy evening one can smell the heavy odor of chemical waste in the moist air.

Small Community Patchwork

The lands contained within the corporate lattice are occupied by an urbanizing landscape whose growth and infrastructure requirements are shaped by a patchwork of “small government” municipalities, with small tax bases, staffs and loath to enforce regulations. There are hundreds of communities whose urban infrastructure is composed of a vast patchwork of septic tanks, water tanks, wells, local levee boards, county road systems, and watershed districts. It is a maze of local authorities, where County Judges rule. The landscape is highly segregated by race and class.

Coastal Bayou Ecology

Flowing through this corporate lattice and the patchwork of communities are the meandering bayous, swamps, and river deltas that drain forty percent of the United States’ land area into the Gulf of Mexico. It is the big muddy gumbo of a landscape, watched over by the Army Corps of Engineers, the tourism and fishing industry, as well as environmental groups. This landscape, though rapidly shrinking due to sea level rise, sinking land, and lack of sedimentation, is a gorgeous space filled with ancient cypress trees, birds and animals.Agency reports, news stories and post disaster maps coming from the field describe the impacts of these three competing systems. The corporate lattice of pipelines, plant protection levees, access water channels and other systems parts, intersect with the meandering bayou river courses and storm water channels. When Houston is drenched in heavy Hurricane downpours that sweep across these intersecting system, bayous flows are disrupted and flood pooling form into an uneven pattern. Why? When storm water overflows the bayou banks into neighborhoods, water is blocked from reaching other channels, by the physical infrastructure servicing the corporate lattice. In addition to this bayou overflow, rainwater falling in areas distant from bayou channels, storm sewers (if the area is has them) are overwhelmed and trapped within the confines the lattice.Small communities across the Texas and Louisiana coast have lost over 800 water and sewage treatment systems. Residents of these small towns have been notified that they should boil their fresh water that flows out of remaining water systems. Not only are local water sources are filled with human bacteria, but it now contains undisclosed amounts and mixtures of toxic chemicals have been added by corporate lattice plants outgassing and spilling effluent from flood facilities. The task of repairing 800 systems is daunting given. Each community has a different system with its own history, state of repair, municipal capacity, economic realities and unique location within the lattice, community mosaic and ecology systems. Before the storm many communities feared the quality of their water supply. Now, the question that many residents now have is, who will safeguard the rebuilding of these systems?

Over the years, the corporate lattice has pumped oil and communities have drawn their fresh water from ground beneath this coastal ecological landscape. Combined these two processes result in the continuing subsidence of the entire urban landscape at a rate of 2.2 inches per year. Today, the land is lower exposing wetlands and water treatments systems to more flooding and salt water intrusions, underground the soil matrix has been altered causing sink holes to form, water/sewer line to break and leak, road waters become uneven and crack as well as buildings and homes foundations become unstable. 

Q: We don’t yet know what the full environmental impacts will be from leaks, spills, and flooding at oil refineries in the area. How can these and other industrial facilities be better prepared for future storm impacts?

Before the storm, the issues of industrial pollution in the soil, water and air were a moving target, a game of smoke and mirrors to avoid detection and responsibility. During the recovery stages of the World Trade Center, Katrina, and Sandy disasters, I have heard this phrase a number of times during recovery efforts ---“FEMA has declared this area as having an acceptable level of toxicity.” I have never received an answer as to what that level is. Given that the data of existing pollutions is incomplete, the addition of floodwater pollutants (sewerage, leeched chemicals, road grit, organic material, salt and many other ingredients) has created a new and different cocktail. Once this liquid mixture drains away, the chemical and bacterial residue will remain behind as dust that will be blown about into the city’s smog. The industries do prepare for disasters, but their priority is to save their facilities from destruction. One key method of protection facility is to “off gas” – release chemicals into the air and water, thus reducing pressures within the system that is being closed down. One of the challenges for local water supply system operators is to be notified of off-gassing and its chemical content so that they can turn off in-take values from the rivers.I have not seen much change in the petrochemical industry as to the impact that they exert on the community around them. In fact, as I write this blog, a Houston chemical plant is burning. The corporate plant owners based in Europe refuse to provide responders and neighbors information on the chemicals stored and processed in the plant. 

Q: At the moment, flooding is a huge issue in Houston and the surrounding areas. What will be the most critical issues when the floodwaters recede?

A disaster’s swift currents not only alter the familiar topological contours of the distressed community, but also they reveal big gaps in civic practices and social justice, surprising changes in local culture and ecologies, and a swarm of unsettling questions about the viability of the whole civil infrastructure network.

There is the shock of the return to one’s destroyed home or apartment added onto the trauma of displacement and rescue. Your neighborhood and home may look, soggy, muddy and somewhat familiar, but the spatial and time context is radically different.Once the water recedes, the moist heat and air begin the rapid process of decay. Buildings fill with mold and inches of mud begin to dry. Appliances filled with rotting food are pulled from kitchens and electrical systems become dangerous. Soggy sheet rock and insulated walls become covered in mold. This has to be removed quickly. Within days, huge piles of soggy carpet, sheet rock, appliances, wood, trees and other materials are stacked high in highway medians or vacant lots. Contractors truck this waste to unknown locations.  Then the process of rebuilding begins. What emerges is a cluster of three different workflows. They impact one another in many direct and indirect ways. I have organized these questions into three groups of work; Home Work, Out-of-Sight Work, and Next Work.

Home Work

I have found that a homeowner or renter, and a business person face questions that individuals might be able to manage themselves if they have the time, money and capacity to navigate the home renovation process, which is daunting on a normal day. These questions include such issues as: time that it will take to plan; finding/signing a contractor who do the work on time; getting project reviews through city agencies; and managing the family as they go to school and get to work while rebuilding goes on. Some people in New Orleans called this reality, “Living in the recovery limbo.”

Out-of-Sight Work

The second set of questions has to do with rebuilding public and private systems, such as business recovery, new FEMA standards, and assessment of the impact of the flood upon existing systems. For example, are the water and power lines safe given the tons of water pressuring underground lines, leakage into sewers, new ground pollutions and other “unseen” impacts that will reveal themselves as the city dries out begins to reboot its daily routines?

Next Work

The third is the list of “next projects” that will be proposed in the aftermath, such as altering the bayous, displacing neighborhoods into disaster protection zones or levee areas. Tied to this workflow are all governmental and non-governmental organizations who create new “recovery and rebuilding” entities to support a diverse range of interests and agendas.Each of the sets of questions has a different set of forces, timeframe, and social organizations. This equation is expanded when you factor in the scale of the situation: hundreds of thousands of buildings, lost cars, lost plant life, disrupted services and the vast quantity of new materials needed immediately in the region.Finally, these work flows interact when they are applied the diverse human and ecological geographies of a city whose population speaks 148 different languages and inhabit a muddy landscape of a varied matrix of sand, clay and organic sediment deposited over a long time.

Q: What are some of the most significant social, historic, and economic factors that determine the readiness and resilience of cities in the Gulf Coast region that are repeatedly impacted by hurricanes, flooding, and tropical storms?

The most significant challenge is the widening disconnect between the corporate petroleum/chemical/agribusiness infrastructure, and the communities that occupy the spaces in between that industrial infrastructure. This is complicated by the decline in the local safety net, and the degradation of water and the food supply. All these complications are overlaid by a general denial of climate change, generated by political/corporate populist narrative created with the handshake between Governor Huey Long and J.D. Rockefeller, Sr., in early 20th century. The “plume” from that legacy continues to flow through coast urban landscape. 

Q: What can or should cities do in the aftermath of storms like Harvey to rebuild and plan for the future in a just, resilient, and sustainable way?

In my opening remarks, I wrote that the swift violence of a storm Hurricane Harvey strips away the veneer of everyday life, revealing the strengths and weaknesses of a city’s urban landscape, or background infrastructure. Disaster maps which emerge from these events produced on the ground by people and uploaded into social media or recorded from above agencies and national news outlets tell two stories. The first story describes the dimensions of the storm’s forces acting upon the local nature, people and place. They mark the rise and fall of the events cycle through the area. As the water recedes, people seek support and communities struggle to thrive. The second disaster, the slow violence of existing, injustices, inequities, resistance to change and unsustainable practices, emerges on maps as fragmented spaces, disjointed systems, and splintered patterns of an underdeveloped, maintained and segregated social/ecological/technological safety network.

A storm like Harvey or Katrina might be seen as a “stress” test of city’s urban infrastructure systems capacity to serve the whole community. Houston learned much from New Orleans’ experience about civil communications development. Their investment in this system and the inter-agency training has been fundamental to its capacity to help as many people as they did. But, like New Orleans, the water, sewer, storm water and power systems were compromised, not to mention the disconnect with local industrial plant operators and corporate owners. Most American cities and communities would fail this stress test.

Where does a city or community start rebuilding after a storm or shifting urban infrastructure to a more just, resilient and sustainable way of inhabiting their place?It starts on the second map at the points where existing urban infrastructure can be easily seen as being under-maintained, based on outdated models, inadequate, outdated, disruptive and divisive to the people and the local ecology. The “big sustainability project” is not a new waterfront seawall or a new park. The opportunity that we have is to rethink and redesign the next infrastructure compact, indeed, the creation of a new social/ecological safety network.   A just and ecologically-sound network would be built from many small bridges reaching across divides and sustaining connectivity so that economic, social and ecological benefits reach each household.To conclude my thoughts, I return to the quote by Susan Neiman. If disasters not only take lives, but mock them as well, then I believe we should tie short-term recovery activities into a long-term community building systems upgrade that focuses on the lives of the people and the ecological of the place. It should be rooted in addressing the daily failures embedded in our existing urban infrastructure systems. Hurricane Harvey has take lives and has revealed our system inadequacies. We can see where we need to work now and over time. This is the new present context from which to rebuild and prepare for the next storm.

William R. Morrish is a Professor of Urban Ecologies at Parsons School of Design. He is a nationally recognized urban designer whose practice encompasses inter-disciplinary research on urban housing and infrastructure, collaborative publications on human settlement and community design, and educational programs exploring integrated design, which are applied to a wide range of innovative community-based city projects.