Hurricane Harvey and public and private disaster in Houston

Jia Tolentino writes: When Houston floods, it turns into a locked circular labyrinth. The city, my home town, is laid out like a wagon wheel: downtown sits at the center, surrounded by three concentric circles, which are bisected by highways in every direction. The first loop, Interstate 610, is thirty-eight miles long, and corrals the Inner Loop neighborhoods. Another round of suburban neighborhoods surrounds the Loop, and is bounded by the eighty-eight-mile-long Beltway 8. Then, the truly sprawling suburbs (Spring, Sugar Land, the Woodlands) surround the Beltway. All told, the Greater Houston Area is gargantuan—at over ten thousand square miles, it’s bigger than New Jersey—and, with upward of six million residents, it’s far more populous and diverse than outsiders tend to guess. Houston is also, famously, largely unregulated: zoning laws are minimal, and the unceasing outward development has, with official permission, drastically inhibited drainage. The freeway system holds the city together, keeping a huge, dispersed population connected. But in a storm this lifeline becomes a trap. Houston is flat, and it sits just fifty feet above sea level; after the bayous overflow, the rain collects on the roads. When a flood hits, driving in Houston feels like a video game turned real and deadly. There are sudden impasses everywhere; ingenuity can’t save you; once the spokes of the wheel go under, there’s nowhere to go.

Houston is the fourth-largest city in America, and right now much of it is underwater. Things will get worse this week. Tropical Storm Harvey, which made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, is sluggishly lingering, and will continue to pummel the flooded city. Forecasts say that Houston may get fifty inches of rain from this storm—which is the city’s average annual rainfall. Five people have died; many more will be injured. Houston’s safety-net hospital started evacuations on Sunday. The Texas Medical Center, the largest medical complex in the world, closed its submarine doors, designed, after Tropical Storm Allison, to protect the facility from flooding. Local news crews have struggled heroically to report out the disaster; one newscaster saved a truck driver’s life on air. The National Guard saved between twenty and twenty-five nursing-home residents in Dickinson after a harrowing photo went viral. My dad, who got stuck in high water on Saturday night, is one of thousands who have been rescued by Houston police. Harris County has been calling for citizens to help conduct rescues. All over the city, the roads have turned into rivers. Much of what’s visible looks like a nightmare; what makes me even sicker is imagining all the fear that we’ll never see. [Continue reading…]

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