Thursday, September 18, 2008

Houston Survived Ike, But Can We Do This Every Few Years, for Decades to Come?

On September 12th Houston Chronicle photographer Johnny Hanson captured what will undoubtedly remain one of the most poignant pictures of Hurricane Ike, as it began to overwhelm the Gulf Coast memorial to those who died in the Great Storm of 1900. The photo conveys the horror felt by everyone at the time that the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history was about to repeat itself.
Ike was indeed very unkind to Galveston--and nastier still to the Bolivar Peninsula, where whole subdivisions were literally wiped off the map. But a lot more structures survived than first feared, especially on the prosperous West End of Galveston, which has no seawall but evidently did have sound construction practices in the newer homes. And so far the loss of life is a lot less than in the 1900 hurricane. That could change, because determining how many people were just swept out to sea will take months. But we at least have reason to hope that the loss of life will be less than experienced with Hurricane Katrina. Despite a night of terror, especially in the hours between 3:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. when the strongest and most violent winds howled through over and over again, those of us who hunkered down in Houston fared better than anyone who lives closer to the coast or Galveston Bay. Trees snapped and toppled everywhere, taking about 99% of the electrical system with them. But my impression is that fewer trees penetrated roofs and houses than in Hurricane Rita. The overwhelming challenge is restoring electricity to over 2 million people, not just to their homes and businesses, but to water and sewer pumping stations, gas stations, grocery stories and traffic signals at hundreds of intersections.

My home near downtown Houston was among the first to lose power, about 7:00 p.m. Friday night. The power stayed off just over 48 hours, spoiling everything in the refrigerator. We were able to salvage some of the freezer contents by taking them in a cooler to a friend's house with power ten miles away. At this point 58% of the customers of Centerpoint (the primary electrical provider for most of Harris County) are still without power, despite something like 12,000 utility workers who have arrived from other states to help repair the damage. Those without power are, of course, frustrated, angry and depressed. But at least they see progress being made and offers of help from the fortunate whose power has been restored. They know that in weeks if not days, their power will return.

In the middle of all this, Richard Parker, a lecturer in journalism at UT Austin and a former Knight Ridder national correspondent who wrote about Katrina and Rita, raised some important long-term questions in an insightful op ed piece in the September 16th Houston Chronicle.

Parker writes that, as the fourth-largest city in the U.S. descends nightly into almost total darkness, "it is the ensuing pitch black that envelops more than 2 million people and 600 square miles that reveals something not just about Houston, but about Texas, and even America. We aren't so much addicted to oil as hooked on the tumultuous relationship where money, oil and the obsessive cycle of the boom and the bust all collide. It's a rollicking love affair and yet it seems doomed; it's just too hard, too costly, too painful.

"The visible evidence is dramatic enough: the Galveston oceanfront smashed into matchsticks, the stilted homes of the Bolivar Peninsula ripped from their pilings. There's that boat wedged under the house in Bayou Vista. And in downtown Houston, Interstate 10 is gracelessly lined by crumpled gas stations, shorn billboards, smashed roof lines and shattered skyscraper windows.

"But the storm's truest self lies in the enormous economic and financial cost... Yes, in Texas everything is big, and something this big can ultimately be untenable. The cost of the storm is between $6 billion and $16 billion, according to federal estimates; private industry estimates say $8 billion to $18 billion. The irony is that just as Houston is the undisputed petroleum capital of the globe, rising sea temperatures are making Gulf hurricanes more intense, according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

"And the cost will only rise in the years to come. Houston didn't used to be so big but like the rest of the coastal United States it has swollen to expose ever larger numbers of people to ever-larger storms. The coastal population has soared by 57 percent since 1960 and jumped more than 200 percent in some places. As a result, some financial risk managers expect the claims from Gulf hurricanes to rise 40 percent in the coming years.

"And yet, the lure of the boom is strong. Before curfew, Interstate 10 is as jammed with convoys of cars flying into town at 80 and 90 miles per hour, pickup beds stuffed with bottled water and generators. Until Ike, after all, Houston had defied economic gravity even as the rest of the country slid into economic hardship. Buoyed by the price of oil, the skyline soared, property values roared and houses flipped. Even as the global oil supply began to run dry, Houston has been easy money for oil traders and day laborers alike.

"There is a strong sense of denial in all this. The radio crackles with weathermen chatting about school closings and good weather for the work week, followed by pleadings for citizens to take ice and water to the first responders. Only to be followed by reminders for the city to boil its water. Except that there is no electricity with which to boil the water or pump the gas to work. And there is no electricity at work. One radio caller from Louisiana gently reminds: Recovering will not take days or weeks but, fully, years.

"The caller grasps something that keeps eluding everyone else in the dark. Houston isn't just some bucolic collection of farms and fishing towns. It's a city. But can it survive in this form if it must be evacuated or closed for a month every two years? Can we continue to survive our dependence not just on foreign oil but domestic petroleum supplies that are constantly interrupted, whether for 30 days three years ago, or 10 days this time?

"Oh, sure, the houses will be rebuilt, the city cleaned up and the power will flicker back on. After all, Houston is the great, if imperfect, ideal of Texas; and by extension, it is the great and tawdry love affair of America.

"And the wind and the water have laid it bare for exactly what it is."

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