In Houston, flood-affected populations contend with climate change and development politics.
In 2017, Hurricane Harvey’s rains flooded 204,000 homes and apartment buildings, and nearly three quarters of these lay outside the federally regulated 100-year flood plain (an area with a 1 percent probability of flooding on any given year). Hurricane Harvey delivered excessive and unusual anthropogenic climate change-related precipitation levels. But many Houstonians also believe this was not just a “natural” disaster, but a calamity whose materially and socially disruptive capacity is rooted in human development, organization, and land use practices. During the last three decades, real estate developers have skirted flood plain construction regulations, built extensive subdivisions in emergency flood sacrifice zones, and found creative ways of avoiding their responsibility to build required flood prevention infrastructure. The recovery of the city of Houston also provides a critical setting for investigating the ways disaster-affected populations wrestle with the political and epistemological dimensions of climate-change and development related disasters in the early twenty-first century.
The people of Houston are no strangers to hydrometeorological-related calamity. Lifelong resident and community activist Richard Martin, put this fact in historical perspective during an interview in January 2018: “We are geographically well situated, but prone to floods. The first guy to die from flooding in Houston was a farmer in 1837. He’d gone to San Felipe and he was trying to cross Buffalo Bayou, but his horse stumbled, and he fell in.” More recently, Houstonians faced rising waters during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, the Memorial Day Flood of 2015, and the Tax Day Flood of 2016. For other Houstonians like Katie Jones, these recurring flood-events deepened and personalized an awareness of the impacts some types of urbanization have on surrounding environments and flood risk.
Development and politics
Richard, Katie, and like-minded Houstonians share a keen sense of the sorts of policies and practices required to prevent the transformation of storms into disasters. Among these policies and practices they count a moratorium on further construction within the 100-year flood plain, the adoption of construction techniques that do not introduce new landfill to low-lying areas, the enforcement of construction codes that require large scale real estate developers to build water retention and detention structures to help manage runoff water, and the use of construction materials and techniques that allow rainfall absorption by the landscape. Unfortunately, their years of recovering from and preparing for floods have taught them that flood mitigation policy and practice in Houston involves more than the production and application of techno-scientific data about flood risk. Instead, flood risk assessment and policy involves intimate entanglements between political culture, powerful economic interests, the desire for large affordable homes, and the science of flood risk assessment.
In the aftermath of Allison, Katie was lucky to benefit from a FEMA buyout, but participation in this federal assistance program had one key requirement: her newly purchased house had to be located outside the 100-year flood plain. Identifying such a property should have been a simple matter of finding another home outside of the area designated as high flood risk by the Harris County Flood Control District. Things turned out to be more complicated. “The flood maps are a laugh,” Katie told us during a Sunday morning breakfast at a local restaurant overlooking the Buffalo Bayou, a waterway that cuts across Houston’s urban landscape and whose surrounding development caused much of the flooding during Harvey. Once the scientific part of flood risk studies are conducted, she told us, developers “exert enormous pressure to not have their sites on the flood map. There’s millions of dollars at play.”
Richard, who lives in a historic neighborhood just west of downtown, similarly pointed out that residents have to contend with the ways real estate development politics permeate techno-scientific flood risk knowledge, and the uncertainties this permeation produces. “A lot of building decisions are heavily weighed in favor of developers,” he explained. Part of this favoritism, he suspects, is rooted in the campaign contributions that building companies make to mayoral candidates during election years, who then appoint members of the City Planning Commission who then favor requests on the part of developers for variances (exemptions) to water management codes like the building of detention structures and retention ponds.
The city’s rapid pace of urban development since the mid-twentieth century has further complicated flood risk reduction for Houstonians. Various governing bodies work independently of one another even though their decisions heavily impact how water flows through watersheds that tie different jurisdictions together, making this political landscape all the more complex. Sharon Mills, a resident of the Forest Cove neighborhood for 30 years, explained the situation:
We don’t have coordination. Montgomery [County] is to the north of us and it’s having a lot of development, the county to the south of us also has a lot of business development, then you have Harris county and the City of Houston. We don’t have coordinated efforts [to deal with watershed management and flood control].
Some leaders of the construction business community see Harvey in a very different light. In a letter to the Houston Chronicle published on September 5, 2017, Leo Linbeck III, the CEO of one of the city’s leading construction companies, Acquinas Companies LLC, and an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Rice University, made the case that “Hurricane Harvey was not a catastrophe.” He cautioned readers to be wary of “some who are spinning a narrative that Houston’s response was a failure, and to use this ‘failure’ as a pretext for changing our formula for success.” The formula for success that Linbeck refers to is one of lax government regulation and poor enforcement of construction codes, which allows real estate construction companies to turn quick profits through the construction of condos and suburban subdivisions with little regard or responsibility for the long term impacts of their projects on flood risk. While Harvey reveals the long-term impacts of lax and inconsistent environmental impact regulation for some Houstonians, for others, like Linbeck, Harvey is “evidence that our distinctive approach to self-governance works, even under the stress of a major storm.” What is at risk for Linbeck, then, are not the lives, homes, and well-being of his fellow Houstonians, but the possibility that real estate capital may encounter regulatory limits to profitable investment in the city.
As a global city that is home to one of the largest petro-chemical production complexes in the world, Houston is both a site of immense political-economic power and an urban laboratory for the testing of free market approaches to land use and development. As a key site of production in the global hydrocarbon economy, Houston is also a deeply unequal urban space where economically marginalized African American and Latinx communities are more likely than whites to live and work in the vicinity of toxic industrial sites, enduring the long-term impacts of these conditions at the margins of the city’s political power calculus. Flooding and its risks doubtless compounded the situation in these communities. Yet, the focus of political authorities and some citizen groups solely on flooding has also created a sharp distinction between what can qualify as a disaster and what cannot. Indeed, some of our interlocutors who have been involved in environmental justice efforts cautioned that prior to Harvey, Houston was already experiencing an unrecognized disaster in the form of a “toxic flood” that has inequitably affected minority communities.
Public anthropology after Harvey
Identifying the human actions gave this particular catastrophe its unique shape and magnitude—who and what was affected and how much—and what policies and practices might mitigate its recurrence is a complex socio-political and epistemological challenge. Our ongoing National Science Foundation-supported research in Houston is designed to specifically examine these issues and produce policy recommendations to help mitigate disasters similar to the one triggered by Hurricane Harvey.
The Houstonians we have engaged with have given us much to reflect on as we move forward with our research. Residents’ responses to our initial ethnographic question, “What does Hurricane Harvey reveal for you?” compel us to include a new set of interlocutors in our ethnographic interviews: flood risk assessment experts employed by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Harris County Flood Control District. As we inquire how these actors represent their work and wrestle with the political dimensions of flood risk knowledge dissemination, we will also investigate the effects of the flood on low income communities of color in parts of the city where flooding from Harvey complicated already precarious conditions such as proximity to hazardous petrochemical production and storage facilities, and the slow displacement of African American and Latinx communities due to gentrification.
The case of post-Harvey Houston underscores a fundamental observation of the anthropology of disasters: Disasters are neither discrete events that come and go with the passing of storms, nor are they anomalous acts of “nature” that affect society from the outside. They are long-unfolding historical political ecological processes that are engendered through normatively accepted everyday practices, like unfettered and poorly regulated urban development. As anthropogenic climate change produces more powerful storms and hurricanes, it is important to remember that heavy rains alone do not a disaster make. Also, we are not powerless before a changing climate. The combination of urban, disaster, and environmental anthropology that characterizes our current project, we hope, will be one of many efforts that will help us collectively make a more sustainable and equitable future for all.
Roberto E. Barrios is associate professor of anthropology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His recent book, Governing Affect: Neoliberalism and Disaster Reconstruction (2017), is a multi-sited ethnography that examines the political-ecological and affective dimensions of disaster and its aftermath.
Raja Swamy is assistant professor of anthropology and a member of the Disasters, Displacement, and Human Rights Program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Presently working on his first book based on his dissertation research, Swamy investigates the impact of the 2004 Tsunami on economic development priorities in India’s Tamil Nadu state.
Faas, A. J., and Roberto E. Barrios. 2015. “Applied Anthropology of Risks, Hazards, and Disasters.” Human Organization 74(4): 287–295
Oliver-Smith, Anthony, and Susanna Hoffman, eds. 1999. The Angry Earth: Disaster in Anthropological Perspective. New York: Routledge
Cite as: Barrios, Roberto E., and Raja Swamy. 2018. “The Post-Harvey ‘Recovery’ is a Political Disaster.” Anthropology News website. DOI: 10.1111/AN.946