While the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Harvey was exceptional in its degree, flooding and its consequences have increasingly become the norm in Houston. We are facing a critical moment in the history of our city, especially when we realize that it has been developed according to obsolete environmental standards and that its flood control infrastructures are near catastrophic failure. In the span of three recent years, Houston experienced three successive so-called “500 year” flooding events. The environmental threat to health has dramatically increased with the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the city is once again an epicenter of a crisis, one that this time threatens lives, economic stability, social programs, education, and as yet unforeseen urban conditions. While a diluvial rain in Houston can reveal systemic problems related to aging flood control infrastructure, a pandemic makes apparent the city’s ill preparedness in providing the public with timely updates on, for example, the numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases and available hospital beds and ventilators.
As is the case in most metropolitan areas, the limited information as yet available on the pandemic has already indicated that African American and Latinx populations have more distant access to healthcare and testing sites, not to mention protective gear. Communities in eastern Houston that under “normal circumstances” already face three to five times the incidents of toxic exposure and cancer risks also happen to live in an area prone to the unregulated release and spillage of tons of liquid and airborne carcinogenic compounds during a storm. The same inequity is reflected in news coverage that focuses on tragic flooding circumstances in affluent parts of town (e.g., Meyerland) while ignoring the equal scale of flooding in less affluent areas (e.g., East Houston). Another illustration of such inequality occurs when assurances that air quality is safe, despite the fact that a chemical company in East Houston violated regulations eight times and emitted a toxic plume that hovered over the city for days and resulted in increased hospitalizations for East Houstonians. Every time a flood happens, toxic areas show up where they were not expected and histories gradually disappear as they get washed away from neighborhoods that are either ill-equipped or ignored. The same no doubt applies to the ongoing lockdown that only a small portion of the city's population can financially sustain for extended periods of time.
Be it because of a storm or a pandemic, we are reminded yet again that nothing else seems to matter unless we understand, denounce, and change the city’s urban development culture and its vulnerabilities. It is high time to have a new conversation about the future, one that focuses not only on immediate recovery but also on long-term resiliency and sustainability. Such a conversation will require a major rethinking of how Houston approaches its urban problems and will necessarily involve collaboration with institutions, neighborhoods, and populations that suffer disproportionately or are located in especially vulnerable zones. It may be reassuring that during Hurricane Harvey, Houston broke down its traditional barriers rather heroically and many segments of its population worked collaboratively. It therefore seems vital to expand and deepen the solidarity that does exist at times of crisis while imagining a sustainable and inclusive post-Harvey, post-Imelda, or post-Coronavirus city.
Rather than reflect on the city, the humanities must now reflect through it, working textually and contextually to develop collaborative projects that address issues of courage, creativity, and cohesion on the one hand, and displacement, dispossession, and divisions on the other. Civil engineers, architects, social scientists, and environmentalists are already approaching questions of crisis, rescue, recovery, and rebuilding in tangible ways, while we in the humanities can question the history, culture, and politics behind Houston’s infrastructures—its reliance on non-renewable energy, car-based planning, practices of physical segregation, placement of health facilities in wealthier areas of town, etc.—and their immediate effects on the city’s diverse populations.
In collaboration with other academic institutions in town, we therefore hope to expand on our Mellon-supported Public Humanities/Post Harvey initiative in order to deepen and expand relationships with a wide array of local institutions such as public utility and energy companies, news and activist organizations, charities and churches, schools and libraries, city governance and public boards, and vulnerable populations, all of which are precariously positioned in the longue durée. While Houston may well now be post-Harvey, it is now and forever pre- the next aqueous or pandemic disaster. In that sense, the activities produced by this grant may well serve as a model for other communities that are affected by rising sea levels, climate change, and viruses.
Farès el-Dahdah and Melissa Bailar