When a major catastrophe strikes your city, the worst part is all the death and destruction.
The second-worst part is when armchair experts pipe up and tell you why it’s all your fault.
As the rain from Hurricane Harvey kept coming down on Texas this week, there was plenty of clucking about what everyone suddenly knew: Houston, the largest US city with no formal zoning, had brought the crisis upon itself. “Houston Is Drowning — In Its Freedom From Regulations,” proclaimed a headline in Newsweek. The Washington Post found the culprit in “Houston’s ‘Wild West’ Growth.”
If you don’t live in Houston, it’s comforting — but wrong — to pretend that crazy right-wing Texans were uniquely reckless. Houston does have building restrictions. It just doesn’t have the kind that would have warded off 50 inches of rainfall in a few days. Who does?
A confession: I have a soft spot for Houston. I was working in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck a dozen years ago this week, and I visited Houston often in subsequent months because my then-boyfriend and some of my friends were exiled there.
If you’re used to the stately beauty of New England or New Orleans, the country’s fourth-biggest city isn’t easy to like. But there are reasons why you should — including an admirable diversity, an economy that accommodates newcomers from all over, and housing costs well below those in most other major metros. Houston’s embrace of tens of thousands of evacuees after Katrina remains the single greatest act of civic kindness I’ve ever seen.
Back in 2005, the rap against New Orleans was that nobody should live below sea level to begin with. Actually, had the hurricane-protection system, built by the US Army Corps of Engineers, worked as promised, low-lying areas would have been at far lower risk. But when your city is full of water, you’re in no position to quibble with Fox News.
After a disaster, it’s natural, even vital, to consider how it might have been avoided. But the game of coulda-shoulda-woulda serves a secondary purpose: It’s how the rest of the country rationalizes that whatever just happened to you can never happen to them.
“No zoning” is the new “below sea level.” Actually, Houston does regulate development — just in ways ill-suited to the age of climate change. Houston has minimum-parking requirements that require developers to cover the landscape with hardtop. Most of the city is still subject to minimum lot sizes that promote new construction on virgin land at the urban periphery, including areas better left untouched.
But communities from coast to coast have similar rules. In Massachusetts, where many towns require residential lots of an acre or more, we’re in no position to criticize anybody else’s sprawl. And we’re as capable as any Texan of selectively ignoring climate risk. When insurance rates spiked a few years ago — a rational response to rising seas and the National Flood Insurance Program’s financial woes — residents of coastal areas in Massachusetts, and their elected representatives, complained that the science behind them couldn’t possibly be right.
Sadly, it’s all too easy to imagine a Hurricane Sandy-like storm that would inundate the former tidal flats on which much of Boston’s urban core was built. “Ignore the consultants,” state representative Byron Rushing memorably tweeted this week. “Want to know if you’re prone to flooding? Get an 1815 map of Boston. Your street’s not there? Buy an inflatable boat.” Note to self: Order a raft, and count your blessings.
In a crisis, people should stick up for each other. Plus, you never know who’s next.
Dante Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/danteramos or on Twitter: @danteramos.