Harvey keeps on battering Houston, but show goes on
Locals come out for my ill-advised gig in a diverse city growing used to severe flooding
At first it all seemed comical to me. The very mention of rainfall, and Texans were emptying out local supermarkets of drinking water, candles and other emergency supplies in preparation. Sure you’d swear they’d never seen a drop before.
They hadn’t. Well not much anyway, until very recently. Now flooding, particularly in the southeastern part of the state, is a regular occurrence.
Hurricane Harvey will do most of its damage in Houston, a sprawling city (recently named the most ethnically diverse metropolis in America) which sits just 43ft (13.1m) above sea level and a few short miles from the Gulf of Mexico. In flooding terms, many describe it as a “bowl” that not only captures but keeps precipitation.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s national centres for environmental information have recorded almost 100 reports of flooding or flash flooding in Harris County, where Houston is located, since 1996 – an average of five days of flooding each year since the mid-1990s.
While city planners don’t dig their heads in the oily sand, their flood response methods have been questioned in the past. “We now force rainwater into streets, and then into bayous, which flush out to Galveston Bay and the Gulf [of Mexico],” said Matt Lanza, an operational meteorologist in Houston.
In other words, the streets are an integral part of the system of damage limitation. “It’s a good idea in theory because you’d rather flood roads and cars than houses,” he added.
This is a more practical, albeit warped-sounding, logic than first thought. Many Texans are slow to evacuate their homes, regardless of how extreme reports suggest an impending storm or hurricane will be. Some local news agencies even reported that local officials in coastal towns were requesting any residents who refused to evacuate to please carve their social security numbers into their arms so that their bodies could be later identified.
While the death toll is not yet known, reports suggest up to 30,000 people have been forced to evacuate their homes, with no signs of the storm abating anytime soon.
If things do get a lot worse, many are asking if president Donald Trump will be quicker to take action than former president George W Bush, who was widely criticised for his administration’s slow response in tackling Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the costliest natural disaster in US history. More than 1,200 people died, mainly in Louisiana, during a storm which all but floored the city of New Orleans. “Natural disasters bring out the best and the worst in American presidents,” one Houstonite told The Irish Times.
The city of Austin is a haven, not just for the politically and socially liberal, but also from more severe weather. Nestled in what’s known as the Hill Country of Texas, hundreds of miles from any coastline, it rarely experiences the kind of extreme tropical conditions faced as a matter of routine in places like Houston.
While meteorologists have reported up to 22 inches of rainfall in some parts of Travis County, of which Austin is the county seat, this pales in comparison to the 50 inches of precipitation expected to fall over Houston, the most populous city in the state in the coming days.
But perspective is everything. An ill-advised trip from Austin to Houston led this reporter into the eye of the storm last weekend in order to fulfil an obligation to perform at a music venue in the southern suburb of Pearland. While city officials in the Lone Star State’s liberal capital had cancelled pretty much every major event planned – including Austin’s annual LGBT Pride Parade – it appeared to be “business as usual” in Houston.
“Don’t worry,” the venue manager said, “the power almost always goes out during these storms, at which point we close things up and you can all go home.” But the power didn’t go out, despite the growing sound of thunder and flashes of lightning we could hear and see out the window behind us on stage.
The second lie told that evening by the worst oracle of meteorological metronomy in history related to our prospects of finishing early on account of a low turnout for the gig. “I don’t expect there to be too many folks out on a night like this,” he said, “So y’all can probably play for an hour then head on home before the storm gets any worse.”
Once again, the oracle couldn’t be trusted as there were plenty of “folks” out for a good time. Despite our hilarious renditions of weather-related songs such as Purple Rain by Prince and even Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival, the crowd appeared oblivious to Harvey’s increasingly loud grumbling outside. We made it home unscathed. I wish I could say the same for the deer we hit while driving along Interstate Highway 10.