Houston History, a magazine published by the Center for Public History at the University of Houston, is the voice of history and culture throughout the Houston area. It aims to provide Houstonians with the opportunity to learn about all aspects of Houston’s history. The articles published will seek to educate and entertain while exploring important aspects of Houston’s history and culture.
The cover story of the fall issue of Houston History revisits the history of flooding in Houston in order to grapple with the disastrous effects of Hurricane Harvey, and reflect upon future planning and policy in Houston.
When we conceived the idea for this issue almost a year ago, we planned to focus on examples of industrial accidents and environmental improvement. That was before Harvey hit. Those of us who are Houston natives, or almost natives, are no strangers to flooding but not of this magnitude. The Washington Post reported that Houston and Southeast Texas received 19 trillion gallons of rain, or a trillion more gallons of water than fills Chesapeake Bay, the largest U.S. estuary.
Harvey was our third 500-year rain event in less than three years and, in the end, was deemed a 1,000-year storm. These are misleading terms that actually indicate the chance, 1 in 500 or 1 in 1,000 respectively, of such an event occurring in any given year rather than how often. Flood plains based on 100-year events are similarly confusing and, perhaps, cause us to be somewhat complacent about our risk. No wonder we frequently hear, “I don’t need flood insurance. I’m not in the 100-year floodplain”; or, “I didn’t flood in Allison, so I don’t need to worry.”
In 1929 Houston experienced major flooding that was seemingly forgotten until another catastrophic flood followed in 1935, prompting Houston to establish the Harris County Flood Control District. The U.S. Congress passed the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1938 that included funds for Addicks and Barker Reservoirs, opening in 1945 and 1948 respectively. The Weather Research Center reports Houston has had about 175 significant floods since 1837 (120 of them since the reservoirs opened). Experts have warned Houston another catastrophic flood was coming, just as they had warned the levees would break in New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina, but government entities did not adequately address how to prevent future flood damages.
Other articles in this magazine also reflect the importance of remembering our history so we can develop sound policy that enables the people in our region to live healthy, happy, productive lives. The Frost Town archeological dig illustrates the changes that occurred as Houston’s first suburb transitioned from a predominantly German neighborhood to an African American and then Mexican American community, followed by a railroad yard and a section of road right of way. Over the years, decisions on whether or not to provide infrastructure to the area dictated the (mis)fortunes of those residing there, whether citizens or businesses.
The articles on the Texas City Disaster and a deadly 2008 crane collapse demonstrate the importance of protecting safety in the workplace, both for those who labor there and those nearby. The Air Alliance Houston piece reminds us of instances of our most reckless pollution, like burning car batteries at an incinerator near the Astrodome in the 1970s and industrial emissions today, to our efforts at redemption by the nonprofit sector to insure we monitor and protect air quality going forward. Likewise, the article on Habitat for Humanity illustrates how everyone benefits when more people get a chance to share in the American dream of homeownership.
For the full “Letter from the Editor: Wrecks and Redemption, 15.1 by Debbie Harwell, see: https://houstonhistorymagazine.org/2017/11/letter-from-the-editor-wrecks-and-redemption-15-1/
To subscribe, read our back issues, or learn more about the magazine, please visit https://houstonhistorymagazine.org/.