Houston’s growth in recent decades has made it the country’s fourth-largest city, but its urban planning regulations are still rooted in the Wild West days. The city expanded outward, turning lands that once absorbed rainwater into parking lots, roads and developments. There are no environmental zoning laws, only deeds that allow property owners to dictate how the land is used. In wealthier ― which, in a city where Jim Crow once reigned, usually translates to whiter ― areas, residents invited flood safeguards, such as dikes and berms, and spurned hazards such as chemical plants and refineries.
When the numbers fly around for programs to repair housing in the wake of the storm, most of that money will end up with people who had more costly homes to begin with. Almost all of it will go to those who could both obtain and afford flood insurance. It won’t go to those who were in the homes where flood insurance would run higher than a mortgage. In fact, many of these areas are likely to suffer flooding and displacement in storms that do not draw the attention of the nation. Storms that other parts of the city barely notice. The nomads of the storm are on the move much more frequently than many people realize.
With each move, those who rent, or those who could only afford a home in an area already known to be prone to flooding, are like to end up with something that’s very close to nothing. As the national flood insurance program comes up for renewal, it’s easy to be angry about those who own vacation homes on the seashore and receive payments despite knowing that they’re likely to be flooded again. But most people who live in areas with repeating floods live there because their options are limited.
In Katrina, some of those who rented or lived in flood prone areas were never able to go home. In fact, some of those being displaced now in Houston are the same people who were sent wandering by Katrina.
Twelve years ago, flood waters after Hurricane Katrina forced hundreds of thousands of New Orleans residents from their homes, displacing them to other parts of the country.
No city took in more Katrina evacuees than Houston and tens of thousands of them are still living in the Texas metropolis, enduring disaster for the second time.
The storm-driven poor, literally washed from one city to another, and likely to once again land in a area more vulnerable to the next disaster.
It’s not that people with more wealth aren’t suffering or in danger. Of course they are. But they’re more likely to have the personal resources and the local, state, and federal programs that put them back into their homes.
As Harvey moves away from the areas that have suffered over the last week, the television crews will go home. The people who have been lucky enough to avoid disaster, along with those who can afford fast repair, will go home. But those who were in the bottomlands because they were on the bottom, will look for another place to be. And be likely to see the same thing again. Because this storm, like most storms — and like climate change — has the most impact on the people who have the least ability to deal with it.