Hurricane Harvey has inflicted appalling suffering upon Houston, a city I called home until only a few months ago. But those flood waters have revealed more than they have covered, and what they have revealed gives us cause for hope.
Every lost life matters individually, and each of them represents a hole in the lives of the friends and family who survive Harvey’s victims. But there are not very many of them. There are many cities in the world in which an event such as Harvey would mean the loss of thousands of lives, perhaps hundreds of thousands of them. While again keeping in mind the individuals who died here, in this place, in these circumstances, the total death toll from Harvey is likely to end up being not terribly different from the loss of life from the traffic accidents and everyday tragedies that inevitably beset a sprawling, complex city such as Houston. Houston is resilient — in several distinct and important ways.
Houston is physically resilient, as indeed are most American cities. One of the American virtues seldom appreciated by Americans — for the same reason that water is invisible to fish — is that we are excellent builders. It is a practical impossibility to really build to the theoretical demands of outlier events such as Harvey or 1,000-year earthquakes, but our public and private structures are remarkably robust, even in the face of a monster storm such as Harvey. For the most part, our buildings do not collapse and will not fail absent extraordinary circumstances.
This is, as I have argued before, partly the result of one of the great regulatory success stories of our time: our building codes, which are developed through a decentralized, organic process involving everyone from architects and engineers to fire marshals and elected officials. The robustness of our building standards is, in fact, sometimes silly: Commercial glass must be able to endure hurricanes of a certain determined force, and it is tested by using a pneumatic cannon to fire lengths of two-by-four at a certain speed into the windows. An engineer of my acquaintance, suspecting that these standards were in fact superabundantly high, puckishly decided to point the cannon at the walls rather than the windows, and the two-by-fours of course blasted right through them. Standing in front of the plate glass may very well be the safest place to be in a commercial building during a hurricane.
Though Harvey’s flooding will of course ruin many buildings in Houston, particularly older houses, many others will mostly need drying out and cleaning — no small task considering the scope of the damage, but minor compared with what would have happened if Harvey had hit a less well-built city such as Dhaka or Mumbai. Or any coastal Texas city a century ago: When a comparable hurricane hit Galveston in 1900, it double-decimated the population, killing between 6,000 and 12,000 of the city’s nearly 38,000 residents. Proportional destruction in Houston would have meant hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Houston is socially resilient. Texas’s culture may strike some as atavistic macho-cowboy silliness, but, as it turns out, when the water gets high you really want to have some atavistically macho cowboys around, particularly if they are in possession of the flat-bottomed boats favored by the justly celebrated “Cajun Navy.” The now-famous Houston Chronicle photo of a stoic-looking man wading through the flood waters while carrying an exhausted woman who is herself carrying a child is an iconic expression of certain realities that are not, whatever the voguish academic nonsense claims, “socially constructed.” Whatever the culture of Texas is, it is not a culture of helplessness. On Twitter, my friend Michael Berry, a former city councilman and current conservative talk-radio host, shared a picture of a long line of Houstonians waiting not for supplies or evacuation but for a chance to volunteer, to help those neighbors who cannot help themselves. Harris County has hundreds of volunteer sheriff’s deputies in its reserve patrol. These are not weekend warriors who are given a tin badge and a flare gun but men and women who have done the hard work of being graduated from the same law-enforcement academy professional police officers attend, at the end of which they receive not a salary and benefits but a fairly demanding volunteer schedule. The reserve has search-and-rescue teams as well as a marine patrol, both of which are very much needed at the moment. It is the second-largest reserve command of its kind, behind Los Angeles County’s.
Texas’s culture may strike some as atavistic macho-cowboy silliness, but, as it turns out, when the water gets high you really want to have some atavistically macho cowboys around.
That is not the sort of thing that happens overnight. That is the result of a real ethic of active citizenship’s interacting with local institutions that take generations to cultivate. Even amid all the suffering, a friend of mine jokes that Harvey looks like a conspiracy to make Texas look good.
Houston is spiritually resilient: As the floodwaters rose, a Catholic priest made his way via boat from rooftop to rooftop, bringing Communion to those awaiting a more temporal deliverance. The churches have acquitted themselves well and will play an important role in the city’s reconstruction. The city is politically resilient, with its most important and responsible leaders having for the most part forgone efforts to make political hay out of Harvey. (There will be a time for that; it is not now.) And it will prove economically resilient, too.
Houston, with its vast asphalt expanses and its sci-fi eastern skyline of oil refineries and flare stacks, is not Paris. I have joked from time to time that its city motto ought to be the old engineers’ creed: “It Ain’t Pretty, But It Works.” The police and emergency personnel and public authorities will do their jobs, with varying degrees of success, and will no doubt earn both praise and criticism for their efforts. But what really works about Houston — and about America — is that line of guys saying, “I have a bass boat, a raincoat, and some rope — what can I do to help?” There’s no army in the world that can replace that, and no amount of treasure that can buy it.