Harvey Over Texas

Harvey’s in the news, a lot, and probably will be for days.

I noticed stuff piling up in my notes, and decided that getting part of my ‘Friday’ post done early was a good idea.

“Unprecedented?” Maybe

(From David J. Phillip/AP, via KXAN, used w/o permission.)
( “Residents are rescued from their homes surrounded by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Houston, Texas.”

News reporting generally uses more superlatives than I like.

“Unprecedented” seems to be particularly popular with BBC News editors at the moment.

I don’t mind things being biggest, smallest, newest, or whatever. But I’ve learned to be rationally skeptical when I read that something is the biggest, worst, or most devastating thing of its kind.

Reading that something’s the best is a nice change of pace. But I think being rationally skeptical on those rare occasions is also a good idea. “Good” I’ll readily believe. “Best?” That may be, but I like to learn why it’s considered top-of-the-top rate. Or the worst ever.

It’s not that I think pessimism is cool, or that enjoying stuff is wrong. Gloominess is not next to Godliness, cherophobia is not a virtue, and Carrie Nation did America no favors. My opinion. (July 31, 2016; July 10, 2016)

My memory’s pretty good for events of the last half-century, and I’ve spent some of that time studying history.

Some of the biggest things of their kind exist today. Some of our tech didn’t exist in any form when I was younger.

There are more of us around today than ever before, too. But humans are social critters, so we’ve lived in sizable groups for some time. What’s changing is the size of our groups.

Some of our cities have gotten pretty big. About 37,843,000 folks call Tokyo’s metropolitan area home. American cities aren’t in the top five largest. But New York City is among the top 10, with about 23,723,696 in that city’s urban area.

How many folks live in Houston depends on how you define where the city ends and where the rest of Texas starts.

2,489,558 folks live in the city, 6,490,180 in the Houston metropolitan area, and 4,944,332 in the urban area.

As I said Sunday, lots of folks who live in Texas — including Houston — got in Harvey’s way. So did many who live in nations in or near the Caribbean. (August 27, 2017)

1. Water Over the Dam

(From NOAA, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

Houston flood: Addicks dam begins overspill
BBC News (August 29, 2017)

A major dam outside Houston has begun spilling over as Storm Harvey pushes the reservoir past capacity, a Texas official says.

“Engineers have tried to prevent nearby communities from being inundated by releasing some of the water held by the Addicks dam.

“But flood control official Jeff Lindner says water levels are now over the height of the reservoir edge.

“Harvey has brought huge floods to Texas and is starting to affect Louisiana….”

Houston got started at Allen’s Landing. That’s where the Buffalo and White Oak Bayous meet. None of the city’s land was ever more than about 90 feet above Galveston Bay.1

Flooding isn’t a new issue for Houston.

That’s what Allen’s Landing looked like after Tropical Storm Allison, in 2001.

George W. Bush was president then.

My guess is that some folks said that dealing with Allison would have been done better if Al Gore had won the election. Others probably felt that Bush was doing a good job.

Many who weren’t being interviewed were most likely helping clean up after the storm. They probably had opinions about the recent election. But most probably realized that dealing with an emergency came before chewing over what might have been.

What’s special about this year is how much of Houston and other parts of Texas are under water. And how much more rain is coming.

Safety, Grandiloquence, Legacy

(From Kuru, USGS; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Buffalo Bayou watershed, Houston, Texas.)

The BBC article links to Jeff Linder’s Tweet: “Addicks pool is now at 108.01 ft or at the top of the N spillway,” and two hashtags.

Addicks pool is on Houston’s Buffalo Bayou, part of a water management and flood control system that started in 1938. Water’s being released from Barker Reservoir, too, another part of the system.

I’m pretty sure that someone’s going to complain about the folks in charge deciding let water go past the dams.

I think it’s almost certainly better than letting water spill over the top — and seeing how long it takes the dams to fail. Less dramatic, maybe. But also a great deal safer.

Mr. Linder is a Harris County Flood Control District meteorologist, not a politician. That, and Twitter’s character limit, may explain his terseness.

I think living in the 21st century helps.

Here’s where I could launch into a nostalgic eulogy for those days of yore, when speech was eloquent and exorbitant. Make that extravagant.

I’m not sure how long it would have taken to say that Addicks pool had topped the North spillway in 19th century America.

Even then, I suspect that many wouldn’t have wasted time with excessive verbosity.

My guess is that the most grandiloquent gentleman of the day would, if abruptly confronted with a conflagration of sufficient magnitude, have uttered a remark like “FIRE!”

He might, later, have pondered upon whether it would have been better to preface his remark with a soliloquy on the meaning of life.

Or maybe he’d have realize that erudite references to Prometheus, Hephaestus, and Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith” were best left for later.

I strongly suspect that most of us have more common sense than we often use.

I love language, and enjoy playing with arcane terms and convoluted syntax. But I also enjoy writing stuff that’s at least moderately readable.

Which reminds me, as after-dinner speakers say, of something entirely different.

An Oration, by the Honorable Edward Everett, entitled “The Battles of Gettysburg,” was the highlight of a dedication ceremony in 1863.

Everett’s fans weren’t disappointed. The Massachusetts politician, pastor, educator, diplomat, and orator kept going for two hours. More than 150 years later, we still have the text of his oration.

All 13,607 words of it.

The American president was there, too, and talked for about two minutes. Then he sat down. I don’t blame him.

Looking at what happened later, historians figure he was probably coming down with a mild case of smallpox.

What he said, the exact words, aren’t entirely certain.

We’re pretty sure about the first half-dozen: “Four score and seven years ago….”

The event’s program described it as “Dedicatory Remarks.”

Since then we’ve been calling it the Gettysburg Address, and that’s another topic.

2. Houston and America

(From Reuters, via Al Jazeera, used w/o permission.)
(“Some parts of the city of Houston, the fourth biggest US city, was[!] fully submerged in the flooding that followed the storm”
(Al Jazeera))

Tropical storm Harvey displaces 30,000 in Texas
Al Jazeera (August 28, 2017)

“More than 30,000 people are expected to be placed in temporary shelters in the US state of Texas due to widespread flooding caused by Tropical Storm Harvey, US officials said, with more rain expected in the coming days….

“…Al Jazeera’s Heidi Zhou-Castro, reporting from Houston, the largest city in Texas, said that in the last 48 hours, emergency agencies have received some 6,000 calls for help.

“She said that between 300 to 400 households are still waiting to be reached by rescuers as of 13:00 GMT on Monday.

“Our correspondent also said that the flooding is expected to rise in some parts of Houston, as authorities are expected to open dam and levies in the area, to ease pressure from continuous rain….”

The nine-county Greater Houston metropolitan area is the second-largest one in Texas, and the biggest metropolitan area on the American Gulf Coast. Small wonder that so much of America’s news is about Houston this week.

Even allowing for civic pride and the Houston Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s marketing efforts, Houston looks like a good place to live. Usually.

Right now, I’m not sure that anyone’s particularly thrilled about being there.

I don’t know which part of Houston’s skyline is in that photo’s background, or which part of the city’s roads it shows.

I’m also not sure what the two folks are in. It’s only about five pixels tall. That’s not enough to tell if it’s an improvised raft, or something else.

I’m guessing “something else,” since it seems to be powered, and leaving a wake. I’m also guessing that they’re heading for some of the road equipment, partially submerged nearby.

Something else I don’t know is how many the 30,000 or so folks who must move are from Houston. It’s a big city, but this is a big storm.

One more thing.

Al Jazeera’s Houston correspondent is Heidi Zhou-Castro. She’s an American broadcast journalist.

Her grandparents lived in Beijing, her husband is from Ecuador.

Her name, I think, shows an important facet of American society.

We have — slowly and imperfectly — grown from a collection of English colonies into a more cosmopolitan land. Many Americans today have ‘foreign’ names like O’Toole and Di Vincenzo, Pei and Chandrasekhar. And Zhou-Castro.

I like it, partly because I think we all come out ahead when folks with fresh ideas and enthusiasm move in. Knowing my family history helps. (April 2, 2017)

3. Monday Quarterbacks

(From AFP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“An estimated 30,000 people are in need of shelter”
(BBC News))

Storm Harvey: Houston battles ‘unprecedented’ floods
BBC News (August 28, 2017)

The US city of Houston is in the grip of the biggest storm in the history of the state of Texas, officials say.

“A record 30in of rain (75cm) has fallen on the city in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, turning roads into rivers.

“The area is expected to have received a year’s rainfall within a week. Five people are reported dead. Helicopters have plucked victims from rooftops.

“With rescue services overstretched as the rain continues, many people are having to fend for themselves….”

“…A city in crisis – James Cook, BBC News, Houston

“…In at least one neighbourhood facing severe flooding, people are angry that they were told to stay put only to realise, as night fell, that the waters were rising fast and they could not get out….”

My guess is that at least some folks living in neighborhoods that got isolated by flood waters are angry. That’s understandable. I’d probably be upset, too.

There may be a few preternaturally calm folks in Houston today.

I don’t think I’d be one of them. I’m a very emotional man. But being uncalm isn’t, I think, an excuse for handing executive control over to my emotions.

Philippians 4:4, 68 is good advice. Anxiety isn’t a good idea, rejoicing is.

We’ve got brains, and should use them. The trick is remembering that emotions happen — but what matters is what we think, decide, and do. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 17671770, 17771782)

Faith depends on what I think, not how I feel. (Catechism, 30, 142150, 156159, 274, 1706)

Now, back to Houston. I live near the other end of the Mississippi basin, on a sandy ridge. We’ve even been having sunny days this week.

Being calm about what’s happening in Houston is pretty easy. For me.

That lets me stop, think, and do a little checking.

Sure enough, most folks in Houston were told to stay where they were. It’s quite possible that some of the millions of folks realized that it’s bad advice. For them.

But I’m not ready to heap abuse on Houston’s authorities.


(From AFP, Reuters, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(Texans and the Coast Guard dealing with Harvey.)

Let’s think about this. Imagine that Sunday afternoon, or Sunday evening, Houston’s mayor — or some other official — had said “evacuate the city.”

Even without an inspiring quote like “cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once;” I think some Houstonians wouldn’t have been complaining on Monday.

They’d be dead. Survivors would be furious. Or maybe icily calm. In the mayor’s position, I might worry most about the outwardly-calm ones.

America has pretty good roads, many of us own or have access to motorized vehicles. Putting many miles behind us in a few hours generally isn’t hard. Not when we’re doing it as individuals or small groups.

When a lot of us are trying to do the same thing, at the same time, on the same roads, it’s a different story.

Urban transportation networks are notoriously frustrating during rush hour.

The traffic snarls may have gotten less tangled after 2008, when American employment dropped from about 63% of the working-age population to a tad under 59%. Those good times, from a traffic congestion viewpoint, didn’t last. The percentage of employed folks is going back up.

That’s still only about thirds of the population who are on the road: mostly trying to get from one place in a city to somewhere else fairly nearby. On a road network designed to handle the daily commute.

Let’s say that an evacuation order came, and everyone in a city was trying to get out. At the same time. Over roads designed to handle smaller loads. Multiply that by the number of cities and towns in a region.

I think evacuations can work. I also think that they take very careful planning. Even under ideal conditions, it’s not going to be easy. Or, often, safe.


In fairness, only about a hundred of the couple million folks trying to evacuate coastal Texas in 2005 died in the process.2

Hurricane Rita was coming, and authorities thought their evacuation plans were adequate. As it turns out, they were wrong.

Since they’d been told to flee, many folks were on the road: stuck in traffic, where gridlock and heat caught up with them.

Only a fraction of one percent of the evacuees died that way, but I don’t think many folks call the evacuation a success. I figure that folks running Texan cities have reviewed and revised their evacuation plans since then.

I’m also pretty sure that Houston authorities know what happened in 2005, and aren’t eager to make the same decisions.

Based on what I’ve read, and remember from past well-intentioned efforts, I’m inclined to agree with Dickerson’s and Marshall’s op-eds.

Given what they most likely knew at the time, the folks making decisions in Houston were making sense.

I don’t always agree with folks in authority. But I realize that we get things done better if there’s someone in charge. The trick has always been trying to find someone who’s good at the job, and working for the common good. (Catechism, 18971917, 19541960)

4. “…Ready to Save Neighbors….”

(From David J. Phillip, The Associated Press; via The Denver Post, used w/o permission.)
(“Residents wade through floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Houston, Texas.”
(The Denver Post))

FEMA director says Harvey is probably the worst disaster in Texas history
Joel Achenbach, Washington Post, via The Denver Post (August 27, 2017)

“…[FEMA director William ‘Brock’] Long has spoken of the need for a sea change in how the country prepares for disasters, noting that the federal government alone can’t always save the day. Ordinary citizens need to be prepared to be first responders, Long said. They need to have personal emergency plans. They need to be able to feed themselves for several days if disaster strikes. They need to be ready to save neighbors in harm’s way….”

I think director Long is right. We can’t count on ‘the government’ to do everything. I also think government agencies can and should do what they can to help folks recover from natural disasters. (August 27, 2017)

Folks who aren’t part of a government can help neighbors, too. I mentioned these outfits before:

Cooperation: A Small Example

The rural Minnesota town I call home isn’t perfect, but I think we’re a pretty good example of how folks can respond.

I’ll grant that Minnesota’s climate helps us.

We’ll occasionally get a year without a major winter or summer storm. But the lively weather here encourages us to build structures designed for high winds, heavy snow: pretty much anything short of a direct hit by a tornado.

Many of us also maintain equipment that helps us make do until snow plows or emergency crews get to where we live. A few folks in my neighborhood either maintain powered snow removal equipment, or know someone who does.

The city crews do a good job of digging the town services out after winter storms. But in a pinch we could do that, too.

Not that we get hurricane-level weather here. About the worst we’ve had recently was a summer storm in 2011.

Neighbors were cutting downed trees into truckload-size pieces and clearing debris, almost as soon as the sky cleared. We started hauling it away as soon as we heard where a municipal dump site had been set up.

Like I said, we’re not perfect. Not even close. But we do know how to cooperate, and help each other. I think most — make that nearly all — folks can, once we get the idea.

Folks living in a city of several million couldn’t act exactly as we do: and shouldn’t. Whether there’s a few thousand or a few million folks living nearby makes a difference.

But the basics: cooperation, being prepared, and keeping calm? That, I think, is possible anywhere.

It’s not always easy, but it is possible.

More of how I see living as if neighbors matter:

1 Houston:

2 2005:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Harvey Over Texas

  1. irishbrigid says:

    Missing word: “That’s still only about thirds of the population”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

    P.S. The pictures of Houston underwater remind me of Fargo-Moorhead every spring.

    • I see what you mean with the “still” sentence. It was as I intended it – – – but the usage may sound better in speech than print, so I made it more conventional.

      About Fargo-Moorhead in the spring. Indeed. Houston seems to be built on land that’s not unlike Fargo-Moorhead where it comes to hilliness. Or lack thereof.

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