The mayhem that Hurricane Harvey unleashed on Houston didn’t only come from the sky. On the ground, it came sweeping in from the Katy Prairie some 30 miles west of downtown.
For years, the local authorities turned a blind eye to runaway development. Thousands of homes have been built next to, and even inside, the boundaries of the two big reservoirs devised by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s after devastating floods. Back then, Houston was 20 miles downstream, its population 400,000. Today, these reservoirs are smack in the middle of an urban agglomeration of six million.
Built on a mosquito-infested Texas swamp, Houston similarly willed itself into a great city. It is the country’s energy capital, home to oil and carbon-producing giants, to the space industry, medical research and engineers of every stripe. Its sprawl of highways and single-family homes is a postwar version of the American dream.
Unfortunately, nature always gets the last word. Houston’s growth contributed to the misery Harvey unleashed. The very forces that pushed the city forward are threatening its way of life.
Sprawl is only part of the story. Houston is also built on an upbeat, pro-business strategy of low taxes and little government. Many Texans regard this as the key to prosperity, an antidote to Washington. It encapsulates a potent vision of an unfettered America.