Lest We Forget: Houston’s History of Flooding
Next week will mark the second anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. As we look back and build forward, we should also remember previous storms and how flooding shaped the a city called Houston and the people who inhabit it.
Houston History Magazine
In this regard, a reader forwarded me several links to a fascinating magazine. Debbie Z. Harwell, PhD., is managing editor of Houston History Magazine and a history teacher at the University of Houston.
Dr. Harwell was helping birth a new edition of Houston History focused on industrial accidents when Harvey hit. It was too late in her publication schedule to refocus the issue; she had been working on it for almost a year. So she wrote an introduction that helped put the storm in historical perspective. She wrote it sitting on a couch while Harvey’s rains beat against her windows.
Short-Term Memory Loss of Long-Term Needs
Prophetically, she titled the intro “Short-term Memory Loss of Long-term Needs.” In it, she says, “As a city and as a country we seem to suffer from short-term memory loss. Our memory of the flood is wiped out not by old age but by the next big news story, or even the next tweet. Past floods have similarly faded from the collective memory (until it happens again), with few willing to spend money on the necessary infrastructure to produce real change.”
Two years after Harvey and Dr. Harwell’s essay, we struggle with that same issue. The floodplain homes that she referenced in her Fall 2017 issue are back on the agenda only in Montgomery County this time. So are loopholes in regulations that allow developers to build with detention ponds.
Historical Photo Essay of Houston Flooding
Houston History also published a photo essay of Houston Floods called “Lest We Forget.” Former Houston Post photographer Joel Draut collected the photos and wrote the accompanying text. Interestingly, one of the most significant floods happened in 1837, one year before Louis Daguerre invented the first commercially viable photographic process, now known as the daguerreotype.
In an August 1836 advertisement, the Allen brothers proclaimed that Houston would become “ …beyond all doubt, the great interior commercial emporium of Texas.” Thirteen months later rains from a hurricane in September 1837 flooded the city’s Main Street to a depth of four feet. This inundation did not deter developers.
As I looked through page after page of forgotten photos from 1929, 1935, 1960, and 1973, I was struck by how similar they were to Harvey images. They were grainier. They were black and white. But aside from that, the images could have been from any one of a hundred more contemporary calamities, such as Katrina, Ike, Rita, or Harvey. Sometimes, even the dates were the same, like the Memorial Day flood of 1929 shown below. The location: Franklin and Milam. The bayou: Buffalo.
“Lest We Forget” is a short but great and sobering read. I highly recommend it.
Survivors, Volunteers, Responders Tell Their Harvey Stories
Dr. Harwell is also one of the driving forces behind a project called Resilient Houston: Documenting Hurricane Harvey. “We did an oral history harvest at the Kingwood Community Center last October,” said Dr. Harwell, “and excerpts from those interviews appear on the site. Almost half of those are from Kingwood – survivors, volunteers, responders. We will be adding more at the end of the fall semester.”
Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/22/2019 with thanks to Dr. Debbie Harwell and Joel Draut
723 Days since Hurricane Harvey