Houston, you have a problem

The pictures ring distinct, if distant, bells. For I used to live in Houston, from 1974 to 1984.

Ten years, which meant a couple of hurricanes, a dozen tornados and some half a dozen floods – I had never known nature to be like that. I knew how to handle extreme cold; that sort of knowledge comes with experience, of which I had plenty in Russia. Then once, back in 1967, I saw a massive hurricane in Pärnu, a seaside Estonian resort.

But that was it. All I had to show by way of experience with adverse weather was 25 cold winters and one hurricane. I wasn’t quite ready for Houston, and the very first flood showed me up for the greenhorn I was.

The deluge came, and it reminded me of the biblical story involving Noah. Except that the patriarch had plenty of company on his ark, and I was all alone in my car. It was moving, but only just – water was already some three feet deep, and there was a lot of physical resistance in the car’s way.

In those days I had only a vague idea of automotive mechanics, a cognitive void that has been only partially filled since then. I had heard the word ‘carburettor’ but didn’t know exactly what that device did.

More to the point, I didn’t know what happened if it sucked in water. That ignorance was quickly corrected: the engine coughed once or twice and died.

The water was already only a couple of inches below my window and the car began to pretend it was a boat by undulating gently. I realised it was time to abandon ship.

Now looking at the footage of the on-going flood, I can see that Houstonians know how to perform that simple manoeuvre. With wisdom born out of experience, they open their car windows, climb out and wade home.

Since I had neither wisdom nor experience, I did something incredibly stupid: opened the car door. A second later I knew that had been a wrong decision, which was how long it took for a giant wave, happy to have been set free, to roll into the car, filling it almost to the brim.

A good friend of mine, a Polish woman with aristocratic manners, a keenly intelligent face and large glasses perched on the tip of her patrician nose, found herself in a similar situation, but with a nice twist. She too had to abandon her car and wade home, except that in her part of town flood water ruptured a sewer. Hence she had to walk home waist deep in unspeakable muck, which didn’t at all go with the image she projected to the world.

In due course, I learned how to climb out of flooded cars, and that knowledge stood me in good stead on a few other occasions. But a nagging question just wouldn’t go away: how come just a couple of hours of subtropical downpours could create such mayhem in a city that was forewarned but clearly nor forearmed?

Surely a place with enough resident expertise to put a man on the moon should be able to upgrade the drainage system and provide flood defences?

I put those questions to my tennis partner, who worked for the mayor of Houston. Of course, we could do it, he replied, what d’y’all think we are, backward hillbillies?

So why don’t you? Well, you see, that’s a matter of money, dollars and cents, he explained.

We’ve done our sums and come to the conclusion that it’s cheaper to accept the consequences of a flood from time to time than to undertake the gigantic infrastructure overhaul required to protect the city. It’s like in the army, see? There’s an acceptable casualty rate in every operation.

In those days, I didn’t feel sufficiently self-confident to take issue with the way things were done in the West. My aim was not only to sound like an American but actually to be one, and the best way of achieving that was to accept things as they were, the way the locals did them.

By the looks of it, the locals still do things the same way. But I’m not the same man. I never succeeded in becoming an American, and now I even no longer sound like one. Nor do I think like Americans, at least those who’re paid to tackle such problems in Houston.

What price human misery, chaps? What price human lives? How do you figure the balance sheet? Surely it can’t just be a matter of cost-to-price ratio?

I’d suggest, 40-odd years later, that, if a solution to the problem is technically feasible, it must be solved no matter what the cost. Whatever it takes, even if that would mean imposing an extra two per cent tax on all the oil companies headquartered in Houston.

I realise that neither the Manchester nor the Chicago school of economics would countenance such a statist solution. I know that Friedrich Hayek would accuse me of signposting a road to serfdom and Milton Friedman would call me a crypto-Keynesian.

I could swear back, by calling them totalitarian economists, and arguing that free markets are fine as far as they go, but they don’t go everywhere. Some problems have no free market solution, but they still must be solved.

Those Texas authorities should stop thinking about human misery in terms of economic feasibility. I’d propose a different chain of thought:

A city of 2.5 million souls shouldn’t be devastated by regular floods. Ergo, it must be protected. Its flood defences, drainage system and infrastructure in general are inadequate. Ergo, they must be beefed up, expanded, replaced – whatever it takes. Let’s do a feasibility study and find out how much this will cost. Then let’s find the money – wherever it can be found.

And for God’s sake let’s stop thinking about life (and death) ab oeconomicam. That’s where the socialists and libertarians converge: nationalise the economy, say the former, and everything else will fall into place. Free up the economy, object the latter, and all life’s problems will be solved.

Tell that to those drowning Hustonians, who’ve found themselves on the wrong side of sound economic practices.

1 thought on “Houston, you have a problem”

  1. “A city of 2.5 million souls shouldn’t be devastated by regular floods. Ergo, it must be protected. Its flood defences, drainage system and infrastructure in general are inadequate. Ergo, they must be beefed up, expanded, replaced – whatever it takes.”

    Houston and New Orleans both built at an unsuitable location. Too much “water over the dam” now and say rebuild in another location. Insurance costs will rise dramatically and maybe new construction in a new spot will mean less damage. But as for the city it was OK one hundred years or so ago but not now.

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