wealth inequality

In an Urgent New Book, “Floodies” Reinvent the Story of Hurricane Harvey

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The first lesson you learn when you try to explain an act of God is you almost never capture the full story. As I’ve found in my own environment writings and research, hurricanes, wildfires, tornados, and other climate cataclysms destroy us in vast swaths, and the impact is too varied and incalculable for any one writer to convey on their own. And when the almighty strikes Texas, as in the case of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey and the ensuing floods in Houston, telling that story becomes an even bigger and more complicated job than usual.

More City than Water: A Houston Flood Atlas (University of Texas Press, July 5), a new Harvey anthology, posits that although the storm received reams of media coverage, the economic and social inequities hard-wired into Houston’s municipal structures mean that the storm and its aftermath are still misunderstood tragedies. As the book points out, FEMA labeled some poorer areas of Houston officially “inaccessible” during the storm, thereby hindering relief efforts. “The thing about a flood narrative,” writer Bryan Washington tells us in one essay, “is that there’s a tangible before and after, but also an invisible one.” We never really find out what happened to the victims of most natural disasters, and as this book shows us repeatedly, floodwater washes away a lot of evidence.

Perhaps the only way to write about climate injustice as overwhelming as Houston’s ongoing flood-pocalypse is to completely rethink the notions of story and witness. In More City than Water, editors Lacy Johnson and Cheryl Beckett lead a team of writers, scholars, designers, and eyewitnesses (who style themselves “floodies”) from the front lines of climate change in a grand experiment. Instead of simply telling or showing, Johnson’s team asks us to interact with Harvey, to consider its impact using multiple perspectives and formats. Johnson, a Rice University professor and longtime Houston resident, writes in the introduction that she and her coauthors “heard dozens of stories of everyday heroism,” after Harvey, “of sacrifice and resilience, of working together for the common good. . . . But these stories aren’t complete, and they are only partially true.” The full truth starts to reveal itself when we admit Houston is an affluent city with a vast wealth gap: “Though rain might fall without regard for social or economic disparities, flooding reinforces the inequalities that surround us every day.” Johnson and Beckett reveal residents’ complicity in Houston’s environmental destruction and systemic discrimination and use innovative storytelling to show how the two issues are inextricably tied.

More City than Water combines essays, poems, interviews, maps, and other visuals framed around editor Johnson’s central question: What is revealed by floodwater, and what is obscured? The book is part of her multiphase project on Harvey; the first phase is the online Houston Flood Museum, a fascinating internet rabbit hole where anyone can browse (and contribute their own) accounts of the storm. Backed by the UT Press and multiple grants, Johnson and Beckett solicited submissions and curated specialized content for More City than Water. Organized into three sections—History, Memory, and Community—the book begins by documenting the development, planning, and slow-motion undoing of the city in chapters like “Gusher,” which details how the oil industry divided neighborhoods and overtook wetlands. We learn that the destruction to Black and Hispanic neighborhoods happened “not because of bad luck, but because of bad design. Because of inequity,” writes Houston nonprofit worker Allyn West. “These communities have been denied the kinds of structural investments that make it possible to survive disasters more intact.”

The book’s Memory section includes poems, minimemoirs, and unique, previously unrecorded accounts of the storm. Bruno Riós’s “Things That Drown, and Why,” which tells the author’s life story in vignettes of water and the lack thereof, is especially haunting. “Things become the result of their failure,” Ríos explains as he remembers rationed water and sputtering faucets from his childhood in Mexico, then being overwhelmed by the wetness of Houston, “where people lived without ever worrying about thirst.” His awed, tender descriptions of waves, dams, and tides serve as the stylistic undercurrent to all the essays in the section.

The final section, Community, proposes innovative, equitable, and climate-friendly rebuilding ideas. Health scientists and activists such as Alex Ortiz offer techniques for resolving air quality and moving resources and emergency preparedness equipment to different parts of the city. The section also offers holistic approaches to climate healing, such as how to conduct listening sessions with victims and organize more effective protests. The key, one public lands manager explains, is for recovery efforts to help Houstonians see themselves as stewards of the land, dependent on nature. Here the book turns toward its larger, hopeful goal: embracing and admitting that “whatever it is that holds us together in this city is more powerful than the destruction that is trying to tear it apart.”

The challenge, of course, is that climate change feels overwhelming, insurmountable. In his outstanding chapter on Houston as an “Anthropocene hyperobject,” Roy Scranton explains that preparing for future disasters forces us to confront the global scale of the problem and humanity’s collective and utter environmental failure. “There’s no mechanism,” Scranton writes, “for uniting the entire human species to move together in one direction.” But perhaps if it’s too much for the whole of humanity, one city can organize itself—especially a place like Houston, which has unique advantages and potential: ecological diversity in the Bayou, established and geographically linked communities, and the motivation of recent harsh experience.

The net result feels less like reading a book and more like hearing a choir, giving the reader a much fuller sense of how Harvey happened and to whom. Contributors include some of the city’s finest writers, such as Bryan Washington, poet Martha Serpas, and Lacy Johnson herself, who is the author of three excellent memoirs. The sections from experts and historians work particularly well and offer the most insight: in their chapters we visit cemeteries, bayou churches, and redlined neighborhoods; paddle the polluted Gulf; sit in on a variety of conversations; and, in one surprisingly disturbing photo essay, walk Houston’s cracked, neglected pavements, all while being asked to contemplate flood damage with all our senses.

Atlases are an emerging subgenre in environmental writing, uniquely suited to the nuanced thinking required to understand the wide-ranging impact of climate change and one’s part in it. Recent examples, such as Rebecca Solnit’s atlases of various cities, are collaborative, sensory experiences that engage and involve the reader. The maps in More City than Water will not help you “navigate a commute to the Woodlands”; they are not road atlases or Google Maps screenshots. Rather, the maps are bold, bespoke visuals of wetland erosion, oil pollution, and historic events, all designed to be in conversation with the book’s content and “our relationship to the land, to the future, to flooding.” Beckett and her team designed the maps to “include, marked in different inks, this history and all its implications: articulated and silent, evident and hidden.”

“Houston is designed to flood,” Johnson acknowledges, but “catastrophic flooding does not touch people’s lives equally.” By offering such specific locations and experiences, More City than Water goes a long way toward answering its central question: much is revealed about Houston’s ongoing climate trouble, including solutions…

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