Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


Okay climate change deniers get ready for a diaper change. Calling Hurricane Harvey a “natural disaster” is a joke. It involved nature, of course, but what made it a disaster is largely a product of human agency. Something to ponder when you are sitting on your roof waiting for the Coast Guard or banging on the door of Joel Osteen’s locked mega-church. Harvey is a “human disaster.”

When I was a grad student in urban planning we took a course in Land Use Controls that dealt with zoning, subdivision regulation, codes and other long established municipal measure to protect “the public health, safety and general welfare,” or what are called u the “police powers” of the states. Most every municipal corporation in the US has adopted these controls as part of their urban planning process. But I remember from way back when I took that class that there was one large city that had no zoning—Houston, Texas.

Zoning controls what zoned land may be used for, and where (e.g., residential, commercial, industrial). The city is supposed to designate the use areas in accordance with planning principles. But if there is no zoning, the market alone—that is developer and builders—just decide what they want to build, and where. One public consideration might be flood planes, where the city with zoning can make certain restrictions and requirements. But not so in the case of Houston, which is why there were senior and disabled residences built right in the flood plane as well as low –income subdivisions. It might be good cheap land for the developer to makes a handsome profit; but it results in old folks and the poor floating in sewage water waiting to be rescued when Harvey comes to call. Floodable areas might also be nice spots to stick petro-chemical plants, too, and we have seen the result of that.

When lack of public regulation (Oh, how Trumpian!) results in damage and death it is not Mother Nature we should call to account, but greed and stupidity of the so-called public servants that accommodate it at the expense of public health and safety.

What constitutes a truly “natural” disaster? Perhaps the residents of Thira, if they didn’t know they were settling atop a volcano circa 2500BC. But maybe the Pompeians two and a half millennia later should have known better. In any case it takes two to make a natural event into a “disaster”—Man and Nature—especially these days. So Houstonians, especially those officials and developers and the jerks who believe that there is no need for regulation and restraint in a complex urban world in which human behavior is an insurgent player in he natural environment. Indeed, it is ironic that a city that makes much of its living creating the petro-chemicals that poison and cook its own atmosphere should pay a heavy price.

Yet, instead of rational self-reflection we get from Houston a lot of self-indulgent chest-thumping about how Houstonians are self-helping, courageous, special people that are like the cast of some awful Hollywood disaster move (Christ, even our egoistic president was moved to comment how “beautiful” he found in their “heroism”). Without taking anything away from truly selfless acts of responders this is mostly emotionalized bullshit that obscures the greed and stupidity. The media love it; but they will eagerly embrace the blame game to follow when that proves to sell the soap and pharmaceuticals.

Houston will cost the country a lot of money (that could otherwise be misspent on implements of war and the border wall) and, along with the subsiding waters and demolished structures will probably not go the bullshit about Texans being a special breed that has no need for those irksome regulations and that socialistic government stuff that many of their idiot politicians denounce. They’ll just quietly cash the check, get those refineries up and running, and re-build in the flood planes. That’s their game. But it is played by Nature’s rules, and she plays the long game.