Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017 | 2 a.m.
The world watched our city with awe and admiration as residents battled Hurricane Harvey with courage and determination. But after seeing a third of the city inundated with floodwaters, would they want to move here?
Houston routinely ranks among the fastest-growing metropolitan areas. It’s a city of opportunity, where almost a quarter of all residents were born somewhere other than the U.S. and moved here for a chance to improve their lot in life.
Yet even in the best of times, companies have a hard time persuading workers to relocate to Houston. Now that the world has witnessed our greatest weakness, how do we convince people to risk their capital and their families in the Bayou City?
“Clearly the flood, and the picture of Houston flooding, is not helpful,” said Bob Harvey, president of the Greater Houston Partnership. “And it’s on the forefront of everyone’s mind across the country, judging by the messages I’ve received.”
The partnership surveyed its largest members and found that 10 percent of employees at Houston’s largest companies, on average, suffered some personal loss from the storm. That’s a significant portion of the workforce to experience the worst of Gulf Coast living, and they are sharing their stories with friends and family around the world.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement. But Houston has long struggled with outsiders’ notions, not all of them wrong.
Developers from New York built downtown Houston from a swamp because that’s as far as ships could make it up Buffalo Bayou from Galveston Bay. From sweltering summers with yellow fever epidemics to one of the most polluted waterways in America, Houston has accumulated plenty of bad press over the decades. Hurricanes were just the bitter icing on top of a sour cake with many layers of reasons to stay away.
Yet Houston has consistently grown faster than most American cities because of a low cost of living, plenty of opportunity to work and simple geography. Cheap land, proximity to fields and the Houston Ship Channel made Houston a place to make a fortune, if you were willing to work hard at difficult jobs.
In recent years, Houstonians have made our city not only livable but appealing, even.
“Ten or 15 years ago, I’m not sure we had a great brand,” said Jamey Rootes, president of the Houston Texans football team and recent chair of the Houston Image Coalition. “I think we had great people, we had great companies, we had great industries, but we did not have the quality of life attributes that the next generation was looking for.”
Since then, city officials and business leaders have spent hundreds of millions making the city a nicer place to live.
“No matter what happened in the past week, we still have a great brand to sell,” he insisted. As bad as the flooding looked on television, the iconic images of people from all walks of life helping one another reinforced Houston’s brand for self-reliance and cooperation, Rootes said.
“What will be remembered is how the community responded in a time of crisis, not necessarily the crisis itself,” he said.
That may be true, but there is a difference between admiring a people’s gumption and wanting to join them. No business wants to shut down their operations because the city doesn’t drain properly. No employee wants to move from a safe, inland city to put their family at risk.
That’s why Rootes and Bob Harvey agree that how Houston rebuilds is critical to maintaining Houston’s reputation as a prime location to build a business, not a place where your life’s belongings end up in a moldy pile on the front lawn.
Houston needs to become synonymous with resilience.
“We’ve known for a good while that we have serious infrastructure issues,” Bob Harvey said. “But it’s been hard to build a consensus. Not so much about the solutions, but the cost, and how we fund those solutions.”
Sadly, self-proclaimed experts and professional dissemblers already want to defeat any significant effort to mitigate against future floods. The Chronicle has even published some of these rambling essays, in the interest of fairness, about how swamps will always flood and that regulating development, restricting land use or acknowledging climate change is a waste of time and money.
These polemicists misconstrue the science and selectively employ the historical record. Make no mistake, advocates of the status quo offer no solutions to our flooding problems, making the unspoken recommendation that we should learn to live with them.
“The status quo is not acceptable, and no one should suggest that it is,” Bob Harvey insisted. Houston is not alone in experiencing extreme weather events. Almost every coastal community will suffer at some point. Miami Beach floods with every full moon due to rising sea levels. But if Houston prepares for a more stormy future, it can earn a reputation as a city prepared for the future and attract talent to it.
Houston needs to rebuild itself as a resilient city, one that protects all types of capital: financial, social and human.
Chris Tomlinson is a columnist for the Houston Chronicle.