Houston’s Problem: Hurricane Harvey 70 Years in the Making

What makes Houston unique is that no other American city has grown so big in such a bad location.

As the world watches the fourth-most populous U.S. city drowning in a death-dealing deluge, Tropical Storm Harvey appears to have more yet in store. Houston’s humid climate contrasts with arid West Texas in a big way, and — although that fact is painfully clear in recent days — substantial downpours have always come with the zone-free territory.

In the early 1800s, the area was nothing more than an empty marsh. The southwest corner of the “city” was a green-scum lake that lay under one to two feet of water. When travelers stopped to visit Sam Houston, who was living in the area in 1837, they approached his cabin by wading in water above their ankles.

Yet from 1850 on, the population nearly doubled every ten years.

The economic giant of a metropolis made for an installment of the Post’s series “The Cities of America” in 1947. In the profile, World War II correspondent George Sessions Perry gives an abiding account of Houston’s frequent torrents: “Its flat, bayou-striped acres are improperly drained, and the sight of barefooted big shots, their limousines drowned out and their britches rolled high, wading down a flooded street, is a recurrent Houston phenomenon when the sky opens up and lets drive.” Perry is dubious of the Houston Chamber of Commerce’s claim to the title of “The Sunshine City” when he opines, “Houston’s weather is atrocious.”

Every year, the city receives almost 50 inches of rain.

The author noted another of the city’s drawbacks. A lack of zoning regulations encouraged the business and residential buildings to sprawl across the country. Today, Houston is a 600-square-mile city — bigger than Chicago, Boston, Manhattan, Washington D.C., and San Francisco combined.

Houston was only able to rise above the swamp and accumulated rainfall with the help of drainage channels. There are now 2,500 miles of channels running through the city. The risk of flooding is compounded by the possibility that water in the Buffalo Bayou, a 50-mile canal connecting Houston to the Gulf of Mexico, can overflow and quickly spread across the flat surrounding countryside. Two reservoirs have been built to contain overflow, but continuing growth of suburbs keeps adding to the water load they must handle.

The city knew a better system would be needed. But the proposed improvement would involve tearing down buildings to widen the waterways at a cost of $26 billion. Meanwhile, the city continues to expand and Houston’s annual rainfall appears to be increasing

In the 70 years since Perry’s report, Houston has had its share of 500- and 100-year floods. Most recently, floods in 2016, 2015, 2006, Hurricane Ike in 2008, Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, and the Great Flood of 1994 have impacted Houston and surrounding areas. According to Texas Climate News, Houston has seen a 167 percent increase in its heaviest downpours since the 1950s, and that number is not accounting for Harvey.

Last December, the Houston Chronicle predicted that the city would flood again, “like it always does.”

A statistic like 50 inches of rainfall in a week does little to illustrate the potential harm of Hurricane Harvey. FEMA director William Long called the storm “probably the worst disaster the state’s seen.” As the nation continues to observe, donate, and assist, Houston will set out on a long road of recovery in the months to come. The city has a history of going big and leading the country in industry and resilience. As Perry noted in 1947, “[Mayor Holcolmbe says,] ‘Other cities may have better weather, bigger orchestras, but what we’ve got more of than any other city is that old bedrock thing: opportunity.’”

The first page for the 1947 article, "Cities of America: Houston"
Click to read the original article, “The Cities of America: Houston,” by George Sessions Perry,  from the November 29, 1947, issue of the Post. 

Featured image: Port Arthur, TX on August 31, 2017 (South Carolina National Guard)

The Wild Heart of Sam Houston

Sam Houston’s birthday on March 2 prompted us to search our archives for contemporary accounts of the charismatic statesman. The Post ran several stories between 1825 and 1861 that reflect the erratic progress of Houston’s career and personal life.

As a boy, Houston fled his fatherless family to live among the Cherokee in Tennessee. By 1812, he returned to the white community to join Andrew Jackson’s struggles against the British and their American Indian allies. Building on the reputation he had earned in battle, Houston studied law after the war. He ran for office and was elected to congress in 1823, and the governorship of Tennessee in 1827.

But his rising fortunes suddenly plummeted in 1829 when his young wife left him. He abandoned his campaign for re-election and lit out for the territories. Taking up residence among the Cherokee in Arkansas, he opened a trading post and earned a reputation for hard drinking and a hot temper.

Yet he emerged once more, this time in Texas, where he was appointed a general in the Texan army. After his victory at Santa Jacinto, which led to Texan independence, Houston was elected president of the infant republic. He was instrumental in getting Texas admitted to the Union, and he was the young state’s senator from 1846 to 1859.

The Post ran several items on Sam Houston in his time. It followed the progress of his Texas army’s rebellion against Mexico and reported his role in the victory at San Jacinto.

The Post also published several items that tracked the progress of Houston’s private life.

On May 15, 1830, this item appeared:

“Gen. Sam Houston, late Governor of Tennessee, has arrived in Nashville, from the East, on his way to his new residence among the Cherokee Indians in Arkansas.”

And, on July 24, 1830:

“Governor Houston, late of Tennessee, and more recently a resident among the Cherokees of the Arkansas, is, it seems, about to try his fortune in the Indian trade. We understand that during his late visit to New York, he, in connection with a gentleman from Nashville, purchased goods to the Amount of $20,000, for this express purpose. He has been adopted as the son of Jolly, a Cherokee Chief.”

The  man who had become Congressman at only 30 was now setting up a trading post in the wilderness, turning his back on a promising legal and political career.

Historians agree that Houston was motivated by his failed marriage to Eliza Allen, a woman half his age. There is less agreement on what caused the marriage to collapse so catastrophically.

A Post story in 1871 attempted to explain “Why Sam Houston Exiled Himself.”

“The reason of the strange disappearance of Samuel Houston, in the early part of his life, when he left a lovely bride and the governorship of Tennessee, and exiled himself among the Indians for many years, has lately been revealed. He discovered, within a few hours after his marriage, that his wife did not love him, but had been urged into the match by an ambitious family, while loving another man. He at once retired from the house, and by his subsequent exile gave the lady a right to the divorce which she obtained.”

This explanation was, and remains, speculation. Neither Houston nor Eliza left any record of the true reason.

Following his wife’s departure, Houston returned to the Cherokee. He married a native-American woman named Tiana Rogers, the niece of his new father, Chief Oolooteka (John Jolly).

Houston tried to rebuild his life among the Cherokee, running his store, planting orchards, and occasionally traveling to Washington to expose government agents who were defrauding the tribe and breaking its treaties. Yet he was never fully at peace. Houston’s Cherokee name was “Raven,” but he was earning a new name among the tribe “Big Drunk.”

While in Washington, Houston was involved in a savage fight with a corrupt Congressman. Arrested for assault, he was defended in court by lawyer and “Star Spangled Banner” author Francis Scott Key. Houston was acquitted, but was heavily fined by a civil court for his actions. Once again, Houston departed for the frontier. This time, though, he went beyond Arkansas to Texas. His wife, Tiana, remained in the Cherokee nation and never saw Houston again.

Houston didn’t marry again until Texas had gained independence and he was its president. Now 47, he married 21-year-old Margaret Moffette Lea. Together they had eight children.

Margaret had a steadying influence on her flamboyant husband. With their marriage, Houston became more deliberate, less rash, and a more capable administrator. He was able to exert influence in Washington in favor of his state and the union.

Margaret Lea Houston was one of those invaluable Americans who refine the character of their politician-spouses. Throughout American history, the wives of legislators, judges, and chief executives—women of intelligence, wit, and compassion, who were barred from office themselves—have helped promote their husband’s careers. More importantly, many have ensured that their husbands remained true to their ideals and the public’s interest.

On April 7, 1849, the Post printed the following anecdote with a recommendation that it should be read by the wives of America.

“Gen. Houston and Wife. We take the following from one of our exchanges (we have forgotten which), confessing that we thought Gen. Houston separated from his wife or rather his wife from him—many years ago. Perhaps, though, this is a second one. But for the anecdote:

“Gen. Samuel Houston, of the United States Senate, formerly Governor of Tennessee, and after President of Texas (before the annexation), owes as much to his wife’s influence as to any other cause for his present high character and position before the nation. At a large party lately given in Washington, by Mr. Speaker Winthrop, he took occasion to give his reason for declining to attend any and all of the balls, card-parties, etc., to which he is invited. His wife, like Mrs. Polk, is a religious woman. (By the way, there was no dancing, gambling or drinking at the White House whilst Mrs. Polk presided there.) Let the wives of America read the following remarks made at Speaker Winthrop’s party by Senator Houston:

“‘I make it a point,” said the honorable Senator, “never to visit a place where my lady, if she were with me, would be unwilling to go. I know it would giver her pain, as a Christian, to attend such places, and I will not go myself where I could not take my wife.”

“A Member of Congress present alluded to his own wife, and added that there was a mutual understanding between him and her that they should each follow the bent of their own inclination in such matters.

“That may do for you,” responded Mr. Houston, “but with me it is different from what it is with many men. My wife has been the making of me. She took me when I was the victim of slavish appetites—she has redeemed and regenerated me—and I will not do that in her absence which I know would give her pain if she were present.”

“What a mighty, though secret, power has a virtuous and sensible woman over the greatest and strongest of men, if that man is her husband!”