In the dark early-morning hours of September 13th, Hurricane Ike scored a direct hit on the Houston region with 110mph winds, a 13ft storm surge, and a gigantic eye 80 miles across. While Texas gets its fair share of Gulf hurricanes, this was the first direct hit on Houston since Alicia in 1983, 25 years ago.
Before the strike, nearly a million people along the coastal areas were ordered to evacuate (out of six million in the metro). The evacuation went far smoother than the infamous Rita evacuation three years earlier, which gridlocked roads, left thousands of vehicles stranded without fuel, and ultimately directly or indirectly killed about 100 people. This time, only coastal areas at risk from storm surge were evacuated, while the vast bulk of the urban area more than 50 miles inland was encouraged to “shelter in place.” It made all the difference. Those who stayed were able to evaluate and react to any damage overnight, then choose to stay or leave as they awaited power to return, comfortably knowing the state of their home. Those who left before the storm were, of course, restless to know their home’s condition, but faced challenges returning due to a regional gas shortage as well as the outage of most traffic signals.
Coastal areas around Galveston, Bolivar, and Clear Lake suffered substantial surge damage, flooding buildings and tossing boats up on land, but the primary problems in Houston revolved around down trees and the power outages they caused. Nearly 2 million homes were without power in the storm’s aftermath, and most stayed without power for one to two weeks, even with thousands of repair crews coming in from all over the country. It’s hard to really understand how fundamental electricity is to modern living until you go a while without air conditioning, cooking, hot water, refrigeration, lights, TV, or the internet (followed by horrendous rush hours without traffic signals the following week as people returned to work).
Houston was greatly blessed to get our first cool front of autumn just two days after the storm – several weeks earlier than usual – bringing relief to millions without air conditioning across the region. The trauma of that experience has sparked a regional debate on the merits of burying our power lines, which increases reliability and has better aesthetics, but can cost an order of magnitude more while being harder to diagnose for repair and susceptible to flooding, a common problem in tropical Houston.
The mayor’s repeated theme both before and after the storm was “Neighbors helping neighbors,” and Houston rose to the challenge. Immediately after the storm passed, people checked on each other and assisted with debris cleanup, piling it in neat mounds in front of each house (estimates are the city is hauling off enough tree debris to fill four Astrodomes – the mayor is even holding a contest for creative uses for the debris). Many people fired up BBQ grills and cooked meat from thawing freezers, feeding all comers. People lacking lights and TV instead chatted in their yards with their neighbors and looked up at a star-filled sky made brilliant by the lack of city lights. Many mentioned that camaraderie as one of the silver linings from the storm. Despite looting fears, crime actually dropped dramatically after the storm (helped by a temporary night curfew). Even the venerable New York Times ran a story on Houston’s strong spirit after the storm. Here’s just one example of a touching story I heard about one of the many local churches that stepped up to help:
…one church's senior pastor who received a phone call from someone he didn't know living back east. The caller said they could not find their elderly parents and were desperate to find out if they were ok. So this pastor got in his car late that night, with a load of food, water and ice and drove across town to find the parents. He drove up to the house and knocked on the door. They were fine, but without electricity or phone, so he called their kids on his cell phone and said, "Here, someone wants to talk to you." After the call the parents said they didn't need anything but across the street there was someone who really looked like he did. So the pastor gave all of his food, water and ice to the neighbor. The next day he came back with more food and water only to find that the neighbor had distributed what he received the night before to his neighbors. The church volunteers returned each day until the electricity came back.
Area leaders also stepped up, with The Economist saying, “Credit should go to city officials like Mr. White (city mayor) and Mr. Emmett (county leader), who exuded competence and calm.” Harris County Commissioner Ed Emmett received widespread plaudits for pulling an all-nighter to untangle complex recovery logistics directing hundreds of supply trucks. Mayor White admitted to using “harsh language inappropriate for Sunday school” to cut through bureaucracy and get emergency supplies moving, raising his already-high local approval ratings.
City and county leaders can also be credited with some good “lessons learned” from previous disasters. In addition to better evacuations since Rita, aggressive drainage infrastructure investments since Tropical Storm Allison’s massive floods in 2001 resulted in greatly reduced street flooding across the city even with 10 to 20 inches of rain over two mornings. During Alicia in 1983, blown gravel from downtown skyscraper roofs blew out thousands of windows. Since then, gravel roofs have been banned, and less than half of one-percent of downtown’s windows blew out during Ike.
Today, in the city (not the coast), the main remaining signs of Ike are shredded commercial signs and plywood replacements for some office tower windows. Damage estimates are about $8.5 billion for the four million people of Harris County, substantially more than either Alicia or Allison, but manageable vs. the $125 billion value of residential structures in the county. The total for Texas may exceed $50 billion. Surprisingly, energy infrastructure held up very well, with minimal damage to refineries and offshore oil rigs. The combined downtime from Gustav and Ike created fuel shortages in the southeastern U.S. fed by pipelines from Houston, but they were alleviated relatively quickly as capacity came back on line.
As Houston recovers from Ike, it continues to face three additional “storms,” with the housing and credit crunch as well as oil prices dropping from $140 to less than $70 per barrel. Despite these strong storms – in many ways stronger than Ike – Houston continues to hold up well. Conservative oil companies still require new projects to break even at prices substantially below $70, so they are still growing and hiring. Houston’s port, space, and health care industries (the Texas Medical Center is the world’s largest medical complex) are also somewhat insulated from the nation’s economic woes. In part because Houston lacks the restrictive controls on home building found in many cities, the city never really had a housing bubble. Overall homes continue to appreciate modestly as opposed to sharp drops in much of the rest of the country.
Of course, we are still part of the Union and the world economy, so we’re slowing down too. But Houston and Texas continue to outpace the national economy; Texas is unlikely to join the lengthening line asking for a federal bailout. Every day I see a steady stream of out-of-state license plates as people overcome any fear of hurricanes (are they really any worse than earthquakes in the West or blizzards in the North?) and continue to migrate to our resilient Opportunity City.
Tory Gattis is a Social Systems Architect, consultant and entrepreneur with a genuine love of his hometown Houston and its people. He covers a wide range of Houston topics at Houston Strategies - including transportation, transit, quality-of-life, city identity, and development and land-use regulations - and have published numerous Houston Chronicle op-eds on these topics.