NYT Again Callously Uses Hurricane Harvey to Bash Houston’s Reckless Sprawl, Misery, and Hypocrisy

November 13th, 2017 10:49 PM

The front of the Sunday New York Times featured a 3,300 word story from Michael Kimmelman, “Houston After Hurricane Harvey: The Essence of America’s Struggle,” suggesting reckless free market building policies in Houston contributed to the massive damaged caused by Hurricane Harvey -- a reckless liberal charge in itself.

Kimmelman’s hostility for Houston’s “runaway development” seeped out on Sunday’s front page:

The mayhem that Hurricane Harvey unleashed on Houston didn’t only come from the sky. On the ground, it came sweeping in from the Katy Prairie some 30 miles west of downtown.


For years, the local authorities turned a blind eye to runaway development. Thousands of homes have been built next to, and even inside, the boundaries of the two big reservoirs devised by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s after devastating floods. Back then, Houston was 20 miles downstream, its population 400,000. Today, these reservoirs are smack in the middle of an urban agglomeration of six million.


Built on a mosquito-infested Texas swamp, Houston similarly willed itself into a great city. It is the country’s energy capital, home to oil and carbon-producing giants, to the space industry, medical research and engineers of every stripe. Its sprawl of highways and single-family homes is a postwar version of the American dream.

Unfortunately, nature always gets the last word. Houston’s growth contributed to the misery Harvey unleashed. The very forces that pushed the city forward are threatening its way of life.

Sprawl is only part of the story. Houston is also built on an upbeat, pro-business strategy of low taxes and little government. Many Texans regard this as the key to prosperity, an antidote to Washington. It encapsulates a potent vision of an unfettered America.

Kimmelman leaned heavily on the global warming theory.

That said, scientists have little doubt that climate change is making storms worse and more frequent. The floods that ravaged Houston on Memorial Day in 2015 and in April of 2016 -- now called the Tax Day flood -- left behind billions of dollars in damage. Coming right after those events, Harvey has led even some pro-development enthusiasts to rethink the city and its surroundings.

Storms may be getting worse, but isn’t the jury out on “more frequent”? Kimmelman went to the extremes of the debate, arguing that Houston will have to pull up its roots and relocate itself.

But they rarely tackle the toughest obstacles. The hard truth, scientists say, is that climate change will increasingly require moving -- not just rebuilding -- entire neighborhoods, reshaping cities, even abandoning coastlines.

He condescended toward Texas’s successful free-market philosophy.

An upbeat narrative casts business-friendly Texas in the loner role of swashbuckling cowboy, disdainful of coastal elites. “Don’t California my Texas” has become a rallying cry for Republican state lawmakers and a theme repeated by the governor, Greg Abbott, who has complained about “a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model.”

The Times reporter is evidently not a fan of federalism:

Little wonder, post-Harvey, that state and local officials have anointed different flood and recovery czars. Texas is sounding these days like Russia under the Romanovs. The system ensures nobody is clearly in charge.


Another official, this one with the county, made the point that the area around Houston is a patchwork of counties and municipalities with different rules and no coordination because Texans believed the upside of what became, in essence, institutionalized entropy was that it allowed residents to avoid the encumbrances of city governments, regulations and taxes.

The problem is that hurricanes and floods, worsened by climate change, do not recognize political borders or county lines....


The hypocrisy of Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, resisting federal aid to the New York region after Hurricane Sandy but then requesting it for Texas after Harvey, is in fact part of this same history.

Houston’s unregulated sprawl, Mr. Conn added, gives physical form to this politics of “decentralization and anti-statism.”

He admitted the city had its good points, like a lesbian mayor.

At the same time, Houston is in many ways a forward-looking, progressive city. Before it elected Mr. Turner, it elected a mayor who was a lesbian. The city is in thrall to cars and highways and has precious little mass transit, but the municipality of Houston relies more on renewable energy than any other big city in America. Houston has more green space, relative to paved, than New York.


Houston’s sprawl, and its dependence on the automobile, contributed to the misery that Hurricane Harvey unleashed.

Kimmelman even tried to use Houston’s strong points (like affordable housing, a concept usually loved by the left) against it:

But what does “affordable” really mean if residents have to pay hefty transportation costs and rebuild, time and again, after floods? Houston’s affordability leans on loosely regulated, low-cost immigrant labor providing an abundance of cheaply made, slab-on-grade, single-family houses that sprawl on all that open land, in areas like the Katy Prairie.

And it’s far from the first time the paper has used the tragedy of Hurricane Harvey to lobby for liberal policy in distressingly free-market Houston. Reporter Richard Fausset in September  faulted the "bizarre" conservative, anti-Washington sentiment of Texas and its “red-meat rhetorical flourishes” while attacking Sen. Ted Cruz for hypocrisy, (which is contestable).

An August 30 Times piece cowritten by Fausset: “Though its breakneck development culture and lax regulatory environment have been lauded for giving working people affordable housing -- and thus a shot at the American dream -- many experts and residents say that the developers’ encroachment into the wetlands and prairies that used to serve Houston as natural sponges has inevitably exacerbated the misery that the city is suffering today.”

Gracy Olmstead at The Federalist pointed out just how major Harvey was: “...Hurricane Harvey was a downpour of monumental proportions. Twenty-one trillion gallons of water had fallen on Texas by Tuesday night....It was inevitable that it would wreak havoc on the inhabitants of Houston and surrounding small towns. But that’s not the explanation most media outlets are offering. Instead, they’re pointing to Houston’s libertarian-minded urban planners as the culprits for Harvey’s damage.”