Flooded City

Coming To Terms With Slow Catastrophe In Post-Harvey Houston

Dominic Boyer

Houston was struck by three “500-year flood” events within 24 months (2015-2017), including Hurricane Harvey, the largest rainfall event in U.S. history. In this short video presentation I share data from anthropological field research funded by a NSF RAPID grant (#1760400) and discuss how the recent wave of catastrophic flooding has impacted Houstonians’ emotional and epistemic attachments to their homes, neighborhoods and to the city itself. In dialogue with research on disasters that focuses on technopolitical regimes of disaster anticipation and risk mitigation, I offer an analysis of the “affective publics of slow catastrophe” that have emerged in Houston in response to a situation that experts and citizens alike fear represents a “new normal” in the context of climate change. I focus especially on three affective orientations around which floodies are clustering: diluvial individualism (a wounded retreat from public engagement in favor of highly individualized recovery strategies), hydraulic citizenship (an activist political subjectivity oriented around creating better infrastructures of water management) and amphibious acceptance (an emergent affective orientation oriented to learning to live with rather than against floodwater). Although I ultimately argue that amphibious acceptance’s time has not yet come in Houston, the fieldwork suggests that the repetitive experience of catastrophic flooding is changing the affective presence of water in Houston.

13 replies on “Flooded City”

Thanks for the presentation, Dominic. It was like returning home — I lived in Houston from 1990 to 2005, so I remember well Tropical Storm Allison in 2001!
My question has to do with perception of risk and dependence on calculations. The flood plain maps and work of federal agencies all depend on models to calculate rainfall and runoff in the bayous. How did you find residents use of numerical risk in their decision making processes? Did they really understand (or try to understand it)? It really strikes me that risk communicated via numbers, graphs, and maps like we are seeing in this COVID-19 moment is often not being included well in people’s decision making.

It’s a really interesting question, Dolly! We found that residents engaged the whole technopolitical apparatus of risk management in really different ways. Some were very knowledgeable but I’d say the majority were not, or were suspicious of the data that was available. Since 75% of the structures flooded during Harvey were outside the 100 year floodplain there was definitely a widespread sense that the floodplain maps were out of date (which they are). People seemed to rely much more upon anecdotal evidence, oral history and the opinion of people in their close network when making risk assessments. In response to one survey question, for example, out of 180 respondents only 4(!) said that government data had played a significant role in their rebuild vs relocate decision.

Fascinating work by your team, Dominic, thank you very much for sharing it. One question for you, circling back to your research question about how demographics of employment, education level, and race impact decision-making processes. You mentioned the different forms of organizing and advocacy (Greenspoint around tenant rights and everyday racism; Brays Bayou Assn as an example of collective hydraulic politics). Could you share more about what you observed with regard to whether/how demographics like race/ethnicity/previous displacement impacted decision-making or were referenced by respondents of different identities? And second question, for anyone commenting, are you aware of any ongoing projects related to the experiences of out-of-status individuals in the labor of disaster recovery, particularly in the SE US, and if so, could you reference them briefly?

Thank you Laura for those questions 🙂 Both race and class played a major role in decision-making I would say. There’s a lot to say about it, especially in Greenspoint. Maybe I could just share a comment from one interviewee, an African-American retiree in her seventies who had experienced two floods in, who offered the analogy of post-Katrina New Orleans for how people in her complex felt that had been treated. She said, “Let’s be real, you know. Had 80 percent of those people in the Superdome been Caucasian, I’m sorry, they would never have been there that amount of time. They would have come and got people with their private boats and yachts, and this and that. You know, hire, whatever, the National Guard. Anybody, everybody, let’s just get these people out of here. They were horrendous conditions. Until finally the world says, that’s not humane. And just like you said, they got shamed. And finally you try to get those people out of there. Well why did that happen? Why should that happen? Because they were Black. That’s just one of the issues we face in this country. It’s still going to be a long time before there is a solution to that, and so we live with it. Yeah, we live with it.”

Vis a vis out-of-status individuals, we didn’t talk to anyone directly in this research project. But we did speak with NGO caseworkers who had direct knowledge of several cases in the Houston area. As one might imagine, their situations are often very difficult. There is a great deal of fear that FEMA is working together with ICE so many floodie families went without federal assistance.

Thank you for this presentation, Dominic, and for this urgent work. I’m wondering if you found any of the survey respondents — even if expressing a sense of political abandonment or marginalization — reaching toward a notion you might characterize as amphibious acceptance? I guess I’m wondering what routes between these orientations might already be starting to come visible at the individual or neighborhood/community level if not yet at larger scales.

Meg’s comment/question here helpfully anticipates mine too, about amphibious acceptance (Jensen), akin maybe to what Roger Deakin describes as the frog’s eye view he cultivated in swimming all over Britain (in Waterlog). I’m curious about the gap between acceptance and its purposeful cultivation. Are there collectives in Houston experimenting with living with waters beyond accepting them and actively embracing them?
And now I’m thinking with my own experiences in the Delaware watershed and also with Rod Coover’s The Altering Shore, does amphibious acceptance produce in Houston any will to clean up chemical legacies and toxic inheritances?

Thanks, Meg and Bethany, for this terrific prompt! As you probably gather from this data-heavy, story-poor presentation, we haven’t really come to the point of getting involved in more activist and purposeful efforts to cultivate amphibious acceptance in Houston. But that is precisely what I’d like to do next now that the more academic part of the work is pretty much wrapped up. Experimental living with our (toxic) waters in Houston is going to be a huge issue the rest of this century and beyond. I’d love to hear from others who might be interested in collaborative, comparative projects on amphibious acceptance in other coastal communities. There’s so much to be done. And in Houston I feel that the process is really just beginning.

Thank you for this timely and detailed presentation, I learned a lot. It seems to me that many of the floodies’ responses to the recurrent floods are based locally: adapting their buildings to stand higher off the ground, moving away from the area, etc. I’m curious if any of the floodies reported to you that they were also responding by facing global warming at a larger level, too, such as challenging fossil fuel consumption and supporting alternative forms of energy?

Thanks, Hayley, you’re really pointing to the elephant in the room. It was amazing to us that in our interviews so many people steered around the subject of climate change. It almost felt taboo, like it was something impolite to talk about. But when people did talk about climate change they tended to be very vocal in their worries and personal commitments to change. But I would say this was only about 5-10% of the interviewees. The survey data is more reassuring. Our survey and other surveys done by Rice’s Kinder Institute have shown that more than 70% of Houstonians accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change and believe that this trend will impact Houston negatively in the future. And those numbers are rising over time. But there are 5000 oil and gas firms in Houston too and the city is very much an engine of climate change in so many ways. These are the kinds of contradictions my partner Cymene Howe and I are trying to explore via a TV project we’re calling “Petropolis.” We see Houston as epitomizing the contradictions of petromodernity (of the kind that Stephanie LeMenager has so wonderfully documented!)

Thanks, Dominic–this is exciting work, and at times your presentation is heartbreaking. Do you have the sense that your project itself (deliberately or inadvertently) cultivates an affective orientation? Do participants respond to coming to know themselves, in light of the interviews, as engaged in overlapping affective communities?

In other research projects, I’ve been accused of being a CIA spy and had machetes waved in my face, but this project was hands down the most emotionally grueling project I’ve ever been involved in. I cried along with our interlocutors on more than one occasion. Indeed a lot of the time I felt like I was operating as an unlicensed therapist and several interviewees said they felt the conversations were “like therapy.” The stories of loss are heartbreaking. One in particular haunts me in which an elder had only enough money to remediate one room of her home so she and all her remaining possessions were packed in there with a hot plate and an ice chest while the rest of the house was stripped down to its studs two years after the hurricane. Fortunately, we were able to bring her situation to the attention of a couple of aid organizations that were able to help her move into a better situation.

So I suppose I hope the answer is yes. The study itself produced if not a whole affective community then at least some lines of good relation. When we sent the final project report to the study participants several wrote back with the kindest notes about how the experience had helped them informationally and emotionally. But in the end I think most floodies feel like they will never really “recover” from that experience. My colleague Lacy M. Johnson, who founded the virtual Houston Flood Museum, has written really powerfully about this in her latest book The Reckonings. But Lacy has also said one of the best things I’ve ever heard, “joy is a form that justice takes.” And I think the hope we all have in Houston is that we can find a path, collectively, to foster joy even in this terrible situation of environmental precocity.

whoops i meant “environmental precarity”. Environmental precocity? We should be so lucky 🙂

Thanks so much for this moving presentation, which I hadn’t yet had time to watch when I posed my questions at the live presentation today. I so appreciate your focus on “affective dispositions” during this post-flood recovery experience. The grief and mourning—and the other emotions sparked by trauma—come through clearly in your presentation. I’m still curious whether things like “wounded retreat” or “feelings of political marginalization and abandonment” are emotions, or affects, or feelings that have no names for them yet because they’re emerging as responses to new kinds of trauma. Is there affect or emotion scholarship that informs your sense of what those terms do and can mean? Is the phrase “affective publics” yours? (If so, where can I read more about it?) And finally, have you thought about “floodie” feelings in comparison to research on climate change and emotions—on climate grief, pre-traumatic stress syndrome, or environmental melancholia, for example?