Hurricane Harvey, the Golden Triangle, and the Inequality of Relief
Essay by Elizabeth Blasius
A school bus pulling up in front of an extended stay hotel. Debris ages to a dull gray against a cemetery fence. Church services are held inside the parish gym. RV parks have no vacancies. The landscaping is new. While many of the wounds inflicted by Hurricane Harvey six months after the storm made landfall, when I arrived to assist with the recovery effort, had been treated in the area of Southeast Texas known as the Golden Triangle, they were only topical fixes.
This is a place where the big Texas sky looms over bayous and swamps. There is Tex-Mex, but there is also boudain and crawfish, and last names ending in eaux. This is Texas Cajun Country, where residents remember their grandmothers exclaiming “ca fait chaud!” in the excruciating summer heat. In the Golden Triangle, the petrochemical industry has been ubiquitous since the Lucas Gusher at Spindletop blew crude oil into the air for nine days in January 1901, the beginning of the East Texas oil boom. An hour and a half from Houston, an hour from the Louisiana boarder and only four to New Orleans, the region is pulled like cultural taffy. While cacti are present—clustered beneath highway underpasses and railway embankments (at least that was the only place I saw them)-this is also the swamp. A dampness hangs in the air and fogs up your eyeglasses. It hugs the back of your neck and when combined with intense heat and sun acts like a steam table with your extremities as the loins and chops. Trees are mossy and heavy with wetness. There are rivers and bayous and channels and all sorts of natural and man-made elements to hold water in, keep water out, keep water clean, or keep it moving. Each of these features seemed to almost sit above the ground, like the actual water table was above it, floating.
The Golden Triangle knows natural disasters well. Hurricane Rita in 2005, Ike in 2008, and the Tax Day Floods in 2016 all caused property damage, some of it becoming cumulative with every event. And then in August 2017, there was Harvey, where wind pushed rain through every crevice it could find, falling from the sky like a high-pressure showerhead, and finally causing deep, dark flooding that stayed that way for days. The city of Nederland, between Beaumont and Port Arthur, received a record 60.58 inches of rain during the event, topping the previous record for tropical cyclone rainfall recorded in the United States, making it the wettest location during the wettest hurricane in American history. Bodies of water swelled to capacity, turning the entire area into a dystopic bayou, leaving the rooftops of buildings as the only indication of civilization. Water infiltrated and saturated, but it also acted violently, blasting through windows, creating underwater projectiles, and sweeping vehicles and people away. Evacuees reluctantly left their homes for shelters, until the shelters too began to flood. Once the flooding receded, the Golden Triangle was without power and potable water, littered with debris, inundated structures and vehicles, the results of an unprecedented 1 in 1,000-year flood event.
Hurricane Harvey was a paradigm shift in climate violence. Harvey proved that a Katrina could and would happen again, and that little had changed in twelve years to prepare people or places for a similar event. Harvey was the first natural disaster of the social media age. Those outside the hurricane’s path watched in horror from their feeds, while those within it used posts as an ad hoc emergency network, a lifeline for survivors. Within a Twitter scroll, I would see my first image of Hurricane Harvey, a rushing, white-capped river that was once an interstate, the origin point of my own, now permanent experience with climate anxiety. As the Golden Triangle was drying out, Hurricane Maria was becoming violent and hyperactive, hitting landfall in Puerto Rico and causing incomprehensible damage. With mainland America seemingly more capable to handle a catastrophic hurricane, the sympathy and anger shifted to the commonwealth, exposing the fissures in our outdated and inequitable response and recovery matrices. Climate change was now an existential and unpredictable threat. The tenderhearted nature of “reduce reuse recycle,” pitched relentlessly to elementary school children a few decades earlier now seemed comical. We should have prepared for war instead of reciting alliterations.
Despite the brevity of damage inflicted on the Golden Triangle during Hurricane Harvey, the worst in terms of total flooding and destruction, it was Houston that received the coverage, and those ever-trending thoughts and prayers. Volunteers and truckloads of donated supplies symbolically flooded into Houston but never seemed to extend east, like nothing but valueless bayou separated Houston from the westernmost border of Louisiana. Suddenly Harvey became the picture of Houston’s suffering, a story of reckless land-use and sprawl. Those in planning shook their fingers at Houston from afar but found nothing worthy of judgement in other harder hit areas. The Golden Triangle’s largest city, Beaumont, tops off at 120,000—not urban, but not rural. Perhaps it was a matter of the area not having enough distinctive characteristics at a national level, or being devoid of good design, urbanism or applicable zoning tisk-tisks.
Or perhaps it was a greater systemic disinterest in the Golden Triangle as a part of America perceived as anti-placemaking. Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange are partially defined in part by components of America that we have made strides to move away from—the oil industry, chain restaurants, and racism. The nearby city of Vidor is almost completely white, and tales abound of the cities’ history as a notorious sundown town, where the Klu Klux Clan is rumored to frequent local diners. Sour Lake, a community only reachable by boat during Hurricane Harvey, is proud of their community history as the place where Texaco began. There are Golden Corral’s, Hooters, Waffle Houses, and Chic-Fil-A’s lined up in quick succession along Interstate I-10, repeated mile after mile.
While flooding didn’t discriminate between McMansions and pier on beam shotguns, a picture of what relief is, and to whom, is complicated to parcel together. It involves a gallimaufry of agencies, documentation and paperwork, hinging dangerously on insurance companies, many of which played god through policy. Receiving formal aid requires those that apply to narrate their purchases, insurance coverage and hierarchy of ownership, a series of processes that many residents on the economic fringes chose not to do. This is an area that has suffered from uneven investment, where many people live with the specter of institutional racism and the long-term effects of segregation. The built environment carries this weight too. It’s difficult to parcel out cumulative neglect from Harvey damage, which the hurricane undoubtedly exacerbated.
Some residents within the Golden Triangle without insurance simply walked away from homes and businesses, consolidating their lives and belongings to weekly hotels, or moving their modular structures elsewhere. Others are still quietly rebuilding over weekends and evenings. Here, the presence of an RV in a front yard doesn’t mean a vacation is eminent, it may mean the homeowner is living on site, repairing their home as they go, not a labor of love but a labor of necessity. Homes are jacked up high on piers, often a requirement of insurance payouts. Rural roads are still closed, their damage marked with discolored orange cones. Debris and garbage floated into the woods and settled there. Churches are stocked with canoes and sandbags, armament against an unpredictable threat.
Elizabeth Blasius is an American architectural historian whose work encourages people to consider placemaking through existing buildings and vintage communities, and explores the potential for historic preservation to examine more personal stories and bring them into the practice. Her work seeks to build trust and collaboration between agencies that protect historic resources and the public. She develops innovative solutions that discourage gatekeeping and allow room for those that have stock in cultural resources to realistically manage development. Ultimately, her work strives to kick the doors wide open for underrepresented aspects of heritage, built and cultural.
www.blaservations.com | @blaservations