Houston: A city without refuge



September 26, 2019 - 10:10 AM

A viral video of elementary students, clutching lunchboxes while traversing a narrow catwalk of benches assembled down a flooded school hallway, has provoked varying reactions.

One is that Houston ISD’s decision to hold classes Thursday in the wake of Tropical Storm Imelda was a maddening mistake that put young children, and later their parents, who braved sloshing streets to pick them up, in danger.

Another is that some ingenious teacher at Durham Elementary has learned the chief lesson of an increasingly erratic pattern of torrential rain events to hit our flood-prone metropolis: adapt.

Beyond them both is another realization: We have become a city without refuge.

There are no more certain shelters from these storms. So-called biblical events have become mere bookmarks in a new testament to climate reality.

High ground, as much as it ever existed, is an ever-fluid notion. Danger is not neatly confined or defined by floodways or zones or plains. The peril we used to measure in the trickle of centuries is now gushing in yearly increments.

Last week, Imelda’s rains struck those still rebuilding from Hurricane Harvey — and those spared by that historic storm. In terms of patterns and predictions, experts continue to do their best, but basically, we’re off the grid.

“Every flood in Houston is unique,” said Matt Lanza, a meteorologist who runs the Space City Weather blog with Eric Berger.

He told a Chronicle reporter that hard-to-forecast freak storms that may target previously unscathed areas have become Houston’s reality: “It doesn’t matter if you get 5 inches of rain or 45. It depends on where it fills, how fast, what the conditions were like prior to when it fell and any other combination of things.”

While the frustrations of parents and staff over districts’ decisions last week are understandable, so too is the impossible position of a superintendent trying to outguess a moving target.

Was Houston ISD’s decision to hold classes Thursday really “gross incompetence,” as a sixth-grade East End teacher and union leader tweeted? Should HISD interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan and others have known after a predawn call with Harris County emergency management officials that they’d be inviting chaos and putting parents and kids in harm’s way?

“Thank you for helping our families,” HISD trustee Diana Davila tweeted sarcastically to Lathan that day, linking to images of firefighters helping families on flooded roads.

Blame isn’t that easy to assign. Safety is a calculation these days, not a constant.

“You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” said Alief Superintendent H.D. Chambers, who was on the same 3 a.m. call as Lathan and also chose to keep schools open. In some cases, he said, school is the safest place because children may be left home alone if parents have to report to work.

The calls are getting harder to make, though.

“I know this,” Chambers told the editorial board. “We don’t have regular rain storms anymore hardly. We have rain events. They’re much more intense. They happen so fast. We have to make these calls in a split second.”

Jason Spencer, who handled communications for both HISD and Aldine ISD in the past and now does so at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, said the department was loading kids on trucks who were trying to walk home Thursday. Still, he puts the risk in context.

“At the end of the day, I’m not aware of any kids getting hurt, anybody dying because of the decision to have school. It caught a lot of people off guard,” Spencer said. “The easy thing to do is to close and throw up our hands and say, ‘Parents, you deal with it.’ They chose to do the hard thing. I have a hard time bashing them for that.”