War, according to someone, is God's way of teaching Americans some geography. Floods of biblical proportions can work, too. I anyway have been reading up on Houston, facts and figures and the current catastrophe, which has in turn led me down a few byways that, being of interest to me, I'll set down here.
- I bet many Americans have been surprised to learn that Houston is our fourth largest city, behind only New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. It has a population of about 2.2 million and a metropolitan area of 6.8 million, which is somewhat greater than that of the state in which I live (not a small one: Minnesota). When you think of a city of that size taking a punch like the one delivered by Harvey--the human toll is discouraging to contemplate. So many people counting on essentially the same compromised public infrastructure. The police chief mentioned yesterday that the ongoing need to assist and rescue people is so acute that there has been no damage assessment. He's nervous about what will be discovered when they start going into flooded out buildings.
- Texas is huge and more urban than people perhaps think. Of the country's twenty largest cities, six are in Texas: besides Houston, there is San Antonio (7), Dallas (9), Austin (11), Fort Worth(16), and El Paso (19). The familiar rural-urban political divide is on full display in the Lone Star State. For example, in the last presidential election, Clinton carried five of the six counties that are home to these big cities. The exception was Tarrant County, home of Fort Worth, which Trump won, 52-43. Houston is in Harris County, which went for Clinton by 54-42. That was actually Trump's second best outcome in those six counties. Clinton got more than 60 per cent of the vote in Dallas County, Traverse County (Austin), and El Paso County. It's the state's physical vastness that boosts the pull of the town and rural vote and makes Texas reliably Republican. A Democrat has not won a statewide race for fifteen years.
- Some terms get tossed around too easily in coverage of the flood. I'm sure that to most people a phrase such as "100-year flood" means "something that happens once a century" or, more generally, "something that's so rare you need not worry about it." The term has a specific definition, however: a 100-year flood is one that, in a particular year in a particular place, has a 1% chance of occurring. Now, if there is a 99% chance of an event not occurring, then the chance of it not occurring for n times in a row is given by 0.99n. So, for instance, the chance of a "100-year flood" occurring over a 25-year period is given by 1 - (0.99)25 = 1 - 0.78 = 0.22. In other words, one-in-five understates the likelihood of a 100-year flood occurring within a 25-year span. The point is that these events are more common than you probably think. They happen, inevitably. The same principles and calculations apply to a 500-year flood--that is, there is a 0.2% chance of such a flood occurring in a particular place in a particular year. This Washington Post article does a good job of explaining and amplifying these points. Probably the most important amplification is that a catastrophe does not inoculate against additional catastrophes. Suppose Houston suffers a 500-year flood in 2017. The chance it suffers another 500-year flood in 2018 is 0.2%. The chance it suffers a 100-year flood in 2018 is 1%.
- I'm skeptical of the notion that citizens of a particular city or region, and the anthropomorphized geographic location itself, are marked by a certain "personality." Is Chicago really the "city of big shoulders"? Is Garrison Keillor onto something about small-town Minnesota? At least it seems suspicious that, when tragedy strikes, the moral character of the afflicted is alleged to soar. After 9/11, people in the habit of deriding "New York values" were temporarily converted to a new religion in which New Yorkers are all brave, plucky, and selfless. Probably we believe what it pleases us to believe, and, since today I'm pleased to love Houston, consider this, an evident fact about the city:
Though all 50 states have accepted some refugees, Texas typically takes about 10.5 percent of the national total, according to U.S. State Department numbers. More of them come to the Houston area than to anywhere else in Texas. In fiscal year 2014, the state health services department reported, nearly 30 percent of Texas' refugees landed in Harris County.Taken together, this data means that Harris County alone welcomes about 25 of every 1,000 refugees that the U.N. resettles anywhere in the world — more than any other American city, and more than most other nations. If Greater Houston were a country, it would rank fourth in the world for refugee resettlement.