Hurricane Harvey – One Year After: Q&A with Former Mayor Bill White
HOUSTON – (Realty News Report) – Bill White was Houston’s 60th Mayor, serving from 2004 to 2010 and twice re-elected with an average vote of 88 percent. He received the prestigious John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award for his leadership in response to Hurricane Katrina. He was also a victim himself of Hurricane Harvey and nowadays is chairman of the Houston office of Lazard, a firm advising corporate leaders and governments worldwide. Realty News Report recently visited with Mayor White to talk about Hurricane Harvey, development in Houston and what he sees for the future of the city.
Realty News Report: Hurricane Harvey was a challenge for the Houston. Overall, how did the city handle it in your opinion?
Bill White: The city and the people of area responded to Harvey with fortitude and resilience. It was neighbor helping neighbor and that was no surprise to those who lived here. To those outside the city, our citizens’ responses to Harvey, Ike, Allison and Katrina showed the true character of the people who live here.
Realty News Report: Your own home was hit during Harvey. Can you describe what happened when the water rose at your house?
Bill White: I was in the house when the water first came in. It was popping out of the electrical sockets! We built the house to withstand a 500-year event, but 50 inches of rain in four-and-a-half days was way off the charts and the releases from the dams caused a surge. There was water all over the house. We moved most of furniture upstairs, but we had to rebuild the first floor.
Realty News Report: Do you think the city has fully recovered?
Bill White: No, unfortunately. Some people whose homes I have inspected have had some mold damage. I visited some areas of northeast Houston — relatively modest housing — where the families had moved back in because they didn’t have any place to go. I don’t know if they had full mold remediation or not and I worry about that. Some homes were totally destroyed. Harvey caused a lot of economic problems at the margins of the housing market because now there is a greater constriction of the supply of affordable homes in Houston. Cultural facilities like the Alley and Wortham still need to rebuild. Some office buildings were flooded; the companies have moved and are trying to do something with the buildings. We’ve not fully recovered, particularly with all the property that was damaged, but the Houston economy is strong. We are a growing city with many gateways for skilled first and second-generation new residents.
Realty News Report: The releases from Addicks and Barker Reservoirs by the Corps of Engineers surprised a lot of homeowners with the quick-strike floods. Did the Corps perform properly?
Bill White: I cannot assess whether the Corps could have improved its timing. You can’t blame the Corps if the U. S. House and Senate didn’t give enough money for improvements such as dredging the silt behind the dams. There needs to be an examination of the timing of releases in light of what happened. My house was just one of the properties affected when the rain was halfway through and the surge came and then it receded. I’m sure people are looking at what they can do better next time.
Realty News Report: A lot of established neighborhoods, built in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Meyerland were great places to live for decades. Then in the last few years, they began flooding often. Why?
Bill White: Meyerland is along Brays Bayou has had repetitive flooding. Allison was one of the first big storms they experienced, and it highlighted the need for more surface detention facilities, which is the most economical way to store water. When I was mayor, Houston spent hundreds of millions of dollars for the expansion of large underground drains — that is very expensive in relation to the amount of water conveyed. At Bellaire and Beltway 8 there are large detention areas that were built when I was mayor. There needs to be more surface detention –- and sooner rather than later. It is a fact that we are in an area that can experience semi-tropical weather conditions. Houston is relatively flat and water drains by gravity; the bayous slope a foot or two per mile and they are not fast moving. If we have periods of very heavy rains, the natural waterways could come over the banks. We can’t make the water flow a lot faster because it runs into the Turning Basin or some other outlet to the bays, and it can back up from there. We can’t move the entire Gulf of Mexico out of the way. We need to store more until the natural bayou waterways can handle the flow.
Realty News Report: Would you describe Houston as a “resilient” city?
Bill White: Yes. Houston is a city of doers and not complainers. By and large, most people moved here from somewhere else in order to work. We have a large number of hardworking, skilled first- and second-generation Americans that are performing jobs ranging from department heads at Baylor College of Medicine to skilled carpenters, who are taking a risk in a new country. That’s one of the things that contributes to the grit of Houston.
Realty News Report: What’s the most important fix we can make to reduce the flooding problem?
Bill White: More surface detention, which can have dual purposes. You can have lakes that have green spaces and recreational benefits but that retain by natural disasters. Houston is the fourth large city and we must be sure we get our fair share of federal funds allocated.
Realty News Report: With all of the damage – and it happened again on July 4 – along Buffalo Bayou Park, does that make you wonder if the park improvements were a mistake?
Bill White: No. People who made the improvements knew the first and foremost Buffalo Bayou is to be a waterway and that it has come over its banks a number of times. But it is a fantastic public amenity. You don’t have to pay as much to have an amenity such as a bayou as you would have to pay for a vast theme park or a $100 million opera house. But there are going to be recurring expenses and maintenance. We created the beautiful tolerance bridge and sculptures near Waugh during my administration. We designed it with an idea that it could be under water on occasion.
Realty News Report: What lies ahead in Houston’s future in the next 5, 10 or 20 years?
Bill White: Houston is a work in progress. Every generation has some opportunity and responsibility of taking Houston in a new direction. We do have some question marks about the commitment of local citizens and the state government of strengthening urban public schools — making sure high-end resources are competitive with those in other big cities such as Los Angeles and the Bay Area and even places such as North Carolina — a state where they made a substantial commitment to first-class higher education without even having a city as large as the Houston metropolitan area. These are question marks but I’m optimistic about Houston’s future. We have the highest concentration of engineers in the country, because of our legacy of leadership in energy industry. We have a relatively low cost of living and a very deep, small-business community with a lot of entrepreneurs. It’s my experience from being mayor that the vast majority of Houstonians view our diversity of background, cultures and religions as our strengths. It makes us hospitable to multi-cultural experiences. We have been well positioned for a global economy. We have a diversified economy. Houston has a lot of service businesses outside energy – we have a very strong center of medical research and strong manufacturing employment compared to other areas of the U.S. We have a very strong future ahead of us.