The first lesson you learn when you try to explain an act of God is that you almost never get the full story. As I have found in my own writing and research in my area, hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, and other climate catastrophes are destroying us in vast swaths, and the impacts are too varied and incalculable for any author to detail alone. And when the Almighty hits Texas, as in the case of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and the ensuing Houston floods, telling that story becomes an even bigger and more complicated task than usual.
More City Than Water: A Houston Flood Atlas (University of Texas Press, July 5), a new Harvey anthology, posits that although the storm received oodles of media coverage, the economic and social inequalities entrenched in Houston’s communal fabric mean the storm and its aftermath are still misunderstood tragedies. As the book points out, FEMA officially classified some poorer areas of Houston as “inaccessible” during the storm, hampering relief efforts. “The thing about a flood narrative,” writer Bryan Washington tells us in an essay, “is that there’s something tangible before and afterbut also an invisible one.” We never really know what happened to the victims of most natural disasters, and as this book repeatedly shows us, floods wash away much of the evidence.
Perhaps the only way to write about climate injustice as overwhelming as Houston’s ongoing flood cup hype is to completely rethink the terms history and witness. in the More city than water, editors Lacy Johnson and Cheryl Beckett lead a team of writers, scientists, designers, and eyewitnesses (who call themselves “Floods”) in a grand experiment from the front lines of climate change. Rather than simply telling or showing, Johnson’s team asks us to interact with Harvey and consider his impact using multiple perspectives and formats. Johnson, a Rice University professor and longtime Houston resident, writes in the introduction that she and her co-authors have heard “dozens of stories of everyday heroism,” according to Harvey, “of sacrifice and resilience, of working together for the common good . . . . But these stories are not complete, and they are only partially true.” The full truth begins to emerge when we admit that Houston is a prosperous city with a large wealth gap: “Though regardless of social or economic differences, it can rain , flooding amplifies the inequalities that surround us every day.” Exposing the complicity of residents in Houston’s environmental degradation and systemic discrimination, Johnson and Beckett use innovative storytelling to show how the two issues are inextricably linked.
More city than water combines essays, poems, interviews, maps and other images framed around editor Johnson’s central question: What does flooding reveal and what does it conceal? The book is part of her multi-phase project on Harvey; The first phase is the online Houston Flood Museum, a fascinating internet rabbit hole where anyone can browse accounts of the storm (and contribute their own). Supported by UT Press and multiple grants, Johnson and Beckett solicited submissions and curated specialized content for More city than water. Divided into three sections – history, memory, and community – the book first documents the city’s development, planning, and slow-motion in chapters like “Gusher,” which details how the oil industry divided neighborhoods and conquered wetlands. We learn that the demolitions of black and Hispanic neighborhoods “were not out of bad luck, but because of poor design. Because of injustice,” writes Houston nonprofit Allyn West. “These communities have been denied structural investments that allow them to be more resilient to disasters.”
The Memoirs section of the book contains poems, mini-memoirs, and unique, previously unrecorded accounts of the storm. Particularly haunting is Bruno Rió’s Things That Drown, and Why, which tells the author’s life story in vignettes of water and its absence. “Things become the result of their failure,” explains Ríos, recalling rationed water and running faucets from growing up in Mexico, then being overwhelmed by the wetness of Houston, “where people lived without ever thinking about To have to make one thirsty.” His awe-inspiring, tender descriptions of waves, dams, and tides serve as the stylistic undercurrent of all the essays in this section.
The last Community section proposes innovative, fair and climate-friendly conversion ideas. Public health scientists and activists like Alex Ortiz are offering techniques to solve air quality and relocate resources and emergency equipment to different parts of the city. The section also offers holistic approaches to climate healing, such as how to conduct listening sessions with victims and how to organize protests more effectively. The key, explains one public land manager, is in restoration efforts to help Houstonians see themselves as stewards of the land who depend on nature. Here the book turns to its larger, more hopeful goal: to accept and admit that “whatever binds us together in this city is mightier than the destruction that tries to tear it apart.”
The challenge, of course, is that climate change feels overwhelming and insurmountable. In his outstanding chapter on Houston as an “Anthropocene Hyperobject,” Roy Scranton explains that preparing for future disasters compels us to confront the global scale of the problem and humanity’s collective and utter environmental failure. “There is no mechanism,” Scranton writes, “to unite the entire human species to move together in one direction.” But perhaps when it’s too much for all of humanity, a city can organize itself—especially a place like Houston that has unique assets and potential: ecological diversity in the bayou, established and geographically connected communities, and the motivation of recent hard experiences.
The end result feels less like reading a book and more like hearing a chorus, giving the reader a much more complete sense of how Harvey happened and to whom. The cast includes some of the city’s best writers, such as Bryan Washington, poet Martha Serpas and Lacy Johnson herself, author of three excellent memoirs. The expert and historian sections work particularly well and offer the most insight: in their chapters we visit cemeteries, bayou churches and neighborhoods highlighted in red; paddling the polluted gulf; participate in a variety of conversations; and walk the cracked, neglected sidewalks of Houston in a surprisingly disturbing photo essay while prompting you to use all your senses to consider the flood damage.
Atlases are an emerging subgenre in environmental literature that uniquely lends itself to the nuanced thinking required to understand the broader impacts of climate change and one’s part in it. Recent examples, such as Rebecca Solnit’s Atlases of Various Cities, are collaborative, sensory experiences that engage and engage the reader. The cards inside More city than water won’t help you “navigate a drive into the Woodlands”; they are not street atlases or screenshots from Google Maps. Rather, the maps are bold, bespoke depictions of wetland erosion, oil spills, and historical events, all designed to engage with the book’s content and “our relationship with the land, with the future, with flooding.” Beckett and her team designed the maps to include “this story and all of its implications, marked in different inks: articulate and silent, obvious and covert.”
“Houston is designed for flooding,” Johnson concedes, but “catastrophic flooding doesn’t affect people’s lives equally.” By offering such specific places and experiences, More city than water goes a long way to answering its central question: Much is revealed about Houston’s ongoing climate problems, including solutions for our collective liberation. “If there is one thing Houston can teach us,” writes Roy Scranton in his Anthropocene essay, “it is that all global warming is local.” More city than water is a compelling, powerful reminder that the only way to prepare for the destructive acts of God—which in this case are truly human acts—is to create a new, hyperlocal map of ourselves and our homeland, and to create a better one plan more only way forward.