By Mike Lazarou
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been watching and listening to the devastation that has taken place in a specific area of our country. Before speaking of the most recent devastation I’d like for you to first take a moment to think of anything that has ever come our way in terms of Mother Nature affecting our lives. The most recent devastation has been caused by “Hurricane Harvey.” It’s one that has for sure shown the major markings of an historical storm. Folks, you might say that I have had a special interest as to where this hurricane and flooding is happening. It was well over 40 years ago that my sister after graduating from Russel Sage College and working a couple of years decided to leave Amsterdam and head to Texas and attend one of the finest schools in Texas called Rice University to earn a Doctorate degree. Everything worked out just as planned earning her degree while settling in a city she now calls home – Houston.
It was during that time the Houston area was showing signs of fast growth thanks to the oil boom. Jobs were available well above the minimum wage thus attracting an influx of people. As with an influx of people came the traffic and a beltway of interstates. Today Houston is the most populous city in the Southern United States, consisting of around 6 million residents. It’s located along the upper Texas Gulf Coast. Much of the city was built on marshes, forest land, swamp, or prairie, which still can be seen in surrounding areas. The city’s topography is very flat and it stands only 50 feet above sea level with the highest area being 90 feet. However the elevation has dropped 10 feet or more in certain areas resulting in the city turning to surface water for sources for municipal supply such as Lake Houston and Lake Conroe.
Houston has four major bayous passing through the city: Buffalo Bayou, which runs into downtown and the Houston Ship Channel leading to three tributaries. Brays Bayou runs along the Texas Medical Center while White Oak Bayou runs through the Heights and northwest area. Sims Bayou runs through the south of Houston and downtown. Now I understand why there were never any subway systems designed for that city. My sister has faced many storms in the past but on this particular day the predictions of a storm generating unimaginable amounts of rain came to reality. The rain would continue for days as she waited, watched and listened on what to do next. Major flooding began to spread throughout this city of 6 million, turning streets into waterways. Buildings started to flood along with reports of rising rivers. It was at that point where many of the main thoroughfares closed due to the rising water making it impossible for residents to leave. The fourth largest city in the U.S. was suddenly surrounded by an unpredictable force of water and destruction.
As I continued to follow all the news reports, my concern was for my sister and her husband’s safety. The good news is that where they live is considered one of the higher elevations in Houston where the water reached the level of curbside. Thankfully it didn’t reach the doorsteps of their house but still created enough havoc flooding all roads, making it impossible for travel, leaving them isolated. So my sister and her husband continued to wait, listen and watch on what to do next. As if the flooding wasn’t enough, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to release water from two Houston dams to relieve pressure from the downpour, which deposited as much rain in a few days as in an entire year. Authorities began issuing mandatory and voluntary evacuations, but with all the main thoroughfares already closed due to high water, many of the residents could not leave. Houston is now at a standstill.
While the flooding continued, another affect by Harvey occurs. A chemical plant explodes with flames and black smoke billowing into the sky. Many of the residents living within the area are asked to evacuate. So now we have air-born chemicals and unsanitary water running through the streets of Houston. One might wonder what’s next.
As I think of what my sister is presently going through, a thought occurs. We live in an area that has faced some flooding of its own. Do you recall what happened some years back when officials declared a state of emergency in the villages of Schoharie and Middleburgh following a deluge of rainfall that shut down roads, soaked farm fields and left numerous streets impassible? Many businesses and homes never recovered from that traumatic event. About four years ago, a flood occurred in the village of Fort Plain again destroying many businesses and homes. Another situation occurred on Oct. 25, 2005, when the New York City Department of Environmental Protection disclosed the existence of serious structural deficiencies at the Gilboa Dam. NYCDEP conducted meetings in the communities at risk to inform them of the existing problems. The City of Amsterdam and many communities along the Mohawk River were given a scenario if the dam should break. I recall attending a meeting at the time informing us of such a dam failure happening during a flood event. We were told parts of Schoharie County and one third of the City of Amsterdam would be under water. We would also see the Mohawk River west of Amsterdam rise as far as nine miles upstream reaching portions of Scotia and Schenectady.
Many years ago communities developed along a river for reasons of industry and transportation. Today a river, lake, or ocean are perceived as being ideal places for recreation and development. It always looks nice on a postcard to see a river flowing through some city, but I think we tend to forget Mother Nature’s unpredictability and destruction. By the way, at the time of this writing another hurricane by the name of “Irma” is heading toward Florida. What’s next?
Until next time – hold that thought.
Mike Lazarou is a columnist for The Recorder. He lives in the City of Amsterdam.