Viridian Note 00248: The Great Flood: Art and

Bruce Sterling []


Key concepts
Houston's Great Flood of 02001, flood damage, bioscience, arts, theater, drowned oil refineries, traffic lights, cars, computers, lab animals, musical instruments

Attention Conservation Notice: A melancholy spectacle of primary interest to those prepared to rubberneck at other people's misery. Over 2,300 words.

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Not a contest entry, but real-life shot of Pope Emperor manning a zippy electric Sparrow runabout:

This contest ends July 5, 02001.

Houston, Your 21st Century Greenhouse Metropolis:

Source: Houston Chronicle, special flood coverage

June 9, 2001, 7:59PM

"Allison earns spot in storm history By DAN FELDSTEIN

(...) "Allison has been unanimously decreed by weather experts as a deluge of historic proportions for its rainfall totals, flooding and widespread effect. (...)

    "Only Tropical Storm Claudette stands as Allison's liquid rival. In July 1979 Claudette dumped 43 inches on Alvin in one day == a national record. (((As we Texans like to say, "It ain't braggin' if it's true.")))

    "Claudette was a virtual twin to Allison == not a brutish hurricane, but a small tropical storm that slipped ashore and stayed put. (...)

    "Comparing storms is difficult because damage and flooding are often so localized and precise historical data may not exist. Population migrates around the region. People worsen flooding by paving over porous ground, but they improve conditions by building flood-control projects.

    "In 1935, a monster storm left two-thirds of Harris County under water, according to Houston: A History, by David McComb. Recent historic floods include Tropical Storm Frances in September 1998, a major storm in October 1994 and another Tropical Storm Allison in June 1989.

    "Of those, the 1994 storm may have been the worst, dumping nearly 30 inches of rain over three days in parts of Montgomery and Liberty counties. (...)

    "While hurricanes cause flooding, they don't top the list of worst floods. They often cause more death and destruction, such as 21 dead and an estimated $1 billion to $2 billion damage in 1983's Hurricane Alicia."

"Hard road to recovery after Allison By ALLAN TURNER and LISA TEACHEY

(...) "At least 20 people died as Tropical Storm Allison's floodwaters surged over freeways and swamped 20,000 homes. Property damage from the storm, which dumped roughly 3 feet of rain on the city, was estimated at $1 billion. (((Wow.)))

    "(...) as the drone of pumps sucking water from underground parking garages replaced the usual chatter of pedestrians on downtown streets, it was apparent that the city had suffered a terrible blow. (...)

    "In Houston neighborhoods, stunned residents stood in worried knots Monday, surveying the damage to their ruined homes. Furniture, appliances, photographs, books and bedding stood heaped in dismal, muddy pyramids on front lawns.

    "Traffic lights in many parts of the city remained out of service.

    "Rental cars were virtually impossible to obtain.

    "Police reported 1,365 vehicles had been towed from once-flooded roadways.

    "More than half of the Houston Independent School District's 300 schools sustained damage, prompting at least a one-day delay in the opening of summer school. The North Forest Independent School District's administration building suffered major losses of computers and other expensive equipment because of flooding. (...)

    "The storm played environmental havoc with the area, and officials were investigating reports of flood-borne sewage, oil spills and atmospheric releases of chemicals. In some cases, sewage treatment plants remained inundated or otherwise inaccessible. (...)

    "Postal officials said all stations but the main Franklin Street office were open for business Monday and that department workers were trying to salvage water- damaged mail. (...)

    "Meanwhile, the remains of Allison moved out of Louisiana on Monday after damaging an estimated 3,500 homes.

    "President Bush added 10 Louisiana parishes == Ascension, Assumption, East Baton Rouge, Iberville, Lafayette, Lafourche, Livingston, St. Martin, Terrebonne and Vermilion == to the federal disaster list. (...)

June 12, 2001, 4:04PM

"Lab animals drown; medical research lost By ERIC BERGER, Houston Chronicle Science Writer

"Weekend flooding in labs beneath the Texas Medical Center killed more than 30,000 animals and destroyed what one official called an 'incalculable' amount of scientific research. (((Another interesting collision of high-biotech and the Greenhouse. This sort of thing is a 21st-Century signature calamity, and something that ought to be figured in when calculating safety factors for genetic research.)))

    "Rising water in Medical Center basements and local universities wiped out federally funded research worth millions of dollars. Meticulously kept computer data were fried into electronic oblivion. (((Well put!))) (...)

    "The college has about 500 labs, an annual research budget of $310 million and thousands of scientists experimenting at the cutting edge of a broad spectrum of diseases. (((We can hope those aren't waterborne diseases.)))

    "Although larger research animals, such as dogs and pigs, were saved, the college's most populous mouse facility, where some 30,000 animals were trapped, was entirely submerged. Specially bred mice often take years to perfect and can be worth thousands of dollars apiece. (((They're probably patented, too!)))

    "'You can't get these animals back again quickly at any price,' said Dr. Arthur Beaudet, chairman of the college's department of molecular and human genetics. (((What if they're specially bred mice loose in the sewers? One presumes they quietly drowned in their cages, and there's no particular reason to assume that Pinky and the Brain got loose in a great scampering diseased horde, but...)))

    "Much of the research using rodents, which often are the best models for testing experimental drugs, must now be delayed for one or two years, the time required to breed new mice carrying strains of various diseases.

    "Beaudet said the college opened a new $40 million mouse facility, or vivarium, about two years ago and was in the process of transferring the animals there. The new facility, also underground, is sealed against flooding and had only a little water on its floor. (((I'll bet they'll all be "sealed against flooding" from now on, and eventually more and more Houston architecture will take on this fortresslike look, in much the way that London has evolved under IRA car-bombs.)))

    "Across the street, at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, a few dogs were among an estimated 2,500 animals lost, but officials could not get an exact count because the lab's inventory, too, was underwater. (...)

    "Research facilities also lost valuable equipment stored on basement levels, such as electron microscopes and heavy radiation machines. All officials said they had only begun to catalog their losses Monday.

    "Another significant problem at the Baylor College of Medicine and to a lesser extent UT-Houston was power losses to special freezers where backup copies of cell cultures, such as those with cancer, are kept. These painstakingly grown cells are integral to biological research and die at above-freezing temperatures.

    "About 4,600 pounds of dry ice have been trucked into the medical school in an attempt to save cell cultures, said David Bates, director of public affairs for the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

    "But, he admitted, 'The loss is incalculable, meaning it's large and we just don't know yet.' (...)

    "One animal-rights group seized upon the loss of life at the facilities, saying it indicates researchers believe their animals are expendable. The centers should have had evacuation plans, they said.

    "'There's really no excuse for this,' said Peter Wood, a researcher at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' Norfolk, Va., headquarters. 'All of these animals feel pain; all of them suffered. Drowning's a terrifying way to go.'

    "Wood lamented that the Federal Animal Welfare Act does not include rodents, so there were no legal consequences resulting from the animal deaths." ((That's PETA and those masters o' sabotage at the ALF. I can see they're all broken up about this ghastly mishap. They're sobbing so hard I can barely hear the champagne corks.)))

"June 12, 2001, 11:07AM

"For Theater District, an artistic nightmare

(((This is especially painful. Houston may have the filthiest air in America, but they do pride themselves on their theater scene.)))

    "Signs of calamity were everywhere Monday in Houston's downtown Theater District as pumps noisily sucked brackish water from the lower levels of Jones Hall, the Wortham Theater Center and the Alley Theatre.

    "Most of the city's key performing-arts organizations sustained massive damage in weekend flooding that will affect upcoming programs and long-term operations.

    "The theaters stunk as water contaminated by sewage, gasoline and debris blocked arts staff members from their offices. ((("The smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd."))) All three facilities were without electricity.

    "Thousands of musical scores and several irreplaceable instruments were among the casualties at the Houston Symphony in Jones Hall.

    "'This is a catastrophe for us,' said spokesman Art Kent.

    "Three Steinway concert grand pianos with an estimated replacement value of $250,000 were ruined. One was the 'Ima Hogg piano,' a gift from the legendary Houston arts patron, a symphony founder. (((Ridiculous name, but a generous patroness.)))

    "Musician David Malone suffered a more personal loss: a prized double bass built in 1692 by Italian Carlo Giuseppe Testore. It was insured for $40,000, although 'instruments of that quality (sell) for $100,000,' Malone said. 'That's the instrument that made my career, and now it's gone.'

    "The symphony and Jones Hall's other principal tenant, the Society for the Performing Arts, declared the contents of offices and other facilities on the building's lower levels a near-total loss, from desks to computers and the contents of the symphony's library.

    "The library contained scores to thousands of pieces of music, from Beethoven and Brahms symphonies to the short works beloved on pops programs. It also contained historical documents dating from the orchestra's founding in 1913.

    "Despite its losses, the symphony will present all scheduled concerts through the remainder of the summer season, Kent said. (((The show must go on!)))

    (...) "At the Wortham Theater Center, home of Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera, the 15,000-square-foot basement was inundated by as much as 6 feet of water.

    "The ballet's imposing losses included ballet costumes for its current production, Giselle, as well as all costumes for Swan Lake and the company's most recent blockbuster, Cleopatra. ((("Cleopatra's Underwater City." Where are those French scuba archeologists when you need one?)))

    "Production director Thomas Boyd estimated that 250 costumes worth between $600,000 and $1 million were damaged or destroyed.

    "'It's heartbreaking,' Boyd said. 'The (cost of) footwear alone is going to be enormous. We know all the Giselle pointe shoes and suede boots are lost.' (((I don't know why, but this bit about the shoes has stabbed me with its pathos.)))

June 12, 2001, 3:00PM

"Flooding brings concern for a variety of pollution ills By BILL DAWSON

    "Environmental officials mobilized Monday to contend with flood-related contamination woes ranging from sewage overflows to oil spills and air pollution releases.

    "The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission activated a special strike team to deal with the flood's aftermath, summoning investigators and emergency-response personnel from other parts of the state.

    "The TNRCC's effort was complicated, however, because its near-downtown Houston office was closed by a power outage associated with the flooding.

    (((A fine bit of irony there. But it's not quite so sharp as Houston's massive refinery massive complex finding itself underwater from ruined weather.)))

    "Agencies tried to gauge the severity of problems and coordinate cleanup and other responses.

    "The General Land Office, for instance, investigated oil spills and related woes, such as the chemical drums and propane tanks that floated away along the Houston Ship Channel.

    "'We're now assessing the storm's environmental consequences, which we expect to be significant,' Land Commissioner David Dewhurst said. 'The storm released a lot of contaminants, but the enormous quantity of water will help dilute and disperse them,' he said. (((Well, uh, thank goodness for that, then.)))

    "A number of small oil spills were reported by petrochemical facilities when floodwaters stripped oil from wastewater-treatment equipment, Taylor said. 'Some tank farms have (containment) booms out, so they probably lost some oil, but we have no way to say who, or how much yet,' he said. (((Well, who's counting? In the meantime, the sewers always bust under these circumstances.)))

    "The weekend's inundation created problems for the area's sewage collection and treatment system, but officials were still hard-pressed to measure the scope on Monday.

    "'Some plants are still flooded, and the operators can't get in,' Taylor said. 'It's still somewhat of a mess." (...)

    "Public Works officials know the city's system experienced some 'excursions' == sewage releases == but can't say how many occurred or what their environmental impact was, Johnson said.

    "(...) water that had to be pumped from the basements of hospitals and other facilities in the Texas Medical Center was chlorinated before being discharged to avoid the possible release of disease-spreading microbes. (((Nice touch there.)))

    "TNRCC officials, meanwhile, said several small drinking-water systems in the area had been notified to alert customers that they should boil water before using it. The state agency placed advice about drinking water on its Web site == (((Hope the web is still up in those septic areas.))) (...)

    "Two oil refineries == Crown Central Petroleum and Lyondell-Citgo == experienced flood-related failures of floating roofs that prevent the evaporation of smelly, smog-forming vapors in large tanks, Barrett said.

    "'Very strong odors' were present at the Lyondell- Citgo plant as a result, he said.

    "The TNRCC, meanwhile, was consulting with Harris County officials Monday about where to locate staging areas for flood-borne debris being collected across the area.

    "The decision was complicated because many major landfills were still under water, TNRCC spokesman Dick Lewis said."

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