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New book explores Houston’s ongoing battle against water amid unchecked growth

Book cover courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company / photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT News / Illustration by Raul Alonzo, Texas Standard

Houston may be the largest city in Texas, but it was initially designed for profit in rapid growth rather than stability and sustainability – a decision that came with consequences. Hurricane Harvey, the storm that devastated Houston in 2017, is a prime example of those consequences.

So argues author Micha Fields, who journeyed through Houston during that storm to rescue his mother, who was determined to stay in her home no matter how high the floodwaters rose. In his new book, “We Hold Our Breath,” he tracks the aftermath of Harvey and the long term implications for Houston.

Micah Fields joined the Standard to discuss his new book. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Tell us about your own personal history with Houston. Your mom was living there during the hurricane. Did you grow up in the area?

Micah Fields: I did. I’m a Houston native and I left as a young adult. I joined the military and I’ve been away pretty much ever since. But I always had sort of a complicated relationship with the city. You know, I fled as a young adult, sort of aimless and confused and struggled with my identity and my understanding of the city.

As an adult, I’ve come to really respect the city, but also understand its complexity. In some ways, that’s what the book is about – a unique, diverse, complicated, beautiful and sometimes ugly city that I love and thought that there needed to be a book about.

When you think about the focus of your book, were you thinking more about the city’s ongoing battle against water or more about how the city started and how it developed? How do you see the story that you’re telling in this book? 

Both of those are two narratives running through the book and are sort of braided, if you will. The book trades those narratives throughout the throughline of the story. So, it begins with the history of the city and how it came to be. Interspersed throughout that story of the city is the story of Hurricane Harvey, the greatest rain event in our nation’s history. I try to tell both of those stories alongside each other and they ping-pong off of each other as the book proceeds.

» RELATED: New book ‘More City Than Water’ maps out the different tolls flooding takes on communities in Houston

Tell us a little bit about your own experience during Hurricane Harvey. We mentioned the situation with your mom. Could you say more about where you were and what you were busy doing?

My mom lives in West Houston and she was impacted pretty heavily by the flood. Her house was surrounded. The morning after Hurricane Harvey hit, she was awoken by a knock at the door and there was an airboat on her front porch. She has a bunch of animals, and she didn’t want to leave her animals.

So, the book starts with my mission to reach her moving through Houston, which turns out to not be as easy as you might think. I traded boats for jeeps and trucks and observed the scene of the city during Hurricane Harvey.

You mentioned your own struggle after getting out of the military with Texan identity. But there are other strands here – racism, what’s happening with the environment, what’s happened with capitalism, and what that’s meant for the city. Could you say a little bit more about what you came to conclude about how these issues intersect in Houston?

Yeah, I think Houston’s a very misunderstood place. I think a lot of people that haven’t lived there – even some people who do live there – think of it as a city that’s easy to dismiss as an instance of capitalism gone awry. I think while Houston is a victim of capitalism and the oil industry in a lot of ways, it’s also a beautiful, diverse place that’s worthy of investigation.

At one point in the book, I talk about sprawl and what sprawl means to me. In my most generous self, I think of Houston as this giant example of industrial art – unintentional industrial art. And that’s valuable. There’s a culture there. There’s lots of culture in Houston, more so than many other cities. I think I’m proud of that. I wanted to write a book that respected that and told that story.

You mentioned sprawl, which is something that people living in Dallas or San Antonio or even Austin can relate to. What was unique about Houston that made it what it is, by your own measure? 

I think in some ways it was sort of Texas’ first stab at a giant metropolis. You know, it began as a sort of slave supported metropolis and then morphed into a nexus of the oil industry. They used to call it the place where 17 railroads meet the sea because it was just this giant hub for trade and export.

So, in some ways, it’s Texas’ first experiment at a giant residence. It’s an interesting case study in that way. But certainly there are echoes in other cities now. I can’t wait to read other books about those places in the future.

Inevitably, when people talk about Houston and its development, they point to lack of zoning. To what extent do you think that has affected the way that people experience life in Houston? 

I think it’s definitely an interesting talking point, and it’s been covered a lot. I think it makes Houston a hard city to parse, to a visitor or to a resident. In some ways, with this book, I wanted to try to nail down the city’s “about-ness,” in a way that those quick criticisms of its lack of zoning don’t really touch on.

I think one of one of those stabs on my own part involved me trying to walk across the entire city of Houston. I did it twice, and it proved very difficult in a city without many sidewalks. It’s not built for walking, but it helped me understand the place in a way that I didn’t from growing up there.

Did it lead you to embrace the city more – that experiment walking across it? Or not? 

Absolutely, it did. I think one of the great things about Houston is that it’s a city of opportunity. Opportunity doesn’t always mean beauty and ease of walking and understanding. It’s one of the most diverse cities in the country. It’s an exciting place to drive through or walk through.

That may not jive with our contemporary understandings of walkability and sustainability and what it means to be a sustainable city. But it’s absolutely an interesting city and an American city in lots of ways.

You intended for people who were not just Houstonians to read this book. What message do you think the story of Houston holds, especially for other cities grappling with similar environmental and societal issues? 

I wanted this book to be in some ways a defense of the city. You know, to not just condemn its environmental doom. I wanted it to be a defense of the place and a defense of lots of places where people live that aren’t classically regarded as beautiful, shining cities.

If you go to Houston or if you live in a place like Houston, I challenge people to look inward and look at the places that maybe aren’t on the tourist maps. There’s lots of pockets of culture within those places that are worth exploring and respecting. I try to respect those in my writing.

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