A Storm Forces Houston, the Limitless City, to Consider Its Limits

HOUSTON — Read the latest on the storm with Thursday’s live updates on Harvey.

HOUSTON — Not long after a pair of New York real estate speculators founded this city on the banks of a torpid bayou in the 1830s, every home and every business flooded. Though settlers tried draining their humid, swampy, sweltering surroundings, the inundations came again and again, with 16 major floods in the city’s first century.

And yet somehow, improbably, Houston not only survived but prospered — and it sprawled omnivorously, becoming the nation’s fourth-largest city and perhaps its purest model of untrammeled growth.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the disaster played out in an eccentric anachronism, a city of modest economic heft proudly tethered to its exotic past. But Harvey has inundated a city perpetually looking to the future, a place built on boundless entrepreneurialism, the glories of air conditioning, a fierce aversion to regulation and a sense of limitless possibility.

The result has been a uniquely American success story, the capital of the world’s petroleum industry, and the place that sent a man to the moon, built the world’s biggest medical center and became a model of dizzying multiculturalism, with 145 languages spoken.

But Harvey’s staggering flooding is raising very un-Houstonian questions about whether there are, in fact, limits to the Houston model of perpetual growth, and whether humans can push nature only so far before nature pushes back with catastrophic force.

Though its breakneck development culture and lax regulatory environment have been lauded for giving working people affordable housing — and thus a shot at the American dream — many experts and residents say that the developers’ encroachment into the wetlands and prairies that used to serve Houston as natural sponges has inevitably exacerbated the misery that the city is suffering today.

“There could have been ways…

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