Public Humanities Post-Harvey

Hurricane Harvey surfaced a welter of problems and questions that Houston has been avoiding for decades. A city built hydrologically on a swamp (but also, geologically, on aquifers and, geographically, on the Gulf), politically on inequality (but also, culturally, on a rich diversity of traditions), and industrially-economically on a hydrocarbon industry whose externalities are literally drowning us, we have the unsettling and exciting vantage of being and seeing where the coastal world is headed. With the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Public Humanities/Post-Harvey Initiative will explore, through joint Rice and University of Houston faculty research projects and a graduate student think tank, creative answers to the difficult questions that Harvey foregrounded.

It is said that waste flows downhill; in Houston, the notion that we can pump our waste “away” is uncomfortably revealed to be a fiction, because Houston is downhill. It is hard, after Harvey, to read Timothy Morton’s ontology of toilets as analogy or metaphor: “For some time we may have thought that the U-bend in the toilet was a convenient curvature of ontological space that took whatever we flush down it into a totally different dimension called Away, leaving things clean over here. Now we know better…. There is no Away on this surface, no here and no there.” Of course, some places are more downhill than others, even at the bottom of the Colorado and Mississippi, even at this end of the earth; and the fiction of an elsewhere, like any story good enough to keep telling, has very real effects. When our response to catastrophic flooding in a drained, channelized, subsiding, and pump-filled swamp is to build bigger walls, bigger pumps, and bigger foundations for houses, this is most optimistically read as a cry for help, as a collective begging of the question, what on earth are we doing? What stories can the humanities help remember, learn, invent, and tell; what aesthetics of coexistence can they help articulate and elaborate; what forms of life can they philosophize as a means of helping to weather these storms, and in the longer term even of helping us to lessen?


In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, it has become evident that we indeed “have a problem” in Houston. While the devastation wreaked by the storm was exceptional in its degree, flooding and its consequences have increasingly become the norm. We are facing a critical moment in the city’s history and now realize that we have been planning according to obsolete environmental standards and that our flood control infrastructures are near catastrophic failure, at a moment when storms are likely to worsen. What is also clear is that Houston is particularly prone to disenfranchising segments of its population in times of crisis. Nothing else suddenly seems to matter unless we understand, denounce, and change the city’s urban development culture and its vulnerabilities. It is high time to have a new conversation about the future, one that focuses not only on immediate recovery but also on long-term resiliency and sustainability. Such a conversation will require a major rethinking of how Houston approaches its urban problems and will necessarily involve collaboration with institutions, neighborhoods, and populations that suffered disproportionately from the storm or are located in especially exposed flood zones.

In order to advance these goals, the Rice Humanities Research Center has added a third thread to its public humanities initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In the 2018-19 academic year, the HRC, in collaboration with faculty and graduate students from the University of Houston will fund faculty research projects directly related to addressing the public humanities needs and possibilities surfaced by Harvey, to form a think thank on how the humanities can contribute to plans for a resilient Houston, and to host a lecture series on this topic.

Research Projects

Harvey Memories Project

Project Partners: PI's Caleb McDaniel (Rice History Department), Lisa Spiro (Fondren Library), Anne Chao (Rice Chao Center for Asian Studies); Houston Public Library, Harris County Public Libraries, University of Houston Libraries

Project Abstract: When catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Harvey struck in August 2017, Rice was a leading first responder in Houston. Now Rice is leading the way in documenting and analyzing the impact of this historic event on those who lived through it. The Harvey Memories Project (HMP) has launched a state-of-the-art, open-access digital repository to collect, preserve, and publish community-contributed memories of the storm in multiple formats, such as photos documenting storm preparations, audio and video recordings of the storm in progress, and survivors' narratives. [website]

Highways + Waterways

Project Partners: Lead Invesitgators: Farès el-Dahdah (Humanities Research Center); Melissa Kean (Humanities Research Center); Co-Investigators: David Alexander (Physics and Astronomy); Dominic Boyer (Anthropology); Anne Chao (Humanities); Jim Elliott (Sociology); Kathy Ensor (Statistics); Stephen Fox (Architecture); Cymene Howe (Anthropology); Jan Odegard (Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology); Albert Pope (Architecture); Moshe Vardi (Computer Science); Gordon Wittenberg (Architecture).

Project Abstract: The goal of Highways+Waterways is to create an online cartographic platform that charts the entire urban history of Houston as well as its susceptibility to flooding and other environmental events. Primary sources, such as photographs, historical maps, urban design/infrastructural plans, aerophotogrammetric surveys, spatially-defined datasets, and 50+ years of satellite observation will be located temporally and spatially in a web map, while their associated data –derived from a complex array of available datasets, e.g., infrared/optical hyperspectral imaging, radar scans, Lidar scans, aerial rasters, and vectors– will be integrated across a number of databases (including an open-access digital library of images, a geographic information system, an open source relational database, and a content delivery web service). Once brought together in a relational database with a PostGIS extension, disparate forms of data will not only produce unprecedented ways of depicting the history, design, development, and projections of Houston but will also set a precedent for constructing data chronologies from diverse sources. The relationship between the various project elements will produce a web environment where qualitative and quantitative data can be simultaneously loaded from an API, rendered across platforms, customized in many views, and queried by users in a system that supports multiple and interconnected expressions of diverse sources of information. Such an integrated approach will allow both humanists and scientists to reconstruct the history of Houston’s existence and provide a foundation from which to project the city’s future as it responds to climate change and rapid development. [website]

Live Model of Houston Watersheds

Project Partners: PI's John Mulligan (Rice Humanities Research Center and Center for Research Computing), Matthew Wettergreen (Rice Engineering); Harris County Flood Control Division.

Project Abstract: The 2017 hurricane season has reminded Houston of its watery ecology, but the events of Harvey have been less educative than shocking; more than anything, Harvey exposed the lack of adequate aesthetic and civic resources for talking about this key part of Houston's lived environment, which the city's infrastructure puts out of sight. We will build a museum-quality, dynamic, physical model of Houstonian hydrology (movement of groundwater). Using granular elevation data provided to us by Harris County Flood Control Division (HCFCD) and sourced from the department's LiDAR surveys, we will fabrigate a topographically-representative relief map showcasing important regions of the city's surface which, integrated with computer-controlled pumps guided by flood monitoring data, will simulate real flooding events using live and historic feeds. The built object will be made available for exhibition in public settings, such as schools or civic environments, with the goals of fostering a "planetry" political imagingation, educating the public about this submerged, "infrastructural" side of Houston, and producing workflows for spatial-data-driven, dynamic physical modeling reusable by artists and researchers who seek to map our rapidly-changing world.

Mapping Climate Vulnerability in Post-Harvey Houston

Project Partners: CENHS (project lead: Dominic Boyer); Harris County Commissioner’s Office, Precinct One (project lead: Katie Short, Senior Policy Adviser); Harris County Public Health (project lead: Meredith Jennings, NAS-GRP Science Policy Fellow)

Project Abstract: Hurricane Harvey revealed the vulnerability of Houston’s critical energy and petrochemical infrastructures to new patterns and intensities of rainfall associated with climate change. It also revealed how the risks of future climate-related infrastructural failures will be unevenly distributed across the Houston metro region. A recent AP/Chronicle study has identified over 100 toxic releases in the Houston area attributable to Harvey’s flooding, all of them located in the eastern half of the city and in Precincts One and Two of Harris County. As things stand today, despite being the fourth largest city in the country and vulnerable to many climate change vectors (e.g., increased rainfall, more intense tropical cyclones, more frequent heat waves, new disease patterns), Houston has no climate adaptation plan of any kind. CENHS hopes to help change that by working together with established partners in the Harris County Commissioner’s Office (Precinct One) and Harris County Public Health, to undertake a Precinct One Climate Vulnerability Assessment(POCVA). POCVA will assemble and analyze available social vulnerability data for Precinct One and cross-reference it with the latest climatological projections for the region. The primary project outcome will be an interactive map tool that will allow scholars, community members and policy makers to determine which areas of Precinct One are likely to experience the worst negative impacts from climate change. We are applying to HRC for funding to build a student research team and to organize an initial Climate Vulnerability workshop and planning meeting to initiate the project.

More City Than Water: A Houston Flood Atlas

Project Partners: Lacy M. Johnson (Rice English Department and Director of the Houston Flood Museum), Ian Schimmel (Rice English Department), Dominic Boyer (Director, CENHS and Rice Anthropology), Cymene Howe (Rice Anthropology and Associate Director, CSWGS), Roberto Tejada (University of Houston English in Creative Writing and Art History) Martha Serpas (University of Houston English in Creative Writing), Giuseppe Taurino (University of Houston, Assistant Director of Creative Writing), Cheryl Beckett (University of Houston Department of Art in Graphic Design).

Project Abstract: As the second-year project of the Houston Flood Museum, "More City Than Water" will produce a literary and cartographic interpretation of Houston's floodplains, waterways, drainage systems, reservoirsm, and inundated zones. Illuminated by boldly conceived and artuflly rendered maps and infographics, the Houston Flood Atlas will bring together some of Houston's most exciting thinkers to reveal the complex histories and perspectives of a city that is increasingly defined by its relationship to catastrophic flooding. For this edited volume of between fifteen and twenty distinct works, we will commission contributions from geographers, climate scholars, artists, musicians, poets, inmates -- all with different perspectives on the urgent environmental issues that face our city and our region -- as well as the editors' own contribution. Inspired by other Atlases that radically reorient our understanding of "place," such as writer and historian Rebecca Solnit's series of three atlases -- Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas; Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas; and Nonstop Metropolis: A New York Atlas -- as well as lesser known works such as Katherine Harmon's You Are Here: NYC: Mapping the Soul of the City; and You Are Here: Personal Geographies and other Maps of the Imagination; this edited collection not only reinvents the traditional atlas, but seeks to reveal undeniable truths obscured by the floodwaters that often fill our city.

Recovery, Relocation, and Alluvial Awareness in Post-Harvey Houston

Project Partners: PI Dominic Boyer (Director, CENHS and Rice Anthropology), co-PI Mark Vardy (CENHS)

Project Abstract: Houston has experienced three so-called "500 year" flooding events in the past three years, culminating in Hurricane Harvey, which has been judged to be the most severe tropical cyclone rainfall event in United States history. The proposed research investigates to what extent the experience of three years of historic flooding--and the disruption of vital urban infrastructures like roads, sewers, and electricity--is reshaping how Houston residents conceive of the current and future habitability of flood-prone areas. The research hypothesizes that "alluvial awareness"--defined as attention to past and possible future flooding experiences--is increasing in Houston and that it has the capacity to influence social identification processes and cultural senses of belonging (to neighborhoods, communities and the city itself). The research (survey, semistructured interviews, particpant-observation) will take place in two Houston neighborhoods that were severely impacted by Harvey flooding, Greenspoint and Meyerland.

Post-Harvey Think Tank

In the 2018-19 academic year, graduate students from the University of Houston (UH) and Rice University (Rice), led by John Mulligan in the Humanities Research Center (HRC), undertook the critical, constructive task of identifying specific areas in which the humanities can contribute to the short, medium, and long-term efforts to adapt to these problems and move beyond the problematics that led us to this point. Participants presented work in their areas of expertise, and outside speakers contributed their own imaginative reformations of art, theory, and disciplinary humanistic knowledge.

The group's final, interdisciplinary white paper is currently under review for consideration as a special edition of a journal. While the complete papers cannot be made public for the time being, the abstracts are available below. Please contact with any questions.

Joe T. Carson (Rice)

"The Theatre of Climate Change; or, Mold Humanities"
This essay argues that experimental theatre and performance offers a unique mode of reflecting on the humanities’ understanding and theorization of the environmental consequences of climate change. Theatre provides an embodied translation and presentation of environmental humanistic inquiry for the public. Drawing on Bertolt Brecht’s theory of alienation and multimedia experimental theatre practices, I devised and mounted a climate change performance in December 2018 that explored the imagery of a moldy Christmas. This interactive performance made strange our traditional habits of celebrating the holidays, asking: what is the moldy afterlife of culture? What does it mean to integrate mold with performance and how does mold become a poignant metaphor for culture we wish no longer held on to us? In the spirit of making strange, throughout the academic year, I also worked with students from local high schools in Houston exploring methods of recreating scenes from Hurricane Harvey through the practice of image theatre. The intersection of theatre practice and environmental thinking ponders the limits of human forms of representation in ways that textual mediums cannot.

Marley Foster (UH)

"The Art of Living with Our Damaged Planet"
In post-Hurricane Harvey Houston, this essay intervenes in the fields of aesthetic and ecological theory. Through the analysis of several art installations that have taken place in Houston in the past year, I develop a theory of relational, pliable, and embodied aesthetic acts called “imaginative matterings” – pulling from such scholars as Timothy Morton, Stacy Alaimo, Donna Haraway, Deborah Bird Rose, and Michael Gardiner. As I develop what it means to create art that has a politically aware deployment of aesthetics, I argue that our tendency to criticize rather than to imagine, coupled with the melancholia that comes with an awareness of ecological collapse, breeds a toxic combination when we critique consumerism through the framework of critiquing pleasure. Rather, it is through acts of what I have theorized as “imaginative mattering” that pleasure can be re-centered outside of capitalism, creating space for pleasurable, ecologically-minded, imaginative solutions to our current state of climate crisis.

Kevin MacDonnell (Rice)

"Hydrological Citizenship After Hurricane Harvey"
The devastating social and ecological consequences of the grey infrastructure paradigm are on full display in the Gulf Coast’s most populous city, Houston. A city whose very existence is contingent upon the global capital flows engendered by the oil and gas industry established around the Port of Houston during the twentieth century, the infrastructure of Houston has been developed with little regard for the ecosystemic needs of the surrounding environment (Kaplan, 1983). The low-lying marshland upon which the Houston metropolitan area was established is not capable of supporting the city’s sprawling housing developments and 1,200+ mile highway system (Kahn, 2006). And putting even more stress on the overburdened ecosystem is the fact that the 22 distinct watersheds found within Harris County’s municipal limits have factored very little into urban planning efforts as Houston’s infamous lack of zoning laws have enabled decades of overdevelopment that has crippled the region’s hydrological systems (Shelton, 2018). As a result, local forms of citizenship and identification with place have been determined without relation to regional ecosystems. Grey infrastructure—freeways, strip malls, and parking lots—supporting the oil and gas industry have been built over Harris County’s intricate watershed complex, progressively destabilizing the regional environment to ensure the proliferation of the American petro-state (LeMenager, 2014; Mitchell, 2011).

Joshua Gottlieb-Miller (UH)

"Future-Facing Folklore"
From post-Hurricane Harvey Houston, this essay intervenes in the emerging fields of emergency preparedness and disaster management. Sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists have rightly pointed out how disaster survivors are marginalized in recovery efforts, and they discuss the need for novel, participatory recovery methods. Following the example of Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston—an original program of survivor-survivor ethnography and storytelling—I argue that novel, participatory recovery begins with survivors empowered in the very process of understanding and documenting the disaster they suffered. Working from the scholarship of folklorists Carl Lindahl, Pat Jasper, and Kate Parker Horigan, I encourage scholars of disaster to consider survivor-survivor storytelling both as a research methodology and simultaneously as one way to address the problems they identify for community rebuilding that leaves survivors behind. After discussing the many benefits of survivor-survivor storytelling, I develop what it means to be a survivor in our particularly disastrous times, and I argue that we need to expand our conceptions of survivorship and storytelling to build resiliency in neighborhoods before, rather than after, the next particularly brutal climate crisis event.

Lesli Vollrath (UH)

"Shared Vulnerability: Rethinking Human and Non-human Bodies in Disasters"
Although the PETS Act was passed in 2006, there is more critical work to be done to improve the emergency response for animals during disasters. The PETS Act acknowledges the lives of companion species but does nothing to protect wildlife and livestock. Creating intersections between the fields of Animal Studies, Nineteenth-Century Literature, Philosophy, and Social Sciences, this essay argues for an ethics of “shared vulnerability” towards animals during disaster emergency response. Building from Anat Pick’s work on vulnerability in the field of Animal Studies and Cora Diamond’s work in philosophy, I define shared vulnerability as the human responsibility to acknowledge that animal bodies, like human bodies, are vulnerable during times of disaster. To carry out an ethics of shared vulnerability, humans must admit the violence they enact on animals and alter their course of behavior by improving animal lives with direct action, efficient planning, or implementation of protection measures during disasters. After analyzing an example of shared vulnerability in Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s nineteenth-century novel A Story of Avis (1877), I turn to news stories about human responses to animals during Harvey, in Houston and other areas of Texas, to consider what an ethics of shared vulnerability entails.
Following the essay, I have included an interview with Salise Shuttlesworth, Director of the Friends For Life shelter in Houston and lead organizer of the cohabitated shelter at the George R. Brown during Harvey, which was the first of its kind.