• Preliminary Tidal Zoning for Houston/Galveston Harbors, TX
    National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration, "Preliminary Tidal Zoning for Houston/Galveston Harbors, TX," (2001)
  • Buffalo Bayou Park, October 7, 2017
    Buffalo Bayou Park, October 7, 2017
  • Cars by Buffalo Bayou, Houston, TX in 1936
    Schlueter, Frank J. "Cars by Buffalo Bayou." (1935) Museum of Houston and the Houston Metropolitan Research Center
  • Buffalo Bayou Park, October 7, 2017
    Buffalo Bayou Park, October 7, 2017
  • Downtown Green Loop, Plan Downtown
    "Downtown Green Loop," Plan Downtown. (2017) Houston Downtown Management District and Central Houston Inc.
  • Main Street viaduct, Houston, TX in 1910
    "Main Street viaduct." (1910) Museum of Houston and the Houston Metropolitan Research Center
  • Port of Houston Industrial District map showing proposed improvements to Green's Bayou for navigation, 1945
    Port of Houston Authority. "Port of Houston Industrial District map showing proposed improvements to Green's Bayou for navigation." (1945) Woodson Research Center, Rice University
  • Photograph of Buffalo Bayou looking east from Preston Street Bridge, Houston, TX in 1936
    "Photograph of Buffalo Bayou looking east from Preston Street Bridge." (1936) Buffalo Bayou Property Owners Association
  • Harris County topographic watershed map of a preliminary drainage study for Harris County Flood Control, 1940
    Rafferty, J. H.. "Harris County topographic watershed map of a preliminary drainage study for Harris County Flood Control." (1940) Woodson Research Center, Rice University

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. The Public Humanities/Post-Harvey Initiative will explore, through joint Rice and University of Houston faculty research projects and a graduate student think tank housed in the Rice Humanities Research Center, 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?