Houston's Former Mayor Still Waiting for an 'Adequate' Federal Response to Hurricane Harvey

Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker

Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker Pat Sullivan / AP Photo


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Plus her thoughts on how the city balances industry with environmental sustainability.

WASHINGTON — Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker announced Friday she’ll be taking over as president and CEO of the Victory Fund and Victory Institute, both working to boost LGBTQ representation in politics, at the latter’s International LGBTQ Leaders Conference in the nation’s capital.

Parker credits Victory with her historic city council and mayoral wins, Houston being the most populous city in the country to elect an openly LGBTQ mayor.

Despite leaving office in January 2016, Parker has remained committed to transforming Houston, a city uniquely reliant on both the fossil fuel and renewable energy industries.

With President Trump having withdrawn the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement earlier this year, Route Fifty caught up with Parker to discuss how Houston is charting a different path toward environmental sustainability and resilience, having just withstood the most expensive U.S. hurricane on record.

Route Fifty: The gist of [Friday’s] discussion seems to be: Cities are the nation’s laboratories for innovations that state and federal governments may adopt later. Is that a fair assessment?  

Parker: “The world is happening in cities, and all of the really big challenges facing the globe are impacting cities very specifically.

The good news is that cities are leading the initiatives to address them, whether it’s climate instability or immigration or income inequality or access to education. All of these things are, first and foremost, issues of cities.

Fortunately, in the United States most mayors are pragmatic, results-focused, operational leaders who want to get the job done. It’s not about ideology; it’s about effectiveness.

Even on issues such as climate change, for example, when it became clear that Congress wasn’t going to support President Obama in the Paris Climate Accord, I got with Mayor [Michael] Nutter of [Philadelphia] and Mayor [Eric] Garcetti of [Los Angeles], and we put together Mayors for Climate Action and mobilized mayors in support of the president. A lot of the actions that were suggested, in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, are actually happening in cities, and mayors are making the decisions and launching the initiatives that are going to make sure that they happen.”

Route Fifty: On Tuesday, more than 50 North American mayors—36 of them from the U.S.—signed the Chicago Climate Charter pledging to meet Obama’s Paris Agreement commitments to reduce emissions, report progress and push for greater local authority over inclusive climate mitigation and the transition away from negative practices. What do you make of that, and what do you consider Houston’s responsibilities moving forward?

Parker: “I followed on the initiatives of my predecessor Bill White, and my successor Sylvester Turner has done the same.

Houston is the largest municipal purchaser of renewable energy in America. We are the world headquarters for oil and gas, but we made a commitment as a city that we would try to meet all the city’s energy needs in renewables. And we have been in aggressive pursuit of that for 14 years or so. We have one of the largest electric vehicle fleets in America. We have a large hybrid component. We have converted a lot of our fleet vehicles to [compressed natural gas]. So we are doing things that we need to do in order to make progress here.

It always surprised people that Houston was so much at the forefront of these kinds of sustainability issues, but it’s not anti-fossil fuels; it’s making sure that we take a pragmatic approach because fossil fuels are going to fuel the world for some time to come. But that doesn’t mean that they’re our only choice.

The good news is that, a lot of times, making the environmentally right decision is also a financially neutral decision, and all it takes is a little rethinking or a little time and energy on the front end to get to the right result.”

Route Fifty: Before your new job announcement, you were senior vice president and chief strategy officer at BakerRipley, a nonprofit helping with long-term Hurricane Harvey recovery. Houston is front and center right now on issues disaster recovery and climate-related resilience and will be for some time. What are your thoughts on the city’s approach to those issues?

Parker: “First let me just say, parts of the greater Eastern region received 51 inches of rain over four days. There’s no place on earth that’s not going to flood in those conditions. Harvey wasn’t a particularly strong storm but a freak weather occurrence, where it just sat on top of Houston and dumped water.

Houston is a city on the coastal prairie. It is in hurricane alley. Also, one of the defining features of the city is eight small rivers that run west to east. So we are a city that flooded before there was a city there in that region, and it’s always going to flood. But there are so many things that we can do to mitigate it; to make it better.

One is that we are rethinking our relationship to those rivers and to flooding. We need to build a new reservoir. We have to look at the West Side of Houston, which is floodwaters coming from central Texas, through Houston, to the ocean, and we have to look at the East Side of Houston, which gets storm surge from hurricanes. Both can cause problems. Both can cause flooding. And there are things that can be done on each side, but it’s going to take a massive investment of money and, as I said, a rethinking of how we approach stormwater mitigation and management. We’re going to have to prevent people from building in the 500-year floodplain. We’re going to have to force people to elevate their properties. We’re going to have to be doing buyouts.

There’s no short-term fixes at all, and then when you consider that sea levels are going to be rising and that storms may be increasing in intensity because of climate change, whatever we do we have to overbuild or over-prepare because we don’t know what may be happening down the road.”

Route Fifty: What do you see as the federal government’s role in assisting Houston with those fixes you just listed?

Parker: “First, I would just like the federal government to help us recover from Harvey.

They don’t have to make us better and stronger—they should. When 20 percent of the refining capacity in the United States is in this coastal area, from a strategic standpoint you would expect that the federal government would want to protect that asset.

But we are still waiting for an adequate response from the federal government to recover from Harvey, much less to build in long-term resilience.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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