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2 Houstonians Talk About Their City And How Hurricane Harvey Could Change It

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Watching from far away as Texas was devastated by a storm and floods has been difficult for anyone who's paying attention. But that experience was even worse for expatriate Houstonians, ones like our own producer, Fatma Tanis. After a week of following and working on coverage of Houston from Washington, D.C., she had some thoughts about what was happening in her home city. So she called up a fellow Houstonian, Mimi Swartz, an executive editor of the magazine Texas Monthly. Here's their conversation.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: You're in Houston right now, and you lived through Hurricane Harvey. What's it been like?

MIMI SWARTZ: It's been pretty awful. I am lucky because I live in a higher part of town. And we're fortunate because we were just marooned. We didn't take in any water at all. But I have at least four friends who've lost their homes and lost virtually everything they owned.

TANIS: Oh, my goodness. Houston, a city that sort of rarely ever makes national news, is now under the spotlight and probably will be for weeks to come because of the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. There's been a lot of incredible support pouring in from all around the country, but also a lot of criticism about how people did not evacuate. And I kind of want to talk about that because you and I have experienced evacuating Houston before. And...

SWARTZ: Did you evacuate, too, during Rita?

TANIS: I did evacuate during Rita. And...

SWARTZ: Yeah (laughter).

TANIS: ...We went to some family friends in Dallas. And what normally should have been a four-hour drive took us 17 hours.

SWARTZ: Oh, my God. You're worse than I was.

TANIS: In the heat of September. There was no food, no gas the entire way, and so we couldn't turn the AC on. And it was really the most miserable experience of my life.

SWARTZ: Yeah. I mean, I think the governor just wasn't thinking.

TANIS: You mean when he said that people should evacuate?

SWARTZ: Right. Anybody who tried to evacuate during Rita knows better. I mean, I was going west to San Antonio. And that's normally a three-hour drive that took me 12. And people died.

TANIS: Yeah. And I think, you know, when Rita happened back in 2005, so many people were traumatized by that experience trying to evacuate. I can't imagine all those millions of people on the road. And if the rain had hit us then...

SWARTZ: Right.

TANIS: ...It would have been infinitely worse. You know, a lot of people who've died from Harvey died while they were in their cars trying to get away and they've been swept under. It's just so much more dangerous. And I think a lot of people, having not gone through that, don't really understand that you can't really evacuate such a huge city.

SWARTZ: No. I really - it was - you know, there's a lot of blame to go around. And yes, a lot of things could have been done to make it less bad. But 60 inches in whatever the amount of, you know, days or time it was, nobody could even conceive of that until now.

TANIS: One of the things that really strike me when I was looking at the coverage was seeing these big, strong roads and highways in Houston that have always been, like, a point of pride completely underwater. And it's been really sort of scary to see that. And I'm just sort of wondering, you know, where will Houston go after this? How much will it change?

SWARTZ: I think the question is how we fix ourselves. You know, if we're supposed to be this entrepreneurial, technological juggernaut, well, you know, if there was ever a time to apply those things, it's now. And if we don't, then we're going to be stuck. It'll be interesting to see how the map of town changes because of this 'cause I know there are going to be homes that are going to be very hard to sell. And then where are people going to go? So - and they may just decide they like Dallas better, although that's hard for me to imagine.

(LAUGHTER)

TANIS: Yeah, same. Houston is the fourth-largest city in the U.S., but yet it's not a city that Americans are really familiar with. You don't really see Houston as a setting in movies. You hear it once in a while in a Beyonce song, and that's about it. What makes Houston special?

SWARTZ: I think people are drawn to the culture here, to that entrepreneurial, no-barrier culture. They don't come here because we have beautiful mountains, you know, clear, sparkling lakes. They're here because they want to work. And they're here by choice.

I think a lot of us came here thinking we'd be here for a year or two, and then here we are 30 or 40 years later because something made us stay. And I think there is that shared feeling of, OK, this may not be the most beautiful city in the world, but it really belongs to us. And it gave us a future that we wouldn't have had anywhere else.

MCEVERS: That was NPR producer and Houstonian Fatma Tanis in conversation with Mimi Swartz of the magazine Texas Monthly.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "DYE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.