When 2001 is written about in the history books, 9/11 is going to dominate the conversation. There was no single event that had a greater effect on 2001, not to mention the entire decade, than the fall of the World Trade Center. However, in Houston, 9/11 was the entree of what was a summer and fall of misery. I want to be very clear. I am not suggesting Houston suffered worse than New York. However, the proximity of 9/11 to two devastating events (in Houston) created a unique set of circumstances that influenced the way Houston reacted to future events later this decade.
Allison was just a Tropical Storm. Before Her, tropical storms were generally welcomed as a respite from the hot Gulf Coast summer temperatures. In fact, she behaved as expected precisely like any other tropical storm. She came in from the Gulf of Mexico, dumped a substantial amount of rain, then took off for North Texas. However, a high pressure system drove Allison back to Houston where she decided to hang out for a little while. On the night of June 9th, 2001, Allison dumped over 30 inches of rain over the Houston area. For you northerners, that translates into roughly 300 inches of snow. I-10 became a river, with 18-wheelers bobbing up and down like Huckleberry Finn’s raft.
Rain bands became the new buzzword from meteorologists, not to mention a whole new respect for the “dirty side” of tropical systems. Houstonians are accustomed to flooding, but this was a flood you associated with Noah and his Ark.
Around the time Houston had finally settled back into life as normal, our world was rocked by the events of 9/11. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve had a conversation with a group of people remembering that day. It was one of those rare events where one will always remember where they were when it happened. I was working at Duke Energy in the Galleria area. In fact, it was my fourth day on my first job out of college. My mother called me after the second plane hit. An A/V suite happened to be right around the corner from my office. I ran down the hall, and a crowd was already forming around the many TV’s. It was shortly after the third plane hit the Pentagon that we got word that skyscrapers around Houston were being evacuated, and we all went home.
Roughly a month later, Houston was rocked again by the Enron scandal. I’m not going to spend too much time going into the specifics. The short story is Enron lied its way into becoming the #1 company in Fortune Magazine’s annual ranking of the 500 largest American companies. However, the story I wish to tell is the impact of the implosion of Enron on the city of Houston.
The name Enron graces many Houston landmarks today. The Audrey Jones Beck at the MFAH building has both Enron and its disgraced CEO Ken Lay carved into the wall for posterity. Enron was also a major funder of a recent renovation of Jones Hall. Part of the local shock over Enron was because they were truly a respected, even loved, company in Houston. It also didn’t help that the two towers of Enron were major players in the Houston skyline. I remember one day when I ran Downtown with two co-workers to check out the “new” Enron building when we heard a rumor Duke Energy was in line to buy the building for a possible move from the Galleria.
The bigger issue with Enron was the 22,000 people that had to find new jobs. The swiftness of the fall in what was a rocky time for the economy post-9/11 led many people to wonder if the ghosts of Houston’s 80′s were rising from the grave. There are few things Houstonians fear greater than a repeat of the 80′s. Enron allowed that fear to bubble to the surface like a newly discovered oil reserve. It was a startling test of the “new Houston economy”, and the city passed with flying colors. Of course, no city can lose a company like Enron without experiencing some kind of shock. Houston proved to be far more resilient than many of us expected.
Allison and Enron instilled a level of confidence in Houston’s ability to weather storms, both natural and economic, that would come to call later in the decade . . .