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No plan. No checklist, no timetable, no map, no plan. That is the story of urban disasters in the United States, and it is also the overarching story of Houston itself.

"Something is seriously wrong with our command-and-control … it don't look like anybody in Texas ever read the plan," Lieutenant-General Russel Honoré shouted in a TV interview in Houston on Wednesday. The brusque Army officer became an American hero in 2005 when he took control of Joint Task Force Katrina to salvage the lethally shambolic New Orleans hurricane-recovery mess caused by president George W. Bush and his Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael (Brownie) Brown.

Now, as the retired officer lends a hand in Houston, he's watching that same chaos unfold under a different President and Congress. Houston had been warned years in advance that it was dangerously, and preventably, vulnerable to storm flooding, especially its poor minority neighbourhoods. It had been warned days in advance that it needed a large-scale evacuation strategy. Yet, it has been a week of patchwork efforts, often heroic but generally sporadic and unsynchronized, by local and state agencies.

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Americans are often really good at organizing disaster response and recovery – that is, when the disaster is in a poor country on the other side of the world. In dealing with their own, something makes Americans forget.

"Build Back Better" – that's the slogan that has guided disaster-recovery teams working in Asia, Africa and South America. That principle "represents much more than a return to the pre-event state," the United Nations concluded at its 2015 world congress on disaster recovery; it provides "the chance to not only reduce risk from the precipitating hazard, but also from other hazards and conditions that have no bearing on the recent event yet still threaten the community."

That approach is badly needed in Houston: To spend hundreds of billions returning this city to its status quo ante would be a Harvey-scale tragedy.

Natural disasters disrupt lives and systems of human organization on a scale equalled only by major wars. After the horror of Katrina, a large proportion of poor New Orleans residents could not move back to their neighbourhoods. Many evacuees stayed evacuated, setting down roots in other cities. Others were forced to start new communities in their own city.

Scholars have studied the lives, the economies and the well-being of the Katrina victims – those who stayed and those who left – in considerable detail. And they have found overwhelmingly that those who were forced to leave, or reorganize completely, have seen their lives improve hugely. In a famous large-scale study, Harvard University sociologist Corina Graif found that those who fled were "less disadvantaged," living in places "less organizationally isolated" with greater economic opportunities and less racial segregation. They were blown from a spiral of intergenerational despair to an escalator of economic hope.

The tragic irony is that the largest group of these evacuees, at least 100,000, chose Houston as their new home.

By revealing how much better people can fare if they're forced out of their city, the Katrina results show just how much needed to change in the city: New Orleans had become a poverty and racial-inequality trap, and something completely different was needed. Making a new start elsewhere was a substitute.

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It would be an enormous humanitarian tragedy if Houston were rebuilt as it was before. While it is a place of prosperity and considerable opportunity, it is also a city that traps, segregates and makes vulnerable large communities.

It is one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States: Its north, east and south are at least 90 per cent non-white, while its centre and west are mostly white. These non-white neighbourhoods are home to 81 per cent of the city's open drainage ditches, 78 per cent of closed landfills, 84 per cent of carcinogen emitters and 88 per cent of hazardous waste sites, as well as 94 per cent of its worst schools. In January, the federal department of Housing and Urban Development found Houston in violation of the Civil Rights Act for its discriminatory housing policies.

It is America's most economically segregated city, with chasms of asphalt between the upwardly mobile and the 600,000 undocumented residents making $20 (U.S.) a day. And its sprawl and isolation prevent Houston from building efficient mass-transportation and energy solutions, making it one of the least ecological cities – a problem that, if not fixed, will contribute to a rise in the size and intensity of future hurricanes.

Houston's underlying problem, as with Hurricane Harvey's underlying problem, is its lack of a plan. It is an unplanned, randomly sprawling city whose oceans of asphalt have exposed it to the worst ravages of nature and the worst human responses. It needs to be built back better.

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