Houston asks oilman to help with hard choices after Harvey

by: NOMAAN MERCHANT, Associated Press Updated:

HOUSTON (AP) - As Houston confronts the immediate and long-term crisis created by Hurricane Harvey, it's turning once again to an oilman.

The choice of former Shell president Marvin Odum to advise the mayor on storm recovery efforts reflects Houston's history as a Texas oil town, long before it became the nation's fourth-largest city with a sprawling mix of skyscrapers and multiethnic strip malls on the Gulf of Mexico.

Several oil companies are headquartered in Houston, and oil money helped build its downtown, its priciest neighborhoods and its cultural centers.

One of the biggest challenges facing Odum, a native Houstonian, in his job as recovery officer will be pushing Houston away from its roots as a city that's long chosen development over conservation, paving over critical wetlands to make way for new buildings. Some advocates working on those causes wonder whether someone from the city's most powerful interest can get leaders to make better choices for the future.

"The decisions that Houston makes about how it develops in the future are going to be decisions that affect businesses, and I hope that a businessman can make those tough calls," said Brian Zabcik, an advocate at the group Environment Texas.

Houston has flooded each of the last three years, and while Harvey caused unprecedented damage in many neighborhoods, storms in 2015 and 2016 also displaced people and destroyed hundreds of homes. And Houston's proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, combined with the effects of climate change, make it a certainty that life-threatening weather will remain a threat.

The problem has worsened because Houston lost a third of its wetlands in the last three decades, reducing places for rainwater to settle before flooding.

In announcing Odum's appointment, Mayor Sylvester Turner acknowledged the city has to change how it develops and that it has to invest in mitigation projects that could cost billions of dollars. He said he hoped Odum would help create change and not just produce "a report" telling him what to do.

"There will be another storm. That is very, very clear," Turner said. "The question will be whether or not we will take advantage of this moment to put us in a better position for the next storm that certainly will come."

Turner cited Odum's experience at Shell, where he worked more than 30 years and rose to president of the Dutch conglomerate's North American operations.

Odum led Shell through a disaster of similar magnitude, the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, when an offshore rig owned by BP exploded and killed 11 people. Millions of gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf for 87 days, destroying wildlife and disrupting the lives of thousands of people along the coast. The U.S. government ordered a moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf for six months, shutting down a major element of Shell's business.

Under Odum's leadership, Shell sent its experts and equipment to help respond to the spill, said Bill Tanner, the company's former head of media relations. Shell was among the first companies to be allowed to resume deep-water drilling almost a year after the spill.

Tanner said he watched Odum meeting with several executives of rival oil companies before they testified before Congress about the spill, in a hearing carried on national television. He said he saw Odum's efforts to "bring down tensions" between the executives with a low voice.

"He brings a calming influence to otherwise chaotic situations, and he does so with a great deal of decorum and tact," Tanner said.

Turner said Odum was preparing to start a new business venture when he called asking for help, and that Odum put aside that venture. Odum will not receive a salary in his new position. He has an office at City Hall and is already taking meetings with city departments and officials from other agencies, including John Sharp, who was appointed the state's recovery czar.

At the news conference announcing his appointment, Odum stood to Turner's side and deferred to the mayor on most questions. He declined an interview request from The Associated Press, but in written responses to questions sent by email, said he was working "nearly around the clock" already.

He says that while the city already has "very strong capabilities," Harvey has presented challenges on a "vastly different scale."

Odum said Houston's most immediate challenge include removing debris piled on neighborhood lawns across the city, repairing infrastructure and making sure recovery money goes to "building a more resilient Houston that can better weather future natural disasters."

He did not specify how the city would accomplish that. But people who have studied Houston's flood control system - a network of bayous and reservoirs that are meant to drain a city built on flat terrain - say much of it is decades old and in dire need of expansion. City and county officials have also talked about buying out homeowners in areas that are especially prone to flooding.

"These are not easy choices and it will be critical to include a broad spectrum of interests," Odum said.

Houston and the rest of the Texas Gulf Coast are expected to receive tens of billions of dollars in federal disaster funding, with more help coming from state government and nonprofit groups.

But how that money is spent and whether city officials can affect change remains to be seen.

"He knows what it takes," said Kara Cook, toxics program director at the Texas Public Interest Research Group. "Is he going to hold his former colleagues accountable to new regulations, and to better prepare Houston for disasters?"

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