WHAT KIND of fate propels Hurricane Alicia toward the single point in the United States that symbolizes the boom of the Sun Belt and the surging prosperity of the oil industry over the past decade? We are speaking of Houston. Around 8 o'clock Thursday morning the eye of Alicia passed near the intersection of the Southwest Freeway and Loop 610 and the nearby corner of Westheimer and Post Oak, where 40-story skyscrapers rise hard by gas stations and a shopping center with some of the world's toniest shops, fiercely air conditioned all.
In Galveston, on a sand spit along the Gulf Coast, Alicia's 115-mile-per-hour winds left behind the debris of wrecked houses and condominiums under construction. In Houston, inland, the hurricane's main souvenir was broken glass. Alicia's winds, tamed down to 94 miles per hour, struck at the glass walls of the skyscrapers clustered in downtown and extending to the west and south.
The architecture developed in the Weimar Republic's Bauhaus and first popularized in this country in New York's Lever House three decades ago has flourished in Houston. But the window curtain- walls do not stand up to 94 mph winds. Glass crashed down from 20 and 30 and 40 stories on the streets below. The office buildings were largely empty, for safety reasons. The hotels, such as the Hyatt Regency, which sustained great damage, had been evacuated. So casualties were few. But as the storm cleared up and steamy Gulf weather returned, there was a lot of cleaning up to do.
Like an earlier boom city, Detroit, Houston is built on a swamp in a location cursed by most of the bad effects and blessed with few of the good effects of proximity to a large body of water. It is one of the miracles of technology that living in such a location is, for millions of people today, a pleasant or at least tolerable experience. But it is not always so. Nature still sets some limits--and breaks a lot of glass.