CAM exhibit of Suzanne Paul's photographs taken by Paul after flood water level receded.
Flood destroys museum
By Janice Blue
Astrologer Betty Sue Green
looked at her daughter's chart
early last June and told her not
to make any plans until after the
17th. "I don't know what's going to happen but it has to do
with water," she said.
Her daughter, Joannie
Whitebird, is curator of Poetry
and Performing Arts at the Contemporary Arts Museum.
CAM's director, James
Harithas, received a similar reading and warning from Green and
is said to have told the museum's
board, "We are not making any
plans until after the 17th on the
advice of my astrologer."
And then it happened.
On June 15 the Contemporary Arts Museum was complete
ly destroyed by flood waters.
Over 600,000 gallons of rain
and sewage water swept down
CAM's delivery ramp rising to
nearly 10 feet in the lower level
of the gallery, the area which
housed the art collections and
archives, and the museum offices, classrooms and bookstore.
It all began around 4:00
in the afternoon.
A wall clock found floating
the next day had stopped at
Whitebird talked about
being spared the trauma of witnessing the actual destruction of
"I'm a poet-l couldn't have
The staff who experienced
it was "completely heroic" in
Whitebird's words. Everyone
frantically tried to save original
works of art. At one point they
opened a trap door leading from
the upper to the lower gallery
and some dove into the water to
retrieve art pieces, passing them
to staff on the upper level.
"Harithas and those on the
lower level risked their lives because they were swimming in
water covering electrical circuits
torn out of the wall," she said.
The only non-cement wall
in the warehouse space tore into
shreds from the onslaught of
water. The dance floor in the
classroom buckled and burst
from the strength of another
wave. And thirty foot crates,
storing paintings and sculpture,
bounced off the walls while the
staff tried valiantly to rescue the
art and to avoid getting injured
in the darkness.
Poet Whitebird came to the
museum the next morning and
described the scene of disaster.
Citizens march on City Hall
"Is flood control a woman's
issue?" a reporter asked a woman member of Citizens for
Flood Control for Harris County
as the group of 70 marched in
broiling sun in front of City Hall
"You'd better believe it,"
she said emphatically. "Most of
us are homemakers. Guess who
has to clean up after the home
is filled with muddy, filthy
It's still considered women's
work to remove the mud, worms
and dead snakes to restore the
house to liveable conditions.
And months later the women are
still scrubbing off the mildew.
The women, their husbands
and children were protesting the
lack of adequate drainage and
the lack of responsiveness of city
and county governments to the
problem of flood control. Some
of the residents said their homes
had flooded more than four
times in three years.
In the most recent flooding
on June 15--almost a year to the
date of the last major flood--the
Pleasantville area, Medical
Center and Contemporary Arts
Museum areas received extensive
The citizen demonstrators
say they have made appeals to
local government officials but
the story always comes back "it
will take at least three years to
begin digging" and that's only in
Sims Bayou, the area allocated
$15 million in last September's
Prominent among the demonstrators was Helen Hopkins
who had led a three-year effort
to obtain flood control for Sims
After the June 15 flood,
Hopkins received calls from
neighbors and friends all over
Houston asking her what they
could do to get the attention of
She reminded them that a
mass meeting, calling for similar
action, on June 23, 1975-which
attracted almost 500 angry and
distressed homeowners-had almost no affect on public officials.
"This kind of non-reaction
was what prompted me to run
for Frank Mancuso's city council
seat last year," she said.
Hopkins gave incumbent
Mancuso a good race, polling
nearly 40% of the votes.
So this year, again, Hopkins
began recruiting individuals and
contacting groups whom she felt
would be sympathetic to taking
part in a citizens assembly which
she stresses is "a first amendment right." That is how the
City Hall demonstration, which
was held July 24, got started.
"The problem which exists
here in Houston and in Harris
County is one of failure of the
city to provide proper drainage
as the city grew," Hopkins outlines.
The city encouraged growth
and building permits were issued
before proper drainage was
checked out according to Helen
The demonstrators had
strong words for E.B. Cape, Director of Public Works, whom
they feel, through either "incompetence" or "indifference,"
allowed this disaster to happen.
And, Hopkins warns "We
are looking at a real disaster.
Early in the 1900's, over two-
thirds of the county was under
flood waters. With the incredible rate of building and four to
six feet of subsidence (sinkage)
since that time, a Carla in 1976
would mean water on the second
floor at City Hall."
It was apparent to most of
the citizens leaving the demonstration that that would be the
only way to get attention to the
problem-and that might be too
"It was still and dark. The
water was waist deep. We were
all coughing from breathing the
toxic sewer water and getting
bruised from bumping into file
cabinets and broken crates. At
one point or another, everyone
broke down and cried."
The museum scrapbook
from 1946 was the first thing
she came upon in the mud.
Then she picked up Terry
Allen's framed paper collage,
only to have the work disintegrate. She was left holding the
Whitebird remembers very
little after that, except being
taken to a doctor where she and
all the staff had tetanus shots.
She was hospitalized soon
after that. All of her hospital
expenses were paid by the
Whitebird speaks warmly of
the relationship amongst staff
members, something like that of
a "museum family" with
Margaret Prince, CAM's assistant
director (who had been with the
museum over 10 years)^almost
the matriarchal figure. The curators and other staff members,
like brothers and sisters, have
their differences, Whitebird says,
but are bound together by their
deep feelings for the museum.
And Harithas, she feels, is fair
and democratic in his role as
"I feel especially sorry for
Harithas," Joannie Whitebird
says. "He lost his entire art
collection and art library. To an
artist, that is his life."
He was overheard on the
phone saying to someone, "I've
got an I. Rice Perrera that
melted into a Dorothy Hood."
Strangely, only four objects
were not damaged in the flood:
Harithas' cow skull which to
him, an Easterner, represented
Texas; his mirror cross by artist
Forrest Prince which never left
the wall; and a set of fragile,
spun-glass keys given to Harithas
by Yoko Ono.
The other article to survive
the flood was Joannie White-
bird's poetry file. It was sitting
on a file box on top of a desk
that floated to the ceiling-never
getting a drop of water.
It will be months before the
museum will be able to re-open.
CAM's education department, directed by Ann Bunn,
arranged temporary classroom
space within 24 hours of the disaster for Roberta Stokes' dance
class, Adrienne Montgomery's
animation-filmmaking class and
Carolyn Dahl's art class.
Ann Robinson of Robinson
Galleries donated one of the
temporary office spaces for the
Photographer Suzanne Paul,
who had a one-woman show in
the lower gallery at the time of
the flood, photographed the
aftermath to help the musewm
gain publicity for its restoration.
"I did it," she said, " because the museum is one of the
few places to give Texas artists,
women artists and minority
artists a place to exhibit their
work or read their poetry."
While the federal government is deciding whether a museum is
eligible for disaster assistance, the museum is desperately in need of
Contributions may be sent to:
CAM Flood Relief
Southern National Bank
P.O. Box 2529
Homemaker members of Citizens for Flood Control in Harris
County hold a "kitchen cabinet" meeting to discuss their citizens'
march on City Hall. Seated left to right: Ann Kirby, Helen Hopkins,
Bea Williams. Standing left to right: Ruth Bramlett, Kathleen
Loughmiller, Brenda Howsen.