Civic Officials ‘Shrugged’ Last Year After Houston Flagged as a ‘Sitting Duck’
As the skies cleared over southeast Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s record-setting deluge, recovery got under way from Houston to Louisiana. With it came a dawning acknowledgement that much of the disaster was self-inflicted, raising sharp questions about the actions of U.S. public officials at every level of city, state, and federal government.
Even as Texas Governor Greg Abbott speculated that the eventual cost of recovery from Harvey might rise above US$120 billion (about 7.5% of the state’s $1.8-trillion GDP), the confirmed death toll from the storm rose over 50, with more bodies expected to be discovered. A third of a million Houston residents sought federal aid, and the rough count of homes left uninhabitable hit 44,000. And it emerged that the city’s government was informed a year ago that it risked just such a catastrophe—and elected to ignore the warning.
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Indeed, the widely-distributed Texas Tribune magazine, working with the public interest journalism non-profit ProPublica, had forecast Harvey’s blow with a chilling prescience in March 2016. Their joint report described Houston as “a sitting duck” for the next big hurricane. Civic officials shrugged.
At about the same time, CBC News reports, Texas A&M marine scientist and flooding scholar Sam Brody briefed the then-head of the Harris County Flood Control District on the county’s flood risk.
Houston, founded on a swamp and built out along coastal bayous, has always suffered flooding, Brody pointed out. But the city and its surrounding county have spent decades replacing expanses of native prairie grassland that once absorbed rainwater “in almost supernatural quantities,” with the city’s prodigious freeway system, strip malls, and housing.
When Brody explained that this left the city vulnerable to flooding in an extreme precipitation event like a hurricane, the flood control official “dismissed the report, saying scientists ‘have an agenda’ and that ‘their agenda to protect the environment overrides common sense.’”
But Brody, who was forced from his own home by rising water, was far from the only voice pointing out that human choices had made the disaster far worse than it needed to be—both in contributing to Harvey’s violence, and in rendering Houston more vulnerable.
Under the headline ‘Houston is drowning—in its freedom from regulations,’ essayist Steve Russell picked up on Brody’s theme in Newsweek. He noted the dissonance and irony of watching on television where Texans like himself, who “do value their freedom,” could be seen “floating down Buffalo Bayou on their principles, proud residents of the largest city in these United States that did not grow in accordance with zoning ordinances.”
No ‘Natural’ Disaster
“Politics created the chaos,” Resilience.org agreed, observing that Harvey was no “natural” disaster.
“Weather and climate don’t cause disasters,” the outlet wrote, “vulnerability does. Hurricane Harvey was an expected natural event, even if potentially modified or exacerbated by climate change. Disaster involving a hurricane cannot happen unless people, infrastructure, and communities are vulnerable to it. People become vulnerable if they end up lacking knowledge, wisdom, capabilities, social connections, support, or finances to deal with a standard environmental event such as a hurricane.”
In the case of Houston and Harvey, Resilience charged, “the disaster was caused entirely by society creating and perpetuating vulnerability to these natural events.”
As to why those lapses occurred, numerous commentators shared Brody and Russell’s view, blaming laissez-faire development that prioritized the wealth of developers over the security of citizens. But CityLab conceded a general truth about humanity: our inclination to dismiss what we imagine to be remote threats.
“Virtually everyone has a hard time imagining enormous natural disasters—even when all signs point to the ‘Big One,’” that news outlet reflected. “To respond urgently to an outsize risk before it has morphed into real-life threat requires hurdling over the dismaying normalcies of human psychology.”
At the other extreme Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, levelled accusations that were both pointed and personal.
“Once the immediate crisis ends, the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, should resign with an apology to his state and his country,” Sachs wrote on CNN’s website. “Then the Texas delegation in Congress should make a public confession. They have lied to their constituents for too long, expecting the rest of America to keep bailing them out.”
Sachs too underscored the fact that “Hurricane Harvey was a foreseeable disaster. Indeed, a massive hurricane strike on Houston, followed by massive flooding, was widely anticipated.”
But “Houston is an oil town,” Sachs wrote, “and the American oil industry has been enemy No. 1 of climate truth and climate preparedness.” Abbott’s Texas supported U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, and most of its “oil companies and Texas politicians see nothing, say nothing, do nothing.”
“Even worse,” Sachs added, “they hide the truth, and then beg for help” when a storm fuelled by global warming strikes.
Trump Relaxes Flood Protection Rules
Sachs’ critique might at least partially apply to the Trump administration, as well.
Donald Trump has dismissed climate change as a hoax, proposed a $667-million cut to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s budget, and had begun unwinding federal flood protection before the storm struck. In its wake, disaster relief threatened to become entangled in the current White House occupant’s penchant for political brinksmanship over all else.
“Just 10 days before Harvey struck,” Quartz recalled, “the president signed an executive order that rescinded federal flood protection standards put in place by his predecessor, Barack Obama.” Those rules would have required any structures rebuilt with federal aid to meet stricter flood safety building codes. “Now, they won’t.”
“What’s likely to happen is we’re going to spend tens of billions of dollars rebuilding Houston exactly like it is now, and then wait for the next one,” warned Natural Resources Defense Council water policy analyst Rob Moore.
While that risk may recede in the light of Houston’s flood—the Washington Post reported the administration was second-guessing its own rescinding of the rule—Abbott’s call for many billions in aid showed signs of running into headwinds in Washington. The House of Representatives has just 12 working days to dispose of a packed agenda that includes raising the U.S. government’s debt ceiling.
Late last week, the White House asked Congress to approve $7.85 billion in emergency aid for the stricken Gulf region. As the Post observed, however, the administration tied the request to House approval of a higher debt ceiling. The once-routine housekeeping vote has increasingly become an opportunity for confrontation as right-wing members attempt to extract spending cuts in exchange for their agreement.
Republican Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell promised to act expeditiously on the aid request, and a vote in the House was scheduled for today. The Associated Press, however, reported that some House Republicans hope to cut “almost $1 billion from disaster accounts, to help finance the president’s border wall.”
How Flood Insurance Can Make Things Worse
With the benefit of hindsight, federal flood insurance is also coming under scrutiny.
“Most homeowners who live in risky areas are required to buy flood insurance,” ProPublica observes. “Since private options are limited, most get subsidized policies through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), the federal government’s plan, which covers about five million American property owners. But critics say the program’s subsidies encourage people to live in flood-prone areas, since they are spared the full cost of insuring them.”
After repeated losses, often to rebuild or repair the same structures several times, the NFIP is $24.6 billion in debt. In Harris County, where little effort is made to direct development away from flood plains, ProPublica reports the federal program has paid out $265 million in accumulated claims from 1,155 “severe repetitive loss properties”.
The administration’s solution may be to make federal flood insurance both less generous and less forgiving when it is scheduled to be reauthorized by Congress later this month, Bloomberg wrote August 23, just two days before Harvey made landfall.
At the time, FEMA Administrator Brock Long said taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay “for homes that keep flooding,” and suggested that “the threshold for triggering federal public assistance after a disaster might be too low.” Said Long: “I don’t think the taxpayer should reward risk going forward.”
A series of explosions that ripped through a chemical plant east of Houston after it lost power drew attention to yet another Trump administration retreat from regulatory oversight.
Arkema, the company whose tanks of organic peroxides exploded, and others, had successfully lobbied the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year to delay a risk management rule instituted after an explosion at another Texas chemical plant killed 15 people in 2013.
Just one day before explosions began at Arkema’s evacuated plant, EcoWatch reported, “a federal court refused to force the EPA to implement the Obama rule.” Had it done so, EcoWatch speculated, more than a dozen first responders who complained of breathing difficulties after attending the Arkema explosions would instead have been “fully aware of the particular chemical and the particular method to respond.”
City of Cars Loses Its Wheels
While the “what-ifs” called for attention as the city and region mobilized for recovery, for most ordinary citizens the challenge of immediate recovery dominated all other considerations. Even there, history and past choices—including those made on a society-wide basis—haunted the stricken city.
For one thing, Houston is a metropolis designed and developed for the passenger vehicle. “Driving here is not just a choice but a way of life,” the Post writes. But Harvey’s receding floodwaters have left “300,000 to 500,000 cars and perhaps far more” out of service after being submerged. Many are beyond repair.
“The loss is having an immediate impact,” the paper reports, “preventing many people from being able to return to work, sending craftsmen scrambling for new vehicles as they hope to rebuild the region, and leaving auto dealers who face millions of dollars in losses racing to restock amid unprecedented demand.”
While a lack of transport slows the city’s efforts at recovery, saturated building walls and pools of lingering flood water pose a daily escalating threat to public health “that’s likely to unfold over months or even years,” InsideClimate News reports.
Even as flood waters no longer cover streets and fill the first floor of homes and buildings, the outlet wrote, public health officials “are concerned about everything from exposure to germs and toxic chemicals to more insidious and long-term threats, including mould in the walls of flooded homes.” Also a concern: mental health problems arising from the trauma of the storm and its aftermath.
Officials warned the flooding had breached more than a dozen toxic waste and other acutely contaminated sites in the Houston area, allowing their contents to flow into neighbouring properties, CBC news reports.
And early regulatory filings obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity, according to the Washington Post, revealed that petrochemical installations around Houston had “released one million pounds of dangerous air pollutants in the week after Harvey struck.” Among the severely toxic chemicals released, were “benzene, 1,3-butadiene, hexane, hydrogen sulphide, sulphur dioxide, toluene, and xylene.”
Unequal Impacts Linger
As the storm’s impacts lingered and deepened, they again threw into stark relief the inequities of Houston’s informally but effectively class- and race-segregated neighbourhoods.
CBC News noted that even though the rain had eased in south Texas, plans to release water from brimming reservoirs threatened renewed flooding and prompted evacuation orders for residents of as many as 20,000 homes in low-lying neighbourhoods. That secondary, purely discretionary flood, they warned, might last another two weeks.
Several outlets pointed out that both free-floating toxins and selective reservoir releases disproportionately affected low-income communities, often populated by Hispanic- and African-American minorities.
“A growing body of research has shown,” the Post wrote, that “disasters tend to be worse for poor and minority communities—at the moment they strike, and in the hard months and years that follow. Low-income communities frequently sustain more damage in storms because they tend to be built on cheaper land that is often more flood-prone. It can also be harder for poorer people—who may not have cars, may be more afraid to leave their possessions and jobs, may not speak English, or may fear immigration authorities—to evacuate before disasters.”
Most vulnerable have been Houston and Harris County’s estimated 375,000 undocumented immigrants.
While U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials “reiterated several times that they had suspended deportation efforts in the area while rescues were ongoing,” the Houston Chronicle reported, many illegals wondered, “could they be trusted?” After all, since Trump took office, “federal agents have arrested more than 6,200 [undocumented immigrants] here, the most in the country after Dallas and Atlanta. Immigration actions have been suspended during recovery, but what happens after that?”
Even if they do not fear deportation if they identify themselves, the undocumented don’t qualify for federal assistance, even though the Chronicle, citing Houston’s mayor, said the city would “likely channel some of its relief fund to local non-profits to distribute to immigrants who don’t qualify for federal aid.”
The market may provide more. As the Washington Post tartly noted, the Texas Gulf Coast already relied heavily on undocumented immigrants for construction labour. That labour will be all the more valuable as the region mobilizes all its resources to recover. As one undocumented worker put it to the Post, “if they deport all of us, who will rebuild?”
Ripples North and South
Interests beyond the region immediately affected also began to count the impacts of Houston’s disruption.
Although U.S. gasoline prices “slumped back to pre-Hurricane Harvey levels,” according to Reuters, Bloomberg reported the storm knocked out 60% of America’s supply of what it called “the most important petrochemical on the planet” that you’ve probably never heard of: ethylene gas.
The material is used to make polyethylene plastics for everything “from milk jugs to mattresses,” Bloomberg observed. And industry analyst Laurence Alexander told the outlet that chemical and plastics manufacturers “can operate [for] only about two weeks before exhausting their inventories.” Many, the news agency adds, “are already telling customers that they won’t be able to meet their contractual supply obligations because of the storm.”
Beyond the U.S., Bloomberg observes, Harvey’s impacts were reaching north as far as Canadian tar sands/oil sands producers, and south to Mexico’s consumers.
Canadian producers of heavy crude from diluted bitumen saw the discount their product earns compared to so-called ‘light, sweet’ Texas crude jump by nearly 20%, Bloomberg reported, “driven by shutdowns of Gulf Coast refineries that oilsands producers have increasingly relied upon to process their crude, as well as the suspension of service on TransCanada Corporation’s Marketlink pipeline that can deliver Canadian crude to the Texas coast.”
Meanwhile, a single-day, 16% cut in natural gas exports from South Texas to Mexico drove home that country’s growing “addiction” to the United States for more than half of the natural gas it consumes, Bloomberg again noted, even though supplies quickly resumed.
A Wake-Up Call, Or Not
As recovery operations gained steam, the Guardian estimated that “if past disasters are anything to go by, about half of the direct, local cost of Hurricane Harvey is likely to be picked up eventually by insurers, with the rest borne by the public and by individuals and businesses.”
Echoing the critique that much of Houston’s disaster rested with its civic decisions rather than nature, the outlet noted that “while insurers have grown acutely aware of these risks, governments and other parts of the private sector have lagged behind.”
“We see the need at a global scale for societies and public risk managers like government and local authorities to pay more attention to resilience building,” said Ernst Rauch, head of climate business development at reinsurance giant Munich Re. “Otherwise, we will see an ongoing increase in losses, driven and intensified by climate change.”
But it remained to be seen whether Houston’s devastating degree of vulnerability before Harvey’s ferocity would serve as a wake-up call for American politicians who have hitherto resisted the scientific and voter consensus on climate change.
Outspoken climate champion and Guardian columnist George Monbiot accused U.S. media of dodging the most important questions raised by the record-setting storm. “Though the links are clear and obvious,” Monbiot wrote, “most reports on Hurricane Harvey have made no mention of the human contribution to it.”
Striking the same theme, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof likened the American media’s obsession with the details of Harvey’s impacts to the exclusion of climate change, to discussing the 9/11 attacks without mentioning the terrorism that gave rise to them.
But the magnitude of the damage done to America’s 4th largest city may begin to test that silence.
“It was clear,” Inside Climate News asserted, “that Hurricane Harvey would force a new reckoning over major energy and climate policy questions. The immediate priorities will be followed by broader questions involving the vulnerability of infrastructure, the energy industry, and communities to extreme weather, and the need [for] adaptation to global warming’s inescapable impacts.”
Calling the event “an almost entirely man-made catastrophe, fingerprinted by all-too-human neglect, corruption, and denial,” Rolling Stone expressed the belief it would mark “a turning point” in American acceptance of climate change.
“We’ve spent 40 years denying the risks of climate change,” the paper wrote, “thinking that if we can just get everyone to buy a Prius and recycle their plastic, everything will be OK. The message of Hurricane Harvey is that it will not be OK. We’re living in a new world now, and we better get ready.”
In Washington, Politico issued a similar call-to-arms, declaring that “Harvey is what climate change looks like. It’s time to open our eyes and prepare for the world that’s coming.”
And in that city’s leading newspaper, the Washington Post, Houston Chronicle Managing Editor Vernon Loeb pleaded with his nation’s leaders to accept that “the planet is getting warmer, ocean temperatures are rising, the polar ice caps are melting, and more extreme weather events are an inevitable consequence.” He urged decision-makers to join his stricken city “to turn this devastating tragedy into an existential moment of reinvention [as] a world capital of alternative energies.”
Just how difficult it will be to bring America to that conversation remained clear, however, as the Guardian reported that “conservative groups with close links to the Trump administration have sought to ridicule the link between climate change and events such as tropical storm Harvey.”
“It is unfortunate, but not surprising, that the left is exploiting Hurricane Harvey to try and advance their political agenda,” remarked Thomas Pyle, who led the administration’s transition team for the Department of Energy, and whose Institute of Energy Research has ties to the Koch family and routinely questions the science of climate change. “But it won’t work.”
Perhaps not. But as this edition of The Mix went to digital press, many of the personal dramas and policy arguments arising from Hurricane Harvey appeared about to take on fresh urgency as another storm, Hurricane Irma, skirted Haiti and barreled toward South Florida.
As of mid-day Tuesday, Irma was “an ‘extremely dangerous’ Category 5,” the Post reported, already the strongest hurricane ever recorded outside the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.
Irma was “likely to make landfall somewhere in Florida over the weekend,” the Post forecast. “If it does, the impact could be catastrophic.” Again.