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When the Rains Came to Houston

Photo by The National Guard | CC BY 2.0

Harvey continues to strike my city, making swaths of the metropolitan area uninhabitable. I write this from far away in North Carolina, talking to everyone I know daily, sometimes hourly to make sure they are safe. My heart beats for the H. I was born and raised on the Southwest side, from Mission West where I started in pampers to them suburbs in Katy where I finished high school. I got connections all over, from the Woodlands in the North to Third Ward in the center, even all the way off to Galveston Island. When I say home, that’s where my mind goes, the images home propagates in my head. I write with tears in my eyes for the city I love.

When this storm finally stops, upwards of 50 inches of rain will have fallen. To put this in perspective, Houston gets 50 inches of rain annually. So, in one week, the city will be hit with its annual rainfall. Scientists are saying it is a once-in-500-years flood, and that even in some places, if they get 60 inches of water, a once-in-a-million years event. It is hard not to see the connection between the increasing frequency of these flooding events and anthropogenic climate change. According to the Intergovenmental Panel on Climate Change, while some places in the globe are experiencing more severe droughts, Houston is seeing more and more precipitation. As the IPCC states, “Basic theory, climate model simulations and empirical evidence all confirm that warmer climates, owing to increased water vapour, lead to more intense precipitation events even when the total annual precipitation is reduced slightly, and with prospects for even stronger events when the overall precipitation amounts increase.” In layman’s terms, as it gets hotter the rains get stronger.

Yet, President Trump declares climate change a hoax, and his administration rolls back key regulations that would help to ameliorate its effects. Reuters reports on August 15th, 2017, the Trump Administration “rolled back rules regarding environmental reviews and restrictions on government-funded building projects in flood-prone areas as part of his proposal to spend $1 trillion to fix aging U.S. infrastructure.” Considering the events ongoing in Houston, such as the Tax Day flood of 2016 or the Memorial Day flood of 2015, why would the Administration slash “an Obama-era executive order aimed at reducing exposure to flooding, sea level rise and other consequences of climate change”? It is as if the Trump Administration is actively working to make damage from anthropogenic climate change even worse. In both prior cases of flooding, major flooding occurred that led to upwards of half a billion dollars in damage.

The Trump Administration is not alone in enacting foolish policy concerning ecology and development. Harvey’s destruction is really a play with many actors that make its impact even worse. The city is already prone to flooding, compounded by developer greed. ProPublica and Texas Tribune report that “local officials have largely rejected stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over acres of prairie land that once absorbed large amounts of rainwater.” Such greed-driven insanity is the norm across the country. Jason Allen, a doctoral student in sociology at North Carolina State University, finds that in North Carolina, the Coastal Resource Commission panel charged with enacting policy to mitigate sea-level rise, instead actively pursued policies for economic development. People’s lives are ruined, but this is unimportant to the short-term interests of profit-maximization.

And what is the level of destruction? Well, Harvey is throwing off tornados in Cypress, Sugar Land, Needville, and the tornado watches and warnings continued through Saturday night into Sunday morning. Those tornadoes damaged 50 homes in Sienna Plantation, and even more homes on the Northwest side. As Sunday goes on, tornado warnings continue throughout the city and surrounding area. People are constantly having to huddle in fear, wondering when it will stop, when Nature will decide to finally move on.

Schools are closed, hospitals are re-scheduling surgeries, nursing homes evacuated, the Medical Center is flooding, Ben Taub hospital is being evacuated, prisoners are being evacuated, and the emergency continues unabated. The death toll is now at six, and sure to rise. As I write this, Buffalo Bayou is going to swallow bridges in Downtown Houston. George R. Brown Convention Center has been turned into a shelter, as have many other places. ABC-13 is maintaining a list that people can use to find places if they need to evacuate. The list shifts, as places that were shelters are themselves flooded as the rain continues.

As with all things in a grotesquely unequal society, the poor and People of Color will bear the brunt of the cost. Only around 15 to 20 percent have flood insurance, which means many people will be without a home and stuck with mortgages that they will be forced to pay for a shelter that no longer exists. People will lose their jobs as places of work are left in shambles. Going forward things will be even worse as the Federal Government looks to push more and more of the cost for these disasters onto already cash-starved municipalities and states. Tie this into Trump’s proposed cuts to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Flood Insurance Program, and we have a recipe for even more disasters. Don’t think that a privatized infrastructure plan will resolve any of this either, instead it will be like pigs feeding at a trough of public money.

I remember Tropical Storm Allison’s flood in 2001. The rain just never stopped, it just kept coming over days. I was 13 at the time. The city was submerged, and even after that, no real adjustments have been made. If anything, as ProPublica and Texas Tribune report, the situation has been made worse. That means within two decades, the city has been submerged in water four times, including Harvey, with no actual plan to address the causes. Texas overall leads the country in floods, and yet nothing. The city and state are woefully underprepared for these natural disasters.

There is a bleak, sardonic irony that Houston, an oil refining capital, would be visited with such destructive furor by Nature. The same fossil fuels that have powered the city’s economy, are also increasing the temperature. Increasing the temperature leads to heavier rain fall. The same economy built on oil pushed development that paved the city’s prairie’s making it more difficult to absorb water. All of our actions have ecological consequences, and flooding is the consequence for Houston. These things are inextricably linked, and in our hubris we ignore them. As storms continue to increase in potency due to anthropogenic climate change, these scenes, as if written by Noah, will continue to happen. For now, we must come together. If you can volunteer, do so. Do anything you can to help Houston, Corpus Christi, Rockport, and all communities along the Texas Gulf Coast.

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Andrew Smolski is a writer and sociologist.

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