Harvey: Another Storm of the Century

Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center | CC BY 2.0

You tell me over and over and over again, my friend,
Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.

The Eve of Destruction, Barry McGuire

If you’re living anywhere along the Gulf Coast, you must be tired of hearing that this is the storm of the century.  If you’re living in the city of Houston, you might recall Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 or Hurricane Rita on the heels of Katrina in 2005.  Rita was the “most intense tropical storm ever observed in the Gulf of Mexico.”  It took one hundred and twenty lives and cost an estimated twelve billion in damage.  Of course that pales in comparison to Katrina, which took well over a thousand lives and cost over one hundred billion. [1]

I refuse to reenter the debate on whether you can blame global climate change for any specific climate catastrophe.  If you’re in the path of the storm or know someone who is, the game is over.  You can no longer deny the overwhelming truth without inviting a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

It is bitterly ironic that those who reside in the victim zone are most likely to deny the realities of global warming.  Of course, the rich and powerful from Florida to Corpus Christi will always escape the danger posed by hurricanes, tropical storms and floods.  Their homes are built on higher grounds and they can afford to evacuate at a moment’s notice.  The poor and working class find housing where they can – inevitably in flood zones – and simply cannot afford to get out of harm’s way.

Katrina was an opportunity for the moneyed class to reconstitute their city, to rid themselves of tens of thousands of poor black folk with their substandard housing, and bring in gentrification.  A lot of money was made on the backs of the poor who lost their homes and their places in the city of jazz.

What will happen in Houston?

Hurricane Katrina uncovered a slew of dirty little secrets.  The most damning was this:  The Army Corps of Engineers knew the levees would fail – if not from Katrina, then some other storm.  The work of shoring up the levees was neglected and substandard.  Katrina was a catastrophe waiting to happen.   The people in the lower ninth ward and other low-lying areas slammed by a twenty-foot wall of water would lose their lives, their homes and their roots.  The insurance companies would not cover even those who bought substandard policies.  The government would offer little assistance – pennies on the dollar – for a lifetime of hard work and accomplishment.

As the residents of the New Jersey shore would learn years later after Hurricane Sandy, government talks a good game while the cameras are still rolling but the money comes up short when it’s time to rebuild the lives of working people.

Of the hundreds of thousands who fled New Orleans, as many as half that number never made it home.  They were poor people and the city that gave them life and raised them from generation to generation could no longer afford them.  They were replaced with people who had more to offer – in terms of money and resources.  The color of New Orleans lightened.  Significantly more black people than white people were permanently displaced.

Ironically, the city that inherited more of Katrina’s diaspora was Houston, Texas, where they became trapped in a deadly cycle of poverty and tragedy.  A disproportionate number of the displaced from Katrina and Rita ended up in FEMA apartments in the high-crime neighborhoods of Houston’s southwest sector.  They suffered the Memorial Day floods in 2015 and the Tax Day floods in 2016.  Now this. [2,3]

In New Orleans, decades of industrialization and lack of planning destroyed the wetlands that protected the city.  In Houston, the dirty little secret that will come to light as this disaster unfolds in slow motion on the news station of your choice, is that the development on the prairies and wetlands surrounding the city have hastened the city’s demise.  Those wetlands and prairies used to soak up water – water that now flows through the city streets.

Much has been and will be said about the failure to call for a mass evacuation.  The truth is:  The state of Texas, the city of Houston and indeed the entire nation is not prepared for mass evacuations.  We don’t have the transportation infrastructure.  It would require a massive influx of expenditures with elevated mass transit from every major coastal city to inland evacuation centers stocked with warehouses of food, water, medicines, fuel, generators and shelters.  We are in fact not even willing to invest in our roads, tunnels, bridges and the dams that now stand between the current disaster in Houston and a tragedy of truly biblical proportions.  Those dams were built in the 1940s.

Our president has proposed cutting the budget of the Federal Emergency Management Agency by $600 million.  So much for emergency preparedness.  It won’t happen again.  Right.  It can’t happen again.  Right.  It’s fake news.  It’s a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.  Right.  Unless you’re in the path of the storm.

Our president would rather invest more blood and treasure into the bottomless pit of war in Afghanistan than rebuild our own nation or prepare for the inevitable disasters to come.

Whatever happened to America first?

We don’t need a wall on the southern border.  We need flood walls on the Gulf of Mexico.  We don’t need money for endless wars across the globe.  We need money to mitigate the harm from global climate change.

1. Wikipedia:  Blake, Eric S; Landsea, Christopher W; Gibney, Ethan J.  National Hurricane Center (August 2011).  The Deadliest, Costliest and Most Intense United States Tropical Cyclones from 1851 to 2010 (And Other Frequently Requested Hurricane Facts).

2. “10 Years Later, There’s So Much We Don’t Know About Where Katrina Survivors Ended Up” by Laura Bliss.  Citylab, August 25, 2015.

3. “Houston Wasn’t Built for a Flood Like This” by Henry Grabar.  Slate, August 27, 2017.

Jack Random is the author of Jazzman Chronicles (Crow Dog Press) and Ghost Dance Insurrection (Dry Bones Press.)

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