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Hurricane Harvey: a Man-Made Tragedy That Never Would Have Happened in Cuba

When I moved to Houston in 1964 with my sisters and my mother I remember how huge, flat and sprawling with cris crossing freeways it seemed. Coming from Newport New Hampshire, population 5,000, it really was big but back then Houston, in the national scheme of things, was a major port city but with less than a million people and just barely in the top ten of the largest cities

Since then Houston has exploded in population and is now the 4th largest city in the U.S. with just under 7 million people.  This is the city that is the nation’s fossil fuel capital in a state where even the mention of climate change is considered heresy.  The rich of Texas still look at it like it is the wild west under the god given premise that if you own land you are entitled to do whatever the hell you want to with it. That is why there are virtually no zoning laws to speak of and why housing sub divisions now butt up against toxic chemical refineries as well as under the shadows of the two large dams on Buffalo Bayou.

Personally I would never have called it paradise but, to take a phrase from a Joni Mitchell song, Houston paved paradise and put in a parking lot, a massive one.  In a short period of time the natural areas of Houston have been dramatically turned into huge areas of land that are covered with what scientists refer to as impervious surfaces. Breaking that down I understand that to mean when it rains water has no way to seep into the soil and can only do one thing, roll and flood.

Houston, like New Orleans, sitting on the Northern side of the Gulf of Mexico, is situated where the question has been proven not to be if a major hurricane is going to land but in this period of global warming,  when, how often and how big. While global warming did not necessarily produce Hurricane Harvey it had everything to do with its intensity. What fuels the hurricane’s fury is the temperature of the water it is over. This year the temperature of the Gulf of Mexico, for the first time since records have been kept, did not go below 73 degrees.  Harvey is the first hurricane ever in the gulf to actually gain intensity in the 12 hours prior to hitting landfall. This is not a debate but rather scientific facts.

Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath is still wreaking relentless havoc on the people of Houston and all of Harris County and their recovery will be a long time coming. On the 12th anniversary of Katrina in a cruel ironic twist it hit Louisiana as well. Today Trump, the ultimate climate change denier, showed up in Texas making sure he looks concerned and not appearing like the disconnected George Bush in 2005 when he flew over and peered down from 10,000 feet at the flooded devastated and neglected city of New Orleans where 2,000 people died. It is hard to forget Bush’s finest imperial moment when for no reason he slapped his disgraced FEMA chief Mike Brown on the back and told him, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” FEMA’s ineptitude dealing with Katrina was just the beginning of their crimes. In the recovery over 55,000 families displaced along the Gulf Coast were awarded trailers as housing that were laden with toxic formaldehyde.

Like Katrina, where people where left to their own devices to get out of the Mississippi Delta and figure out their future, the people of Houston are also facing a similar fate. There was no contingency plan from any level of government and the only thing collective when the massive storm hit was confusion. Trump mentioned how happy is with the co ordination of the rescue operation; what co ordination was that?  The mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner told everyone to just sit tight and ride out the storm at home about the same time as Texas Governor Gregg Abbott called for the people in Houston and surrounding areas to evacuate. Maybe Trump was talking about the rescue helicopter pilots who were fearful of hitting each other in the sky because there was no navigation center co coordinating their efforts in the air and on the ground. There are hundreds of people from all over the country who spontaneously volunteered with their boats lining roads waiting for orders to go into the water to rescue people. The government told people to put a white towel out the windows of their home if they needed rescue. They also told them to write their name and social security number on their arm….just in case.

CNN in particular has raised the rescue efforts of random brave individuals into more than a virtue of success instead of hammering the government about the lack of any comprehensive civil defense plan for such a catastrophic event. Everyone knew for almost a week the magnitude of the storm but they did little to nothing to prepare with no infrastructure to activate.  The hundreds of people rescued by strangers willing to jump back into the water is remarkable but they can be no substitute for a co ordinated centralized search and rescue and recovery plan.

Katrina and Harvey are not just aberrations of how the U.S. approaches natural disasters. We see the same thing time and time again. In 2016 as Hurricane Matthew approached the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. reactionary Florida Governor Rick Scott, instead of providing some level of leadership, created an atmosphere of panic in the state by telling everyone to flee because, “this storm will kill you!!”. What he failed to tell people was where to go and how. And like all these storms there is absolutely no preventive consideration for the most vulnerable, those without cars, the homeless, the infirmed, the poor, the incarcerated and immigrants fearing arrest.

When the next hurricane or earthquake hits we can expect the same thing to unfold,  the hit or miss rescues, the price gouging in the stores and at the pump and the hundreds of thousands displaced who have lost everything, including those with inadequate insurance. It is hard to imagine that the lack of resolve from the government could get any worse but it will considering that the Trump administration is calling for $667 million to be cut in FEMA grants that includes pre-disaster prevention programs. He is also planning to cut the budgets of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center by 16 percent as well as a 32% cut on research on the oceans and the atmosphere.

Cuba’s Approach to Disasters

When Hurricane Matthew hit Eastern Cuba a whole other scenario took place. The prevention measures were well in place days before the storm was even close and institutions were activated. It took a full mobilization of the society that included students, workers, farmers and others who brought all their energies into a collective force. Extra medical professionals were brought in as well as trucks, buses and provisions. Through the community organizations everyone knew where to go and all the other details of the evacuation.

President Raul Castro went to Barracoa, the target of the storm, early to check on all details of the preparedness, unlike Trump who is now spending a moment in Houston handing out hot dogs in a food serving line telling people a whole lot of disingenuous platitudes.

No one should think that if Hillary Clinton was president the outcomes of Hurricane Harvey would be different because as awful as Trump is he is just a symptom of the rotten system of capitalism that cannot correct itself or provide for its own; let alone be a humane model for anywhere else.

In Cuba human life is more important than anything as the mobilization during Matthew illustrated. Over 375,000 people from 2 provinces were evacuated during that storm and there was not a single death. The example of Cuba, a poor blockaded country with its bigger than life international sense of humanity, should be the model held up for everyone to emulate.

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Bill Hackwell is an organizer with the International Committee for Peace Justice and Dignity and an editor for the English edition of Resumen Latinoamericano.

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