Houston didn’t need to be warned. The city had already been sunk by four major hurricanes, each less powerful than Harvey, in the last 80 years. Generational storms. But boomtowns have short memories. After each epochal deluge, Houston rebuilt on the ruins. Rebuilt in a Texas way: Bigger. Brasher. Gaudier. Rebuilt on the very same vulnerable grounds. In the same pathway of destruction.
After each inundation, Houston got larger, as if to defy the mutating atmosphere gathering against it. It grew, it bulged and it sprawled. Into bayous. Into swamps. Into brownfields and floodplains. Into coastal prairies. Ripping up the last natural defenses between the city and the well-beaten storm track. Houston absorbed oil men, ex-presidents and immigrants, retirees, hedge funders and refugees from Katrina. Forty thousand new residents stream into the city every year. Houston grew and grew until it swelled into the second largest city in the nation in terms of land area it consumed and the fourth in terms of population. Bigger than Dallas, bigger than Boston, bigger than Phoenix, bigger than Philly.
Houston got bigger, but so did the hurricanes. Now the only barrier between Houston and the storms is the toxic crescent of oil refineries and chemical plants that spike up along the Gulf Coast from Beaumont to Corpus Christi. There would be no escape from Harvey. There will be no escape from the next storm or the ones following that. Storms which will be wetter, fiercer and more poisonous. Storms fueled by a Gulf that is warming inexorably, whose waters are rising inch by inch, year by year. Storms envenomed by the deadly detritus of the very industry which has super-charged them.
Tropical Storm Harvey entered the cauldron Gulf of Mexico on August 23, rapidly intensified, formed an eye and was declared a Hurricane the following day. Fed by the sun-seared waters of the Gulf, Harvey roared into a Category 3 storm in a matter of days, swirling with 100 mph winds as it bared down on the Texas coast. In the early morning hours of August 26, Harvey slammed into Rockport as a Category 4 storm, lashing the town with a ferocious storm surge propelled by 130 mph winds. Boats were torn from their moorings, trees were uprooted and sent flying, entire blocks of buildings were obliterated. Three hours later the storm had traversed Capano Bay before smashing into the town of Holiday Beach, where suddenly it began to slow, edging closer and closer to Houston, until the storm finally stalled for two days, a hovering cyclone of destruction, as it unleashed 50 inches of rain on the most densely populated swath of land on the Gulf. Then it backed out onto open water again, reorganized itself, and crawled north making landfall again near the oil port of Beaufort, then tearing up into Louisiana, where it swamped hundreds of homes in Lake Charles under four feet of water.
As the waters surged into Houston’s bayous, streets and neighborhoods, more than 30,000 people fled their homes looking for shelter. Bay City was evacuated, as the downtown submerged under 10-feet of water. The town of Conroe was cleared on August 28, after the local dam began to overflow. The next day a levee along the Columbia Lakes breached and with the waters rising more than 6 inches an hour the Army Corps of Engineers began spilling water out of the dams at both Barker and Addison Reservoirs, flooding Buffalo Bayou. In a scene that resembled the fleet of Little Ships in the film “Dunkirk,” the so-called Cajun Navy of volunteer boaters deployed into the floodwaters to rescue people trapped on the roofs of houses, cars and buildings and clinging to overpasses, trees, and floating telephone poles.
At least 60 people perished in the floods and the death count is still rising. According to the Texas Department of Safety, 185,000 homes were damaged by the floodwaters, at least 10,000 of them rendered uninhabitable. Thousands remained in shelters two weeks after the storm dissipated with nowhere to go.
Along the petro-chemical zone, refineries flooded, pipelines ruptured, chemical plants exploded, and toxic waste sites were swamped. An early estimate, almost certainly low, calculated that two million pounds of hazardous chemicals had been released into the air during the flood by the big oil companies alone. Two oil tanks ruptured spilling 30,000 gallons of crude into the floodwaters. Another storage tank released 9,500 gallons of highly toxic wastewater. These were only the highlights in a state where regulators are charged with concealing not exposing such incidents.
In the spirit of American exceptionalism, Trump called the flooding “unprecedented.” Wrong. It wasn’t even unprecedented for that very same week, as more than 2500 people perished in flooding from monster storms in Sierra Leone and Bangladesh. With the even more potent Hurricane Irma charging across the Caribbean toward Florida, these super-storms are beginning to look like the new normal. We hear the boosters and politicians reassuringly describe Harvey as a “1000-year event”. The term itself suggests that the hurricane was the product of some vast celestial cycle for beyond human influence. Nonsense. This was Houston’s third “500-year flood” in the last three years! Time must be moving much faster now.
The liberal response to all of this is to demand that Trump make a public act of contrition by acknowledging the existence of climate change in some primetime speech. How quaint. I don’t care what Trump believes or what he says. What difference could it possibly make at this point? Climate change is a fact. The sea levels are rising. The polar ice caps are melting. The forests of the West are burning. The Colorado River is dwindling. The snowpack in the Rockies, Sierras and Cascade Mountains is shrinking. Bird migration patterns are changing. Coral Reefs are bleaching out. Salmon and grizzlies are being driven toward extinction. All of this is happening whether Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt believe it or not. And there’s little they could do to change the dynamic, even if they were willing to try.
Barack Obama prattled poetic platitudes about global warming week after week for eight years and over that time atmospheric carbon levels rose from 392 PPM in 2008 to 412 PPM this summer. Since Obama took office, the average water temperature of the Gulf of Mexico rose by 1 degree Fahrenheit and the sea level of the Gulf is now six inches higher than it was when Rita hit the coast of Texas in 2005. I tend to see Harvey as the latest aftershock of the political mentality that led to Deepwater Horizon. The Obama mentality, if you will. The pious mentality that signs the toothless Paris Accords, while authorizing deepwater drilling, fracking, coal liquidification, mountaintop removal mining, LNG terminals and offshore drilling.
At root, Trump and Obama share the same lethal ideology of endless growth and consumption that has served as a death warrant on the planet and millions of new solar panels and wind turbines won’t bring us back from the brink. Trump may believe his own bullshit. Obama knew better and didn’t have the guts to speak the truth. What is that truth? That unchained capitalism is the invisible hand driving the destruction left by Katrina, Sandy and Harvey. Here I’m not referring only to the manufactured power of the new breed of hurricanes themselves, but to the moral blindness that stalks the aftermath, an omnivorous economic machine that learns nothing from so much tragedy, privation and death.
In a few months, amnesia will once again begin to grip Houston and the Gulf Coast. The reconstruction will begin. Bridges, roads and levees will be repaired. The refineries will fire back up. The chemical plants will resume their dark operations. New buildings will be built on the old, financed by federal and state subsidies and loans. Houston, which brands itself “the city without limits,” will continue its ceaseless expansion. The displaced will quietly move on, desperately looking for shelter and work in San Antonio, Memphis, Biloxi. But what’s misery for many is a business opportunity for the few. The most malign kind of looting is done by the post-disaster speculators, bankers and real estate magnates who will pilfer the wreckage for profit. Five years from now Houston will look shiny and new again, as it blindly awaits the flood next time.
* Jesmyn Ward: “Life is a hurricane, and we board up to save what we can and bow low to the earth to crouch in that small space above the dirt where the wind will not reach. We honor anniversaries of deaths by cleaning graves and sitting next to them before fires, sharing food with those who will not eat again. We raise children and tell them other things about who they can be and what they are worth: to us, everything. We love each other fiercely, while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.” (Men We Reaped)