Harvey may be a storm like no other, developing quickly, then stalling, disastrously, over the Texas coast. There may be a case to be made for Harvey as an example of various truths we have learned in relation to climate change. But we don't need to revive the familiar debate of Just Convince Them It's Real to understand why Harvey is especially disastrous.
Climate Change, Global Warming... whatever we call it, the discussion of it has, conveniently, sidestepped other, harder discussions about our world and how we live in it. By focusing on the conviction that Nothing Gets Done because of Climate Denial, we ignore a great deal else that isn't getting done. And Houston, Texas is now Example A of what happens when we do that.
For years - and years - Houston has been an obvious, growing problem. Like a number of coastal communities, especially in the south, Houston sits on a large swath of marsh and wetland that was gradually paved over and built up... only in the case of Houston, it became not only the largest city in Texas but the fourth largest city in the country. Its "metroplex" - or the combination of the city proper and the constellation of communities surrounding it - take up acreage larger than the state of New Jersey (New Jersey, on the other hand, is more densely populated... which we'll get to, in a moment).
To say that "Houston had a flood risk" is to severely understate the reality. Houston, in fact, badly flooded in 2005 during Tropical Storm Allison. Hurricane Ike, which laid catastrophic damage on Galveston, the coastal town southeast of Houston, was actually predicted to be Harvey-like in its scope... but turned unexpectedly after hitting the coast. All of which is to point out that Texas, and Houston have known, for years and years, that they have a problem. And essentially nothing - and I do mean nothing - was done about it.
Cities like Houston - the gems of the sunbelt - grew like topsy starting in the mid seventies as a wave of retirees and job seekers moved south for opportunities and the warmer climate. Most of the cities and states that grew so rapidly grew in part because there was no zoning - no attempt to regulate, never mind think about, what should go where or why. Houston had, in fact rejected proposals to institute at the ballot box three times, most recently in 1993.
And so, Houston sat, and flooded, and dried out, and kept right on going as it had gone before. Never mind that some 50% of the nation's oil refineries sit on or near its shores. Never mind that because of the painful mess created when Houston attempted to evacuate for Ike the consensus was that full evacuation of the region was an impossibility. Never mind that the city has 2 reservoirs inside the city limits, feeding into bayous, that cannot take major flooding - by all means, build new housing developments hard up against them, as happened in the past 5 years.
Yesterday, the city of Houston deliberately flooded those communities, draining the reservoirs rather than see them fail completely, creating an even worse disaster. Water pours out of them, as I write this, at the rate of 7000 cubic feet per hour, and maybe, if it doesn't rain and the rivers go down, that might end later this week.
Having a debate about global warming is all well and good, and trying to reduce carbon emissions is a laudable goal. But knowing that storms are worse, that massive flooding is possible on a scale like little we've experienced... no one, it seems, wants to face the hard choices we still face about cities like Houston and other areas with overbuilt flood plains. We've created a system of "flood insurance" that's funded federally because the whole contraption denies how insurance works: that is, if you know a flood is possible on the land, don't build on it. Or if you do, accept that flooding will occur. Flood insurance, as we've built it, adds to the perverse incentives to build badly on flood prone land. And ending that, like even a modicum of zoning, would at least be a start to figuring out how to help more people suffer less, long term.
We lurch, after these disasters, towards some of this discussion each time - after Katrina, after Sandy. New Orleans is a different city now. New York moved, after Sandy, to buy out several thousand property owners on land deemed too close to the ocean to be livable safely. Yet the coastal beach towns of New Jersey - remember that dense population? - have rebuilt once more. Galveston, as it has each time, rebuilt after Ike. We build, and rebuild... and hesitate to ask, does any of this make sense?
It's tempting, as with global warming, to blame the rich interests and prominent know nothings arguing that talk of danger is overblown. The reality is, most of us would rather not want to believe that dangers are so great that we have to up-end our lives, our choices, our costal cities and beach towns. We pretend not to know how precariously San Francisco sits atop an earthquake fault line, we tell ourselves that events like a Sandy or a Harvey happen only in a 100 years or 500 years... as if that makes it ok. We play games of let's pretend and when a new disaster strikes, we wipe the board clean, focus on the immediate response and wonder "how could this have happened." As if we never knew.
We could make choices, even modest ones, to try and mitigate the effects of devastating floods. We could insist Houston adopt zoning regulations for federal aid. We could insist on wider dispersement of refineries and chemical production - and codify standards of safety so one state could not (er, Texas) create loose rules that also incentivize additional risks to life and health.
We could, but we probably won't. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey we see an unmitigated disaster. And, unmitigated, we will wait for it to happen. Again, and again.