Electric America

The People and Places Powering the USA

Harvey Hits Home


Last week natural disaster swept the fourth largest metropolis in the country, and left upward of 44,000 people in the Houston area seeking shelter and thousands without food, cars, or other resources to go on living as they would have before the storm.

A Nytimes clip shows the devastation from hurricane Harvey, heartbreak and also the strength of the communities within Texas and from out of state.

Houston received 1/3 of its annual rainfall in 24 hours. 440,000 people have applied for federal aid for their homes and 60 people were killed.

Estimates of the damage have not yet been calculated, but are expected to be in the billions.

People have a tendency to talk about climate change, and most other scary things, as if it is in the future- a far off event or an apocalypse that will strike a distant town. Or if it strikes you, you’ll know that it’s “climate change,” and then you’ll change or address it.

But it does not come with a sign, stamp, or a solution packet. It’ll look like something you’ve experienced and survived before- lots of rain. I doubt that a survey of the population affected by Harvey would indicate increased concern for climate change and a call for action. I imagine it would, however, indicate increased respect for first responders or the Red Cross, and the need for increased FEMA and disaster preparedness funds.

When an event as devastating as Harvey hits, all we want to think about it how to get through it. And that’s 100% warranted, rational and necessary.  But at some point we have to address why it happened, and what we can do to prepare for a future event, or even prevent it.

Climate change is linked to an increase in frequency and intensity of storms.  Studies showed that the probably of a storm of Harvey’s scale occurring in Houston in any given was between .2 and .1%. But this is the third intense rain event with a probability of happening once every 500 years that has hit Houston in the last three years.

But no one believes they’ll be hit again.

It’s scientifically inaccurate to say the phenomenon caused Harvey; but it is accurate to say that climate change is linked to intensifying storms, and to a higher frequency of storm events, and probably contributed to its extreme impact.

When a city is tested, you see its true character. The people of Houston and Texas are resilient. Certainly first responders, FEMA, Red Cross, and the army of citizens that poured in from other states show that the city will survive. But a whole slew of issues have come to the forefront  which show where the system has gaps.

From a systemic, societal point of view, there are some serious flaws and weak points. Two explosions at an Archema chemical factory that was built along flood plains left black smoke pluming for days.  It was the result of a failure of electricity to the plant, and failure of backup generators, causing  volatile organic compounds to heat (without electric cooling) and explode.

The surrounding areas were evacuated prior to the explosions, but at that point there was nothing that could be done except wait for the explosions, and during the storm that was ultimately the plan of action chosen by the company.

While the human impact was minimized, certainly the area to which surrounding families would return will be different.   They might see affected air quality, employment, real estate value, just to name a few.

The fact that there are even chemical plants in flood prone areas is a questionable development decision. There has been a lot written about weak development regulations, and its role in exacerbating the tragedy. As difficult as it is to do, we need to keep reimagining worst case scenarios as worse and worse. That’s the only way that we can prepare, and come out in a better place each time as families, as governments, and as a civil society.

Houston will rebuild, but the real challenge is to build better and build different. Even though Houston wants a city that looks like Houston, it will not be the same  in any case, and rebuilding in the same way means it is just as vulnerable to the next storm.

We need to change our ways or preparing for and preventing these natural disasters, or they will change them for us.

Site by Molly A. Seltzer

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