No, Mr. President, we’re not having a good time

September 11, 2017

Folko Mueller, a contributor to and longtime resident of Houston, looks at the social and economic forces that have shaped the city where he lives--and that left it spectacularly unprepared for a storm that it should have been anticipating.

AS I write these lines, Houston, the city where I reside, is still dealing with the aftermath of the severe flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey.

I live only a couple of blocks away from a bayou--a waterway designed to handle excess precipitation and run-off--that jumped its banks on the morning of Sunday, August 27, turning my street into a waist-deep river in the process. While Houstonians are certainly no strangers to hurricanes and tropical storms that bring vast amounts of rain and can cause severe flooding, Harvey was, as we now know, bigger and harsher than anything ever experienced on the Gulf Coast.

It will take weeks, if not months, for the city to recover. We can only guess how long it may take individuals to heal from the emotional and psychological distress caused by having lost loved ones or their homes.

The statistics are staggering. It is estimated that more than 30,000 people are in shelters, more than 100,000 homes in the greater Houston area damaged, anywhere from 300,000 to 1 million vehicles impacted, and up to 2 million pounds of toxins released from nearby refineries and petrochemical processing plants.

A Houston resident is rescued in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey
A Houston resident is rescued in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey (Lt. Zachary West)

Beyond the raw numbers, we also know about a lot of human tragedy. But what makes all of this immediately frustrating is that they have been exacerbated by policy decisions. That's why Harvey has a political dimension that can't be ignored.

Donald Trump had the gall to tell storm survivors in Houston to "have a good time"--but it will be anything but that for a long time to come.

Climate Change
First, let's take a look at the storm itself. Climate change skeptics will argue that there have always been hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, some worse than others. While a glance at the Atlantic hurricane database that records storms will corroborate this fact, there is mounting evidence that the storms have qualitatively changed.

One difference is the extreme precipitation that tropical storms and hurricanes tend to bring with them these days. Record-breaking rainfall is a classic signature of climate change. Warmer seas are giving up more moisture to an also warmer atmosphere, which can thus hold more water. This, in turn, results in more precipitation and increased flooding.

Preliminary estimates are putting the contribution of global warming to the record rainfall of Harvey at up to 30 percent.

Since the 1950s, Houston has seen a 167 percent increase in the frequency of the most intense downpours. During Harvey, many areas in Southeast Texas witnessed 1,000-year rainfall amounts--that is, an amount of rainfall that has a 0.1 percent chance of happening in a given year in a given location.

Another devastating feature of modern storms such as Harvey in 2017 and Allison in 2001, which also affected Houston, is the stalling pattern. Waves in the jet stream can stall in place instead of moving eastward, blocking weather patterns and intensifying rainfall.

Recent studies have identified climate change as a contributing factor for these patterns, including the ones observed during Harvey.

Toxic Pollutants
From the east side of Houston, where some of its lower-income neighborhoods are located, to the east along the I-10 corridor to Louisiana, the landscape is littered with refineries and petrochemical plants, operated by Chevron Phillips, ExxonMobil, Shell and others.

Among the thousands of tons of toxic pollutants being released by Texas oil facilities because of Harvey are seven chemicals known to cause serious harms to human health. Some are carcinogenic substances, such as benzene and 1,3-butadiene. Others are pollutants known to be harmful to the central nervous system, such as xylene, toluene and hexane.

While some of these emissions were caused by actual storm damage, including tank roof failure at six facilities, the bulk of the pollutants were released through the industry practice of "flaring"--burning off toxic materials to dispose of them.

This has become routine for coastal refineries during major storms, despite the fact that these corporations have plenty of warning ahead of the storms to dispose of toxins in ways that don't pose a threat to people and the environment.

The devastation of motor vehicles by Harvey--as many as 1 million could be impacted--also has a political side to it.

Houston has hardly any public transportation system to speak of, other than bus lines that mainly operate in the inner loop and a couple of street car lines that don't offer any real solutions to the issues facing commuters. Houston is thus a highly car-dependent city.

Again, the lowest-income residents who live far from a bus line and cannot afford to replace their lost cars will be hardest hit. The Insurance Council of Texas estimates that about 15 percent of Texan vehicle owners do not have any kind of car insurance, despite laws stipulating that they must. Of the remaining 85 percent, just three-quarters have comprehensive insurance policies that are certain to cover flood damage.

Further exacerbating the plight of low-income Harvey survivors who lost vehicles will be the nasty practice of title-washing--taking a damaged vehicle, fixing it up a bit and then fudging the paperwork (either by forgery or taking advantage of legal loopholes by crossing state lines) to hide the fact that it once had a serious problem.

Industry experts expect this to happen on a significant scale. These cars tend to be sold cheap and will therefore directly victimize the sector most in need again.

To the west of Houston are two big reservoirs, Barker and Addicks, that were designed to keep the downtown area safe by keeping water out of Buffalo Bayou. They were completed shortly after the Second World War when that side of town was not developed.

Virtually uncontrolled urban sprawl as well as the lack of zoning laws has meant that developers have steadily built up and down the Katy Freeway, including right up to the reservoirs.

When the Army Corps was forced to open the flood gates to release some of the pressure on the reservoirs from Harvey, several thousand homes that had survived the initial downpour got flooded. Since a lot of them are in a 500-year and not a 100-year flood plain, the owners aren't obligated to have flood insurance.

Some renters, on the other hand, were facing the bizarre and unjust reality of having to pay rent for a dwelling that they had to abandon due to water damage. Two low-income families were forced to pay rent and late fees, despite having fled their apartments after Harvey hit, according to the Guardian.

This outrageous practice is actually protected under Texas law. If the premises of a rental property are "totally unusable" due to an external disaster, then either the landlord or tenant can terminate the lease through written notice. But if the property is "partially unusable" because of a disaster, a tenant may only get a reduction in rent determined by a county or district court.

AS WE can see, almost any statistic or estimate related to the calculation of Harvey's destruction is directly or indirectly tied to either policy decisions or practices incentivized by the capitalist profit motive that drastically increased this impact.

Adding insult to injury, Trump came to visit Texas twice in Harvey's wake. He is a known climate change denier, who has tweeted utter nonsense, such as: "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive."

The first time he came to Texas, on August 29, he went to Corpus Christi and Austin. Rather than showing any empathy for the victims, he used this opportunity to hold a one-man public relations show.

The second time, he visited Houston on September 2. After spending some time volunteering--about 45 minutes, to be exact--at the NRG Center, a local sports arena that was converted into a shelter, his comments were somewhere between completely out of touch and disgraceful.

"It's been really nice," Trump said of the visit. "It's been a wonderful thing. As tough as this was, it's been a wonderful thing, I think even for the country to watch it and for the world to watch. It's been beautiful." Of the displaced children, he was quoted as saying that they were "happy" and "doing great."

On his way out, he had the audacity to tell storm survivors: "Have a good time."

When 100-year flood events seem to be the norm for us, and we are now talking of 500-year events--Houston has had three of these in the past three years--something beyond normal weather patterns is happening, and a good deal of it is clearly attributable to fossil-fueled climatic change.

Capitalist corporations continue to treat pollution as an externality, a side effect of their commercial endeavors that is not reflected in their costs, but rather socialized across society at large, so it does not stand in the way of their perennial race for more profits.

Only a system that puts people and the environment before profits can radically alter our current path of self-destruction.

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