Harvey ravages Houston: A glimpse of future disasters?

Sept. 2017 Houston Joe Readle:GettyBy MICHAEL SCHREIBER

After swamping Houston and the Galveston Bay region, Tropical Storm Harvey wheeled into eastern Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Residents of Tyler County, Texas, were told by authorities, “Get out or die!” Over two feet of water was dumped on cities and towns that were still rebuilding from the legendary Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Tennessee, Arkansas, and Kentucky lie in the storm’s path, and are bracing for heavy rains and flash floods. The area hit by Harvey exceeds that affected by either Katrina or Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Although Houston dodged the full brunt of Harvey when it was at hurricane strength, the nation’s fourth largest city was battered by disastrous flooding. The Houston Chronicle headlined: “Epic flooding shows no mercy,” as the downpour continued for five days. Rain gauges showed that as much as 52 inches had fallen—the heaviest rain total to have fallen in any tropical cyclone in the continental United States since records began in 1950.

As the storm shifted to the east, much of the city was left underwater, with higher sections reduced to soggy islands. Over 40,000 houses were damaged in the region and over 7000 completely destroyed—with much of the damage in poorer and working-class neighborhoods where people lack flood insurance.

The Rev. James Caldwell, a community advocate who lives and grew up in the Black community of the Fifth Ward, spoke to The Texas Tribune: “This is the first time that I’m aware of in years that this area actually flooded into homes. It floods—the streets turn into rivers, and all that — but the homes themselves are generally safe. This time, it hit homes.”

Brian Gage, an advisor for the Houston Housing Authority, told The Texas Tribune that hundreds of families have been displaced from city-owned public housing complexes that were flooded. “Rebuilding will be a long and painful process for people with so few resources.”

At least 32,000 people in the Houston area sought emergency housing in public shelters; 32 people have been confirmed dead, but the casualties are still being tallied.

Government first-responders were supplemented by legions of civilian volunteers who carried thousands of people to safety. Three truck drivers gained media attention for driving 200 miles to the Houston area, where they rescued over 1000 people. Several hundred members of the Cajun Navy (Louisiana “bad asses who save lives,” who first got together because of government inaction following Katrina) and many others used boats, canoes, and hand-to-hand human chains to pull victims out of the oil and sewage-laced floodwaters.

 Chemical explosion; oil tanks toppled

The flooding was made more perilous by the fact that the Houston area, the so-called “Chemical Coast,” is by far the largest oil-refining and petro-chemical center in the country. Generally, the region produces 4.5 million barrels of refined petroleum products per day—25 percent of the nation’s total. Fracked oil and gas from around the country are piped to the region for processing, and the products are then exported around the world. Oil prices rose worldwide as at least a dozen Texas refineries halted their operations.

Well over 3400 oil and chemical storage tanks line the sides of the Houston Ship Channel, presenting a constant danger in heavy storms. But no design standards exist in Texas to protect the tanks from storm surges. A surge of water toppled two tanks in South Texas, spilling almost 30,000 gallons of raw crude oil. A pipeline ruptured east of Houston, releasing hydrogen chloride, a gas that “can cause serious or permanent injury” if inhaled, according to a federal safety guide. Officials believe that more damage to the oil and chemical industry infrastructure will probably be discovered as the water recedes.

Over 300,000 people live in areas of metropolitan Houston that are in particular danger from the effects of an oil or chemical spill, according to a study cited by The Texas Tribune. The communities that are closest to the oil and chemical facilities are generally those of poorer people of color.

In addition, Harris County, home to Houston, contains more than a dozen Superfund sites, plus other parcels listed by the state as being highly toxic. Now the sites have been inundated by water, potentially spreading the contaminants over a wide area. On Sept. 2, the Environmental Protection Agency said that it had reviewed aerial imagery confirming that 13 of the 41 Superfund sites in Texas were flooded by Harvey and were “experiencing possible damage” due to the storm. Earlier, the AP surveyed seven Superfund sites around Houston, and all had been swallowed by floodwaters—sometimes several feet deep.

ExxonMobil acknowledged on Aug. 29 that Harvey had damaged two of its refineries, releasing hazardous pollutants into the atmosphere. That followed numerous complaints on Twitter of an “unbearable” chemical smell over Houston.

Sept. 2017 Houston 1 David J. Phillip:AP

Both ExxonMobile and Chevron Philips indicated that additional chemicals would be emitted because of the shutdown of their plants. Luke Metzger, director of the group Environment Texas, explained in The Texas Tribune, “Most of the unauthorized emissions come from the process of shutting down, and then starting up, the various units of the plant, when pollution control devices can’t be operated properly and there’s lots of flaring.”

“This pollution will hurt public health in Houston,” affirmed Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston. “When petrochemical plants prepare for storms, they release thousands of pounds of pollutants into the air. … It is a stark reminder of the dangers of living near industry.”

The danger of chemical pollution was highlighted early on the morning of Aug. 31 when the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, twice exploded, triggering a fire that officials said would likely “burn itself out.” Employees and nearby residents had been evacuated from the vicinity two days earlier. Floodwaters had knocked out the refrigeration units at the facility, and Arkema officials had warned that it was virtually “inevitable” that the organic peroxide stored there would explode if it got too hot.

Following the explosions, an Arkema spokeperson hastened to downplay the effects, assuring the media that the smoky plume was not dangerous to people. However, Brock Long of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said that it was “incredibly dangerous.”

When Richard Rennard, president of Arkema, was asked by the media what else he might have done to avoid the risk of burning chemicals at his plant, he shrugged his shoulders. The Houston Chronicle identified the plant as a potential source of danger in 2016, but nothing was done to ameliorate the danger.

Climate change and capitalist greed

Harvey was the third crippling storm that Houston has experienced in the last three years. And it is only 16 years since tropical storm Allison—until now the second deadliest in U.S. history—concentrated its force on the Houston area.Sept. 2017 Houston 2 David J. Phillip:AP

“The exact same storm that comes along today has more rain associated with it than it would have 50 or 100 years ago,” climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe told The Texas Tribune last year. The reason has to do with climate change.

The warm ocean temperatures associated with climate change are making storms stronger and wetter. Warm water means more evaporation, so there is more water vapor for a passing storm to pick up. And rising sea levels due to climate change are worsening the effects of a tidal surge during a storm. Since 1960, the level of water in the Gulf has risen over a foot along the Texas coast.

Michael E. Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University, wrote in the Guardian, “While we cannot say climate change ‘caused’ Hurricane Harvey, we can say is that it exacerbated several characteristics of the storm in a way that greatly increased the risk of damage and loss of life.”

Mann wrote, “Harvey was able to feed upon warmer waters deeper within the Gulf when it intensified at near record pace as it neared the coast.” Another potential link to climate change, he said, is how the storm stalled near the coast, allowing it to increase flooding and damage in a pattern “associated with a greatly expanded subtropical high pressure system over much of the U.S. at the moment, with the jet stream pushed well to the north.”

The water in the Gulf of Mexico registered 85 degrees on the day that Harvey struck land. Metropolitan Houston, because it sits next to the Gulf and is very flat, is especially vulnerable to the more frequent and intense rainstorms affected by climate change. Moreover, according to a study at Texas A&M, Houston is the worst city in the United States for recurrences of flooding.

Buoyed by oil money, Houston has become a paradise for big capitalist developers. Unchecked sprawl has greatly increased in recent years, allowing former pastureland and wetlands that once soaked up floodwaters to be smothered by buildings, roads, and parking lots. In the years since Hurricane Allison, about 167,000 additional acres were developed in Harris County, mainly to the west of Houston; a lot of the new construction was in floodplains.

But local county officials shrugged off any plans to stave off the dangers by protecting green space and strengthening building regulations. And when the Houston city council authorized flood gauges to be erected in some areas to demonstrate how high the water could get, they were lobbied by real estate interests who feared scaring off potential homeowners, and the signs were removed.

A few years ago, the city tried to ban buildings in the most flood-prone areas. But developers sued, and the city council voted to weaken the policy. When the city attempted to set aside a section of pastureland in its western suburbs to serve as an emergency drainage reservoir, they were again defeated, and houses were built there instead.

Houston’s top flood-control officials insisted that the monster storms that have hit the city in recent years were “freak occurrences,” and that the region’s dams and spillways, and other infrastructure projects in the works, would be adequate to contain any storms that they might ordinarily expect.

A year ago, the outgoing head of the flood-control district, Mike Talbot, told The Texas Tribune and ProPublica that he spurned any notion that covering the land with concrete would make flooding worse. The claim that “these magic sponges out in the prairie would have absorbed all that water is absurd,” he said. Talbot said that his committee had no plans to study the effects of climate change on Harris County. He criticized scientists and environmentalists for being “anti-development.”

The local authorities’ inability to take steps to mitigate storm disasters has been made worse by federal policies under Trump. The Trump-appointed Environmental Protection Agency leadership denied the information brought forward by scientists that Harvey’s force had a link to worldwide climate change, calling it “an attempt to politicize an ongoing tragedy.”

On Aug. 15, days before Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast, Trump signed an executive order that revoked an Obama-era rule requiring projects built in coastal floodplains that receive federal aid to account for the impact of sea-level rise. Trump trumpeted that the order was part of his efforts to rid corporations and industry of what he sees as burdensome and unnecessary regulations.

The Trump administration has pruned back safeguards against pollution caused by oil production, and has moved to eliminate the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice. In June, the EPA, bowing to pressure from the oil and chemical industries, decided to delay until February 2019 a series of crucial proposed updates to its Chemical Disaster Rule.

And Republicans in the House have been looking to cut $876 million from federal disaster relief funds—a sum that would pay for half of the down payment on Trump’s promised wall on the Mexican border. It is expected that after Harvey, however, the GOP will probably back away from cuts in disaster relief, at least for a while, viewing them as politically inexpedient.

A glimpse of the future?

The disaster in Houston provides a glimpse of the fate of many other U.S. coastal cities if nothing is done to avoid the worst effects of climate change. A large portion of the U.S. shoreline is at risk from weather-related catastrophes—which are sure to get worse as the planet warms.

Many scientists predict that warming oceans and glacier and polar ice melt will cause a sea level rise of from four to six feet—or even more—by the end of the century. If the ocean rises six feet, almost 300 U.S. cities will lose half of their houses, according to the real estate company Zillow. One in eight houses in Florida will be underwater; a third of the houses in Miami will be at risk. It is likely that the damage caused by large hurricanes under those circumstances would greatly dwarf what we have seen recently with Harvey, Katrina, and Sandy.

The danger of storm pollution from oil and chemicals is hardly unique to the Houston area. About 177 Americans live in the worst-case scenario zones for a chemical disaster. According to the Center for Effective Government, at least one in three children in the U.S. attend a school within the vulnerability zone of a hazardous chemical facility.

The problem, of course, is worldwide. Climate catastrophes have killed thousands in Africa and Southeast Asia. Local officials in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, reported that the death toll from floods and mudslides triggered by overnight rainfall on Aug. 14 had passed 1000.

In the meantime, deaths from floods amid unusually severe monsoon rains in Nepal, India, and Bangladesh have surpassed 1200. The United Nations said that 41 million people in those three countries were affected by the floods. And this happened while Somalia and Ethiopia were facing famine after four years of drought.

The simultaneous climate-related disasters from Texas to Sierra Leone and Bangladesh signal the catastrophe that the planet faces, and demonstrate that it is necessary to immediately shake loose from the stranglehold of capitalism’s oil-based economy.

It would be counterproductive, even criminal, for the federal government to hand over any more “disaster relief” funds to the oil companies to repair their Texas facilities that were damaged by Harvey. Instead, Big Oil should be nationalized, and the industry should be restructured and replaced by a huge network of renewable energy projects along the Gulf Coast and nationwide. That will take a massive mobilization of people and resources on a scale rivaling that of the mobilization during World War II.

Now that its oil industry has been crippled, Houston can once more become the leader in generating power—wind power. The Texas Gulf Coast has good resources for wind power, exceeding the average annual wind speeds (6.5 meters per second) that are generally considered suitable. Houston can also point the way forward by instituting a massive public works project to restore the land, undo the damage caused by unrestrained capitalist development, and prepare the area for rising sea levels and extreme weather. Houston can take steps to allow the prairies, wetlands, ponds, and bayous to perform their earlier function in absorbing the rains to avoid major flooding.

Unfortunately, as people search for victims and begin to repair the damage of Hurricane Harvey, we can expect that the corporations will sweep in with profit-making schemes to “rebuild” the area and further entrench their interests. It’s been done before.

Following the destruction caused by Sandy in 2012, Naomi Klein wrote an article in The Guardian warning of “America’s disaster capitalists,” who had now embarked on a “cash grab” within the stricken area. She showed, for example, how bosses had urged public officials to allow private industry to spearhead the rebuilding, to ignore union contracts, and even to create new “free-trade” zones to stimulate the influx of capital. Similarly, Hurricane Katrina spawned attempts by the capitalists to further privatize public services and the schools in Louisiana.

But at some point, working people will say, “Enough!” The thousands of civilian volunteers who saved lives during the worst days of Harvey demonstrated how working people will respond vigorously and resourcefully in a crisis when they see few other options.

In time, the working class will refuse to be chewed up by big business or to stand aside for a government that will not respond to their demands. The workers will come to the realization that the capitalist system as a whole must be dismantled, and replaced with a new society aimed at protecting the planet and fulfilling human needs.

Top photo: Joe Readle / Getty Images