Hurricane Harvey and its Aftermath

Since our founding in April, Anthropocene Alliance established a powerful tool for helping individuals and communities hurt by flooding, Flood Forum USA, along with a Facebook platform called SPOUT!  FFUSA has engaged over 100 community Flood Groups across 30 states in the US, representing 200,000 people, and initiated mitigation programs in 10 of them, assisted by the Thriving Earth Exchange of the American Geophysical Union.  SPOUT! has become a go-to, speak-out forum for up to date information about mitigation and flood relief efforts across the country. This recent article in The Huffington Post illustrates the bravery and resilience of our SPOUT! friends.

And then came Harvey

Compared to the devastation wrought by Harvey, our efforts at recovery and mitigation are tiny. There has never been a rainfall this size in the United States. Nearly 30,000 square miles received over 20 inches of rain (about as large as the state of Maine). 3,600 square miles received more than 40 inches (bigger than the state of Delaware). About 1,000 square miles received more than 50 inches of rain (the size of Rhode Island). If the heaviest rain had fallen as snow in Chicago, it would rise above a four story building.

The loss of life from Hurricane Harvey is significantly less than occurred with Hurricane Katrina. That’s a consequence of geography. New Orleans is a bowl, and when the levees broke, the storm surge quickly inundated densely populated neighborhoods, drowning many residents. Houston is flat, and the storm surge was relatively small, so water levels rose more slowly, giving more people a chance to get to higher ground. But while the loss of life with Harvey was less, the economic toll will likely be greater. Katrina cost $160 billion; Harvey will likely cost more, perhaps as much as $200 billion. There will be greater clarity about costs – both human and financial -- in the weeks ahead.  But a few, fundamental things about Harvey are now clear:

1. The disaster was entirely predictable and was in fact predicted! (See the 2016 report by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune.)

2.  The response to the flooding was inadequate, regardless of the cheerleading of President Trump, Texas Governor Abbott, and many others. There was no plan to safely evacuate Houston or even the much smaller cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur. Many of the rescues were accomplished by amateur boaters – average people who risked their lives to search for folks stranded on rooftops, in attics, or in trucks and cars. The stories and pictures of rescues are dramatic and heartening, but we don’t hear as much about lives lost for lack of preparation and coordination.

3.  Federal regulation of the petrochemical industry in Texas and elsewhere is inadequate to the point of criminality. Fire at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas was inevitable in case of flooding, and yet the factory was allowed to continue to operate. The major oil refineries in the area have released thousands of gallons of petroleum products, and vented tons more. The receding floodwaters are a poisonous stew, and the soils in many areas will be toxic for generations.

4.  The vast majority of people affected by flooding do not have flood insurance and did not live in areas zoned as a floodplain.

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5. Rich and poor alike were impacted by Hurricane Harvey, but the poor suffered worse.  Lower income, Black and Latino communities are less likely to have flood insurance and more likely to live in proximity to toxic sites. They also have less family wealth and greater job insecurity. Flooding has put thousands of people out of work.

6.  The rapid, essentially unplanned growth of Houston over recent decades, including a vast increase in impermeable surfaces (roads, parking lots, and roofs), combined with clay soils, shallow water table, network of bayous, and proximity of the Gulf, mean that even moderate rains are certain to cause floods.  Harvey is the extreme expression of what has already been happening in Houston for years. Arguments that lack of regulations has kept housing in Houston affordable are nonsense in the light of the thousands of people made homeless by flooding!

7.  The size and intensity of the storm was increased by global warming, though we can’t say by how much. Hurricane Harvey grew quickly from a tropical storm to a Level 4 hurricane when it passed over Gulf waters 2-3 degrees higher than historical averages. (Water absorb solar heat more quickly than land.) In addition, warm air holds more moisture than cooler air. As a result, the storm rapidly gathered both energy and moisture to become a powerful hurricane and a record shattering rainstorm.  The number and size of climate disasters has increased significantly in the last decade.

8. Hurricane Harvey was not a “natural disaster.” It was the product of poor planning, lax environmental regulation, inadequate zoning laws and building regulations, social inequality, and global warming. A Hurricane is an act of nature – destructiveness on the scale on Harvey is not.


Flood Forum and Harvey

Flood Forum US is not a first responder, and our ability to act in the middle of a major disaster is limited. However, Houston was already a priority city for us. Harriet visited the city back in July and met with two of the three citizen-based Flood Groups there (see our video and article on two of the groups here). As the storm hit, we were able to assist in several ways. A) We shared stories and photos of the impressive efforts of Houston families to protect their home from flooding. Our information was read and shared by thousands of people across the country. B) In the middle of the storm, we put Shannon Cooper, a flood survivor and community organizer from Louisiana in touch with the Flood Groups in Houston. Shannon then sent a flotilla of boats to Texas to help with rescue operations. C) We secured permission to upload raw video footage of the flooding and posted them on our dedicated YouTube channel under Creative Commons license, so that anyone can now use and share these visuals. We expect these will be valuable in the future for understanding what happened and how to better protect people, animals and property. D) Finally, we offered flooded residents the comfort of contact with other people from around the country who had survived flooding and managed to rebuild their lives. Many people from the largest Flood Group, ‘Hurricane Harvey 2017 - Together We Will Make It’, have since joined SPOUT!
 

Shannon Cooper lost her home in the flooding in Louisiana on August 2016. Since has since helped coordinate help for flood survivors of Hurricane Harvey in Texas.

Post-Harvey

Our work with the Houston Flood Groups will expand as we support their efforts to bring relief and recovery to affected citizens, and hold the city and Harris County Flood Control District to account. The group, ‘Residents Against Flooding’ brought a tort against the city several years ago. Their suit is still pending, and they’re advocating for a multi-county flood control district and stronger mitigation standards for new development. We intend to bring national attention to this struggle.

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As the threat of Hurricane Irma looms, we have linked up with groups in Florida and introduced them to SPOUT! and we’ll again start the process of sharing best practices and expertise among groups.

2018 will bring a new phase of work as we help set up new Flood Groups in Black, Latino and Native American communities, and plan and design a ‘Flood Fighters Boot Camp’ that offers training and technical assistance to group leaders so that they become effective advocates for nature-based flood prevention, improved water quality, and sustainable water management at local, state and federal levels.

No Road Sign for Climate Change

The unfolding disaster in Houston and along the Texas and Louisiana coasts is a sign of things to come. Rain events are certain to get worse and more people are sure to be inconvenienced, displaced and even killed by flooding. Climate science proves it.

But there will never be a road sign that reads: “Yield to global warming.” Instead, climate change disasters will happen without warning, just as they do now. Seasonally occurring storms will form as they have in the past. A few will grow into hurricanes, as usual. But in a handful of cases – and increasingly over time – the hurricanes that form will be 100 year, 500 year or 800 year events. They will drop an astonishing amount of water and cause immense damage over a geographically large region.

The reason Hurricane Harvey grew so quickly from a tropical storm to a Level 4 hurricane is that it passed over a warm water trough in the Gulf of Mexico that was 1-2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than surrounding waters. And those Gulf waters were already about two degrees warmer than historic averages dues to global warming. (Oceans absorb solar heat more quickly than land. In the Gulf, the surface water temperature was 87 degrees.)  As a result, tropical storm Harvey was able rapidly gather both energy and moisture and become a powerful hurricane. (Please see the article recently posted by Scientific American.) In addition, warmer ocean water occupies a greater volume, increasing the likelihood of tidal surges and coastal flooding.

The quantity of water that has fallen from Harvey, up to 50 inches in some places, is almost unprecedented. (Tropical storm Claudette dropped 42 inches in 24 hours on Alvin Texas in 1979.) This incredible rainfall may also be a consequence of climate change. Warmer air holds more moisture and thus produces more rain. (The Clausius-Clapeyron equation explains the thermodynamic relationship.) In addition, heavy storms create a vicious moisture cycle: when a land surface is covered with water, it provides an additional water source for a storm. So in effect, the more it rains, the more it is likely to rain!

To get a sense of the scale of the current rainfall in Texas, consider this: 50 inches of rain translates into almost 42 feet of snow! (The U.S. record for snowfall in a single month is 32 feet in Tamarack CA. on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, in 1911.) This means that a storm of that magnitude would accumulate snow to the fourth floor of the Chicago apartment building I’m sitting in.  Transportation of any kind would be impossible and the eventual snow melt would cause devastating flooding everywhere.

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The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott denies the existence of human-caused climate change. So does the current occupant of the White House. Indeed, the president has proposed major funding cuts both for climate research and for emergency preparedness. But super-storms like Harvey (as well as Sandy and Katrina before them), have occurred despite climate-change deniers and their frequency will increase in the future. Unless we yield to the lessons of climate science and take dramatic measures to reduce the emission of global greenhouse gases (and do so fast), we are sure to suffer ever more, and ever more catastrophic flooding in the future.

Anthropocene Alliance is launched at a propitious moment.

Never before has the human role in environmental degradation been more widely acknowledged and understood. From great cities in the U.S. to small hamlets in rural China, people are discussing air and water pollution, the degradation of soils and aquifers, and especially, the looming crisis of global warming. People are poised to act.

And yet at precisely the moment when the majority of the global population has the greatest capacity to come together to face the environmental crisis, the world’s largest military and economic power has shrunk or shut down federal programs to research and limit the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.  The appointment of a climate change denier, Scott Pruitt as head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, administration plans to cut his agency by more than 30%, and the scrapping of the Clean Power Plan (that would reduce the use of dirty, coal fired power plants) indicates the direction the current president intends to take the country for the next four years.  

Reasons for hope

Clearly, environmentalists — and everyone else who cares about the world their children and grandchildren will inherit — must feel alarm bordering on despair at recent developments. And yet we at Anthropocene Alliance believe there are reasons to feel hope. The paralysis (and worse) in Washington D.C. provides scope for climate change mitigation and reduction at the state and local level. The principle of federalism  — articulated in the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution — states that "powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”  In the past, this principle has been used as a shield by southern states to challenge progressive civil rights legislation. But now, it  has become a sword allowing states like New York and California to promote the use of solar power, and require increases in automobile fuel efficiency. (But even progressive CA has begun to lag in decarbonizaton, according to a recent study from the Brookings Institute).

If local communities can organize themselves in order to combat the effects of climate change, like the folks in the communities we have profiled have done; if they can get in contact with other communities in their state that are facing similar challenges; and if these collectives can stimulate the formation of other groups elsewhere in the US, then state legislation to limit the emission of greenhouse gasses and mitigate its impacts can advance quickly. At that point, climate change must inevitably be an issue to be addressed at the national level too. 

Anthropocene Alliance is committed to work to advance communication and solidarity between and among the people and communities most affected by climate change. And once folks start to talk to each other and work together, almost anything is possible — even the salvation of the planet.