Every hurricane season, people for whom the Gulf Coast is home count on the weather being somewhat merciful. The Gulf is part of who they are. I grew up in Pensacola and recall hurricane warnings and flooded streets – Opal and Danny, I think. Hurricanes and tropical storms were a fact of life of which even five-year olds could be aware. To live in an area prone to natural disaster is, for many, people unavoidable; in the complacency we all enjoy in an uninterrupted calm, the worst can be unthinkable.
Hurricane Harvey, as of Aug. 30, has been downgraded to a “tropical depression.” It moved back into the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 28, and did not regain strength after a record 117 hours as a named storm on land. In the wake of the storm, Houston is only the worst of widespread flooding: 50 counties in Texas saw over 20 inches of rainfall. The displacement of people from their homes is staggering. While the worst of the storm is over, the work of rescue and repair is only beginning.
Few could reasonably criticize people for settling near the coast. It is not such an easy choice to move away from a cherished home and friends, and it is not a choice at all to leave where the work is. However, we might seek to remove ourselves from nature’s whims; overwhelming forces can and often will take from us the things we assume ownership of.
The issue is not how to avoid natural disasters, but how to withstand and recover from them. Sea levels are rising, storms are more intense and more people live near the oceans than ever before. Engineers of the next few decades will have to answer the problems of concurrent urban development and climate change.
For Houston, circumstances were ideal for a flood. As cyclones move across the ocean they gradually intensify. They draw upon warm water, churning deeper and deeper until finally bringing up cold water that dampens their total energy. As storms approach landfall, they lose some energy and dissipate over land. Harvey is an exception to this. The Gulf of Mexico has stayed much warmer, and that fueled a bizarre momentum for the storm.
Though that’s not unheard of, it bears mentioning that climate change was in part responsible, and that storms of such intensity are becoming a more consistent fact of life. Climate change is a multifaceted issue that needs long-term, even oblique, solutions. But not all of the factors were as difficult to pin down: Houston is growing more quickly than is safe.
Houston is a haven for real estate developers – there isn’t a formal zoning code. Residential and commercial projects can spring up with minimal municipal oversight with regards to city planning or public safety. It is the Wild West again in Texas, and developers are reaping the rewards until the cows come home. This, in addition to the metropolitan area being the fifth largest in the country, means that in recent years there has been a vast expansion of the urban sprawl.
The area around Houston is naturally prairie. Prairies have seas of grass and deep roots that can absorb flooding. Construction has built up Houston rapidly and covered up a great deal of the original prairies with concrete. At the same time, existing levees and dams are unable to contain flooding. Houston has suffered three “500-year” floods in as many years. The movers and shakers of Houston should plan on devoting some of the city’s ample resources to lasting improvements. Otherwise, Houston, which will take years to recover, can only hope at best for diminishing returns.
It might be easy for me to say, so far away from the misery of what’s happened, but it’s inspiring to read how people have come together for the common good. It can be easy to despair at the age you live in. And it can be easy to feel the American life is an anonymous one, that we must act as rivals and not neighbors. If there is anything heartening to take from Harvey, it’s that people endure and in the worst of times they can rise to their circumstances.