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Houston and Natural Disasters

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I am a weather nerd (among many other forms of nerd). Every day, I check the National Weather Service’s 5 and 7 day rainfall forecasts. I think I started doing this while freaking out about drought and climate change in my beloved American West. Plus, as an environmental historian, it’s how I roll. Anyway, as soon as I saw the forecasts for Houston, a few days before Harvey made landfall, my heart sunk. I know Houston reasonably well and I knew there was no way it could handle this. It’s not quite as vulnerable as New Orleans to inundation, but it’s pretty vulnerable. Moreover, it’s much larger than New Orleans and has been lauded by conservatives as an ideal of exurban growth that has long-term disaster written all over it.

Of course, my worst fears have come true. Houston is good and well screwed for a very long time. Nowhere can handle this much rain at once. But every natural disaster is also a human-engineered disaster. That’s because, as many scholars have demonstrated, the response to natural disasters reflects racial and class biases that create disproportionate impacts on the poor. I have no doubt that in coming weeks, this will become clear in Houston, much as was in New Orleans. Let’s take climate change out of the equation, for while it almost certainly had an influence on Harvey, much as it has on this ridiculous summer of heat in the West that is making my hikes in Oregon way too smoky, it’s so meta as to be hard to talk about concretely. Even doing so, the choices Houston and the state of Texas have made are making this disaster a lot worse. See, Houston is a disaster of urban sprawl and that’s how Texas likes it. None of your big government here! None of your damned communist zoning! By god, we build everywhere and anywhere! The problem with that, in terms of dealing with something like Harvey is not only a lack of verticality that could allow people to move up in buildings for awhile, but also that the massive paving of the Texas prairie and forests means less land to suck up the water. ProPublica has a good, if brief, discussion of this. The pink in the image above is land that has been developed between 2001 and 2010. All of that land would have once sucked up at least part of this water. Now it just runs off. And that is an utter disaster as we are seeing. No one is saying that such a storm stalling over a major metropolitan area would have been anything less than horrible no matter the circumstances. But the choices made by developers, homeowners, and the state of Texas have almost certainly made this quite a bit worse than it had to be.

Of course, nothing will change. The ideology of unregulated suburban development, especially in Texas, is a hell of a thing. Texas officials will deny any of their choices in how to build are a problem and they will rebuild the exact same way. This result is something I personally guarantee, seeing it over and over and over again in the history of disaster aftermath.

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