There is a temptation after tragedies — be these the ones by lead, the ones by liquor or the ones by lightning — to abstain from recriminations. It’s thought to be in bad taste to cast blame while the bodies are still warm.
But these tragedies now repeat so often that there is barely time for reflection before recurrence. When the waters rose in Houston on Memorial Day in 2015, we were told it was a 100-year event. Another one followed barely 10 months later on Tax Day in 2016. And so with Hurricane Harvey, the worst of this unholy trinity, that marks three in as many as three years. Harvey was a “500-year event” that followed another such biblical deluge, Tropical Storm Allison, by a mere 16 years.
The conservative response has been to attribute this as a fluke. We couldn’t have possibly been prepared, the line of reasoning goes, and there is nothing to do. This line of complacency is wrong. It is evil and contributes to a mindset that has killed and will continue to kill people.
In some cases, the devastation was entirely foreseeable and man-made. During Harvey, hundreds of homes were intentionally allowed to be flooded when water was released from the Addicks and Barker dams, a result fully anticipated by the Army Corps of Engineers when the homes in question were built. The houses ought to have never been constructed, but alas, greed got in the way, as it so often does. It clouded the views of our leaders. Investigations, and, if necessary, prosecutions must follow.
Even amid the larger calamity, man’s impact cannot be understated. After years of pumping ungodly amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, and the rising temperatures and sea levels that accompanied it, a pathetic tropical remnant supercharged into a Category 4 hurricane seemingly overnight. The storm being boxed into one area for a week because of it being caught between two high-pressure poles, which ultimately accounted for the unprecedented rainfall, is more tenuously connected to global warming. Still, the reality is that there will be more Harveys in the coming years. Some will be even worse.
Houston can prepare, but it will be expensive. The bayous need to be drastically expanded and widened. New sewers with larger pipes need to be installed. Many homes, specifically those that have taken water thrice in three years, need to be bought-out by the government, razed and turned into retention ponds.
So far, our federal and state leaders are unwilling to answer the call. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett have done heroes’ work leading the area throughout the disaster. But the city and the county just don’t have the cash to make the necessary improvements.
Gov. Greg Abbott refuses to call the Legislature back into special session to appropriate monies for these issues. Bathrooms, not bayous, are what is worthy of the Legislature’s solemn emergency attention.
The federal government cannot be counted on either. The gargantuan “rainy day fund,” holding its many billions, won’t be touched, despite the most rain in the recorded history of the United States of America falling on this state’s largest city.
The somber reality is that the planet is changing, and events like Harvey, or the Tax Day floods, Memorial Day floods or Allison before it, are now rules and not exceptions. Massive investments in infrastructure, and a reduction in the emission of carbon are absolutely imperative for the survival of Houston, and indeed the entirety of the Texas Gulf Coast. However, between the president’s climate conspiracy theories and the state legislature’s preoccupation with primaries, such a shift seems unlikely.
When, in the midst of night, the waters started rising up onto my parents’ porch a couple of weeks ago, I took to Facebook and, in an act of equal parts desperation, despondence and drunkenness, asked for God to save Houston. Unless something serious and significant changes, there may not be a Plan B.
Horwitz is a second-year law student from Houston. He is a senior columnist.