Houston After Harvey

13 minute read

Natural disasters are amoral things: neither good nor bad, malign nor kind. No matter the destruction they cause, they are processes, nothing more–exercises in geology, meteorology, physics, thermodynamics.

We don’t treat them that way, of course. We curse the tornado that tears up a town, the earthquake that topples a city. The people of New Orleans don’t so much say the name Katrina as spit it. The same is true for New Yorkers and Sandy, and Floridians and Andrew. And the same is happening with southeast Texans and a name once as harmless as Harvey.

The story of the hurricane that roared ashore on Aug. 25 and parked above the greater Houston area for five devastating days is already being writ in its numbers: in the 51.88 in. of rain that accumulated, setting a record for the continental U.S.; the 300,000 people who lost power; the 440,000 who have applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency; the 45,000 who sought refuge in shelters. As for the scale of the rebuilding that awaits the region? No one’s making a firm estimate yet. FEMA Director Brock Long has merely said that he expects his agency to be there “for years.”

Harvey is also becoming known for what it stole: the lives of over 70 people so far, a number that will grow as the floodwaters recede and reveal what they’ve taken. The deaths include six members of the Saldivar family–ages 6 to 84–whose remains were recovered in a van that tumbled off a bridge and into Greens Bayou. Also lost were Donald Rogers, a 65-year-old minister, and his wife Rochelle, who were trapped inside their pickup truck when they went to check on a family member. They called 911 for help as the waters overcame them, but the connection was dropped, and they perished in place.

But Harvey revealed something else about Texas too: a particular brand of compassionate resilience that shows itself best when a community is in crisis. Bayou City Fellowship, a Southern Baptist church with a young, social-media-savvy congregation, set up a page on its website to dispatch rescue boats, coordinate cleanup crews and collect donations. Bailey Chapel Church of God in Christ, a congregation based in Waller, Texas, sent volunteers as young as 11 to help with cleanup and demolition work. “I was brought to tears as soon as I saw them,” says Temeka Kenebrew, a dialysis nurse who spent six days at work during the storm, only to come home and find her house flooded–and volunteers arriving to help. “I don’t know any of these people. They literally just showed up and offered their assistance.”

Similar caretaking took place at the George R. Brown Convention Center, where nearly 10,000 people sought refuge. Red Cross workers, local police and National Guard troops mixed with convention center employees and evacuees, many of whom pitched in as needed. Employees of the local J&D Entertainment Co. showed up too, dressed as Cinderella, Snow White and Belle, as well as Alice in Wonderland–on stilts. “She’s never met a princess before,” says Shay Smith, 23, the mother of a 4-year-old girl who ran excitedly to Cinderella, grabbing her in a hug. “It’s a wonderful experience for them.”

Elsewhere, children only a bit older volunteered to work alongside the adults. Aiden Pitcaithly, 9, has just enough muscle to manage a wheelbarrow, so that’s how he decided to be of use, carting moldy wood from damaged houses. “I feel bad for people who lost their homes,” he said, adding that his adult sisters had to be evacuated on a boat.

The meteorologic hurricane in Texas is being followed by the usual political one in Washington, and all the familiar issues are being raised, particularly climate change. Environmental scientists have been warning for years that a warmer planet means warmer oceans, which means more fuel to power the engines of hurricanes. When the storms whip up along coasts already inundated by rising seas caused by melting ice sheets, the damage is only greater.

“You fit all the data together … and as you get higher and higher values of precipitation, it becomes less and less likely without climate change,” says Sarah Kapnick, a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

As if on cue, no sooner had Hurricane Harvey spun itself out than Hurricane Irma began forming, churning toward the U.S. as a Category 5 storm with the power to dwarf even the devastation wreaked on Houston. Harvey never exceeded Category 4, and its sustained winds barely topped 130 m.p.h., compared with Irma’s astounding 185 m.p.h.

“May God protect us all” was how an official statement from the government of Antigua ended as Irma began to tear through the Caribbean. The storm’s trajectory put it on a straight path toward Florida, which began bracing for the worst hurricane in the 25 years since Andrew. This year is not likely to be a busier hurricane season than 2005–which burned through its alphabetic list of names and had to resort to Greek-letter designations like Hurricane Beta–but it could be the most costly.

Hurricanes that roar ashore where no one lives are bad, but hurricanes that hit places that millions of people call home are vastly worse. Even then, Houston is a special case. The fourth largest U.S. city, it has undergone explosive growth in the past three decades, in both population and physical reach. The city proper is home to 2.3 million, but the greater Houston area sprawls across 10,000 sq. mi.–about the size of New Jersey–with a population of 6.3 million. That has put impossible pressure on the city’s system of bayous, reservoirs and drainage channels, which never caught up with the city’s expanding footprint.

“A lot of the [flood control] was done in the 1960s and ’70s, and then we got into the ’80s and ’90s, and Houston grew like no tomorrow,” says Phil Bedient, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University.

Now come the fights over money. Katrina was the most expensive hurricane in U.S. history, costing an estimated $160 billion when all the counting was done. Texas Governor Greg Abbott speculates that his state might need up to $180 billion to recover fully from Harvey. At the moment, the federal government barely has cash available to make a small down payment on that amount. FEMA has just $3 billion on hand, and President Trump has asked Congress for only $7.9 billion in initial recovery money–something that ought to be an easy lift, except that nothing has been easy on Capitol Hill in recent years. As greater Houston faces short-term recovery and years of long-term rebuilding, the rest of the country faces a hard reckoning over why these megastorms keep recurring and what we can do to contain the danger.

Roads became rivers for people carrying supplies
Roads became rivers for people carrying suppliesAdrees Latif—Reuters

Part of what made Hurricane Harvey so devastating is that it was equal parts storm system and sucker punch. Meteorologists did a good job of tracking it from the moment it was born as a tropical wave–an area of low atmospheric pressure–off the coast of Africa on Aug. 13. It soon merged with another such trough near Cape Verde, and the two then did what such formations often do in that part of the world at this time of year, which was to organize themselves into a storm, drawing energy and moisture from the warm ocean waters, and then begin boiling westward.

Even in the two days before Harvey made landfall, forecasters were unknowingly lowballing its likely impact. It was predicted to reach Texas as a Category 1 or 2, far weaker than the Category 4 power with which it smashed into the coast. Rainfall was supposed to top out at 25 in.–less than half of what actually accumulated. Worse, Harvey was supposed to do what nearly all hurricanes do, which is to stay in motion, grinding deeper and deeper inland as the days wore on, which would take it farther from the warm Gulf waters it needed to keep raging.

Instead, Harvey stalled, parking itself over Houston, where it could drink its fill from the Gulf and pound the city at will. When that reality hit, officials seemed to scramble, tossing aside the measured phrasing usually used in public emergencies in favor of something more urgent. “The breadth and intensity of this rainfall are beyond anything experienced before,” read a National Weather Service statement just over a day after the storm hit. “Catastrophic flooding is now underway and expected to continue for days.

“Turn around. Don’t drown. Don’t risk your life,” Abbott instructed Houstonians at a press conference, warning them to be careful of floods if venturing out.”Get out now!!” tweeted Brazoria County officials when one of the local levees was breached.

Those levees and the larger drainage system of which they’re a part are coming in for scrutiny. Rainwater is supposed to stream into the streets, then through gutters and into bayous, a network of 22 slow-moving natural and engineered waterways that weave through the region. Levees provide a measure of protection if the waterways overflow, and portions of the city not close enough to the bayous are served by the Barker and Addicks reservoirs, catch basins that usually allow water to be collected and then released in a controlled way.

They were not nearly enough. The reservoirs were built in the 1940s, when Houston had less than a fifth of the population it has now and a fraction of the square mileage. “The density of the development just far exceeded the capacity,” says Bedient.

That’s not all the harm development did. Houston’s soil is predominantly clay, which means it was never terribly absorbent to begin with. Paving over so much of it eliminated what little bit of runoff the ground could sop up. Wetlands–which act as natural sponges–have been wiped out by development too, with up to 38,000 acres destroyed in the Houston area in the past two decades.

Once floodwater starts to rise, it’s never just water. Even in the cleanest regions, environmental pollutants like pesticides, fertilizers and household chemicals abound, and all of them mix, swirl and spread in floods. In Houston and neighboring Louisiana, this cocktail is different: the area is home to more than 30 refineries, producing some 8 million gallons of oil a day, or one-third of the nation’s capacity. Floods can cause oil pipelines to shift and rupture. Chemical plants also call Houston home, and leaks are anticipated or have already been reported, including 34,000 lb. of benzene, toluene and carbon monoxide released by one local plant. An explosion at the Arkema chemical plant, northeast of Houston, was triggered when flooding shut down the refrigeration system that keeps chemicals from expanding in their holding tanks, spilling pollutants into both the water and the air.

There is also the matter of sewage, which is common to all places where people live but is much more abundant in large cities. “The challenges from a health standpoint are the bacteria and viruses that thrive in marine environments,” says Tom Price, Secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. “The biggest thing is the mold that exists afterward once the water recedes.”

What doesn’t infect you could instead bite you. The media gave Houstonians a case of the creeps, airing footage of clots of fire ants floating on the surface of the floodwaters like living oil slicks. Homes that were dry and habitable one day were twitching with bayou snakes and frogs the next. One unlucky local found an alligator in his living room.

With an air mattress as a life raft, a survivor and her dog await recovery; a rescue helicopter hovered nearby
With an air mattress as a life raft, a survivor and her dog await recovery; a rescue helicopter hovered nearbyAdrees Latif—Reuters

The rains had barely stopped falling before the Beltway sniping began, with Texas Senator Ted Cruz appealing to Washington for relief money and both Democrats and a fellow Republican, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, accusing him of hypocrisy for voting against similar recovery funds after Superstorm Sandy devastated New York and New Jersey in 2012. (Cruz said he didn’t oppose the relief money, just the pork he claimed the relief bill was marbled with.) In a Sept. 6 deal reached with congressional Democratic leaders, Trump agreed to tie the initial recovery funds to a vote to raise the debt limit and fund the government through Dec. 15. Reached over the objections of Republican leaders, the agreement is set to provide Trump with a much needed bipartisan victory on the must-pass measures but sets the stage for an even higher-stakes showdown in the fall. Additional recovery funds are likely to face resistance from congressional fiscal hawks, with Tea Partyers in the House opposed to more borrowing. The question isn’t whether conservative lawmakers will okay the first infusion of cash; it’s whether they will swallow two much larger measures in the fall.

Controlling the unchecked growth that has allowed Houston and other cities to blow past sustainable limits may be harder still, especially with a developer occupying the Oval Office. In 2015, President Obama signed an Executive Order to mitigate flooding by requiring builders who receive federal funding to take climate-change modeling and flood risk into account in their designs. Last month Trump reversed the order during a public event at Trump Tower.

Much more challenging will be responding to the dangers presented by climate change. Scientists concede that it’s impossible to say with certainty that any one hurricane is caused by warming. But it’s a simple rule of meteorologic science that for every 1°C (1.8°F) rise in temperature, the atmosphere can hold 7% more water. “A warmer ocean makes a warmer atmosphere. A warmer atmosphere can hold more water,” says Gabriel Vecchi, a professor of geosciences at Princeton University. “So all other things being equal, the same storm on a warmer planet will give you more rainfall.” Hurricane Irma certainly seems to be evidence of the force-multiplying effect of too much heat, as does the mere existence of Hurricanes Jose and Katia, which are close on its tail.

For now, little of this matters to the reeling residents of Houston. They will do what people in communities hit by hurricanes have done before: grieve their losses, pick themselves up, dry themselves off, rebuild if they can, relocate if they can’t and rely on their community for support.

“People are helping other people. They see the need,” says Mary Curtis, 78, a church mother with the Bailey Chapel Church of God in Christ, who is helping with the cleanup. “I may not be able to do much manually, but we can encourage: ‘You don’t have to worry, because we’re here for you.'”

That’s the least that neighbors can do for one another, and sometimes it’s also the most. It will be up to policymakers and elected leaders, who have the power to do more, to use that power.


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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com