How Bad Politics and Bad Planning Make Hurricanes Even Worse

To prepare for the impacts of climate change, other cities must learn the lessons of Hurricane Harvey.

Ashley Dawson September 13, 2017

Flood waters surround homes in West Houston on August 30. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Hur­ri­cane Har­vey was an unnat­ur­al dis­as­ter. Con­trary to much media cov­er­age, the dev­as­ta­tion of Hous­ton and sur­round­ing areas result­ed not so much from an iso­lat­ed extreme weath­er event, although Hur­ri­cane Har­vey was indeed the biggest record­ed rain­storm ever to hit the con­tigu­ous Unit­ed States. Rather, the flood­ing is the prod­uct of a com­bi­na­tion of anthro­pogenic cli­mate change, ram­pant real estate spec­u­la­tion, polit­i­cal cor­rup­tion and the tox­ic blend of fos­sil fuel addic­tion and cli­mate change denial that char­ac­ter­izes the Trump admin­is­tra­tion and its sup­port­ers. In the wake of Hur­ri­cane Irma’s impact on Flori­da and the Caribbean, and the oth­er hur­ri­canes to have hit since Har­vey, it is past time to begin a nation­al con­ver­sa­tion about strate­gic retreat from imper­iled cities like Hous­ton, and about the mea­sures that would be nec­es­sary to make this a just retreat. To gain a bet­ter sense of the stakes of such a con­ver­sa­tion, we first need to under­stand the par­tic­u­lar per­ils fac­ing Hous­ton and oth­er coastal cities.

A just reconstruction of Houston will hinge on steadfast rejection of another round of privatization.

Hous­ton is hard­ly alone as a coastal city fac­ing mul­ti­ple cli­mate change-relat­ed per­ils. Glob­al­iza­tion has helped accel­er­ate the growth of coastal megac­i­ties in the Unit­ed States and around the world. We usu­al­ly think of glob­al­iza­tion in terms of jet air­planes, but in fact the con­tain­er ship is the most impor­tant vehi­cle of con­tem­po­rary inter­na­tion­al exchange. Con­se­quent­ly, port cities like Hous­ton (and Guangzhou, Nagoya and Mum­bai, among oth­ers) have grown explo­sive­ly in recent decades. The wave of plan­e­tary urban­iza­tion along the coasts has been par­tic­u­lar­ly dra­mat­ic in sub-Saha­ran Africa and Asia, where chang­ing eco­nom­ic prospects have led migrants to set­tle in vast slums in the hearts of cities like Lagos, Nige­ria and Dha­ka, Bangladesh. But neolib­er­al glob­al­iza­tion has helped pro­duce increas­ing eco­nom­ic polar­iza­tion even in rel­a­tive­ly afflu­ent cities like New York, Mia­mi and Hous­ton, the lat­ter of which, accord­ing to a study by the Pew Research Cen­ter, has the most dra­mat­ic income seg­re­ga­tion of the nation’s 10 largest cities. Such extreme socio-eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty and seg­re­ga­tion weak­ens social and polit­i­cal cohe­sion, mak­ing it far less like­ly that cities will devel­op adap­ta­tion strate­gies ade­quate to ensure the safe­ty of all their cit­i­zens in the face of storms like Harvey.

These extreme cities are sore­ly in need of can­ny adap­tive strate­gies. In 2013, a study led by World Bank econ­o­mist Stephane Hal­le­gat­te warned that cli­mate change, rapid urban­iza­tion and sub­sid­ing land are plac­ing the world’s coastal cities at increas­ing risk of dan­ger­ous and cost­ly flood­ing, and that half of the 10 most at-risk cities in terms of over­all cost of dam­age are in the Unit­ed States. In terms of sheer num­bers of vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple, though, cities in poor coun­tries„ like Abid­jan, Ivory Coast, and Dha­ka, may be the most imperiled.

How We Got Here

Cli­mate change is bring­ing fiercer and more fre­quent storms to cities around the globe. A recent study by a group of cli­mate sci­en­tists based at Prince­ton and Rut­gers pro­ject­ed a forty-fold increase in the num­ber of 100-year floods along the U.S. coast­line by 2050. Some of this increased flood risk is a result of ris­ing sea lev­els, which make the storm surges pushed by pow­er­ful hur­ri­canes like Har­vey high­er and more dead­ly. But, as Har­vey demon­strat­ed, cli­mate change also makes the rain­fall that accom­pa­nies big storms worse: Since warmer air holds more water vapor, cli­mate change is caus­ing more intense rain­fall and snow­storms. This link between warmer air and increased pre­cip­i­ta­tion is par­tic­u­lar­ly notice­able in cities. As a result of the urban heat island effect, which is pro­duced when nat­ur­al sur­faces like veg­e­ta­tion and water are replaced by heat-trap­ping con­crete and asphalt, large cities are expect­ed to warm an addi­tion­al two degrees com­pared to non-urban areas by 2050, a recent study found. Cities are effec­tive­ly cre­at­ing their own extreme weath­er patterns.

Bad plan­ning deci­sions made by urban author­i­ties can sig­nif­i­cant­ly aggra­vate the destruc­tive impact of the extreme weath­er events linked to cli­mate change. Hous­ton is a par­tic­u­lar­ly clear and trag­ic case of an unjus­ti­fied fail­ure to pre­pare. Har­vey may have dumped mas­sive amounts of rain on the city, but it didn’t come out of the blue: It is the third 500-year flood the city has expe­ri­enced in the last three years. The pre­vi­ous two — the Memo­r­i­al Day 2015 and the Tax Day 2016 floods — togeth­er killed 16 peo­ple and caused more than $1 bil­lion in dam­age. Hous­ton has seen the most dam­ag­ing flood­ing of any city in the coun­try in recent decades, accord­ing to Texas A&M sci­en­tist Sam Brody. Harvey’s most direct prece­dent is Trop­i­cal Storm Alli­son, which swamped the city with near­ly 40 inch­es of rain­fall in 5 days in 2001, killing 22 peo­ple and flood­ing 73,000 homes.

After Alli­son, the city and its flood con­trol author­i­ty, the Har­ris Coun­ty Flood Con­trol Dis­trict, spent hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars to pre­pare for the next storm, widen­ing the bay­ous that pro­vide drainage for the city and build­ing deten­tion ponds to tem­porar­i­ly hold flood­wa­ter dur­ing peri­ods of intense rain­fall. FEMA also expand­ed its flood­plain maps — guides to which parts of the city are expect­ed to flood — by up to 20 per­cent in some parts of the city. Yet, despite these storm-proof­ing mea­sures, Hous­ton remained high­ly flood-prone. In fact, the insur­ance claims Brody used to track the city’s his­to­ry of flood­ing spiked dra­mat­i­cal­ly after 2002. What explains this increas­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to extreme weather?

In a word: sprawl. The explo­sive growth of low-inten­si­ty hous­ing devel­op­ments in the exur­ban areas north and west of Hous­ton has stripped the city of much of its nat­ur­al pro­tec­tion against flood­ing. Accord­ing to coastal ecol­o­gist Erin Kin­ney of the Hous­ton Advanced Research Cen­ter, bull­doz­ing wet­lands is the key con­trib­u­tor to Houston’s flood­ing. When water-absorb­ing nat­ur­al ter­rain is replaced by cement and asphalt, water becomes runoff;” Rather than sink­ing into the ground it moves hor­i­zon­tal­ly toward bay­ous, streams and, ulti­mate­ly, the Gulf of Mex­i­co. But first, it floods through people’s homes and cars. Erin Kinney’s work doc­u­ments the loss of 23,000 acres of fresh­wa­ter wet­land in the Hous­ton-Galve­ston Bay region between 1953 and 1989 as a result of devel­op­ment and sub­si­dence caused by exces­sive drain­ing of water from local aquifers. Of what remained, an addi­tion­al 30 per­cent was lost between 1992 and 2010, research by Texas A&M sci­en­tist John Jacob and his col­leagues shows. Part of the prob­lem was that wet­lands in the region’s coastal prairie, the area where devel­op­ment was tak­ing place, were not pro­tect­ed by fed­er­al con­ser­va­tion guide­lines. But in addi­tion, accord­ing to a sear­ing account of devel­op­ment in the city pub­lished last year by ProP­ub­li­ca and the Texas Tri­bune, efforts by pub­lic offi­cials to pre­vent devel­op­ment after the 2001 Alli­son dis­as­ter met with stiff resis­tance and were ulti­mate­ly stymied by local real estate inter­ests. The mon­ey to be made in the short term sim­ply over­rode the warn­ings of sci­en­tists and mem­bers of the pub­lic who wor­ried about the poten­tial for cat­a­stroph­ic flooding.

But not all pub­lic offi­cials were anx­ious to do the right thing. The prob­lem is not sim­ply that Texas has a cli­mate change-deny­ing gov­er­nor and a state leg­is­la­ture dom­i­nat­ed by politi­cians whose pock­ets are lined by the oil indus­try. As the ProP­ub­li­ca/Tri­bune arti­cle doc­u­ments, Mike Tal­bott, head of Houston’s flood con­trol author­i­ty from 1998 to 2016, reject­ed research show­ing that the paving over wet­lands with roads and park­ing lots was a bad idea. He accused sci­en­tists whose work demon­strat­ed the dan­gers of wet­lands destruc­tion of being anti-devel­op­ment.” Tal­bott long insist­ed that devel­op­ment has noth­ing to do with increas­ing flood­ing, and stat­ed that the flood con­trol author­i­ty had no plans to research the impact of cli­mate change. Rather than chal­leng­ing devel­op­ment, Tal­bott and his suc­ces­sor pur­sued a pol­i­cy of retro­fitting old drainage infra­struc­ture. But in his com­ments to ProPublica/​the Tri­bune Tal­bott admit­ted that these mea­sures wouldn’t come close to pro­tect­ing the city from anoth­er Tax Day flood, let alone a storm like Har­vey. To make mat­ters worse, adding all this (rel­a­tive­ly inef­fec­tive) infra­struc­ture is extreme­ly expen­sive: Tal­bott con­ced­ed that at the cur­rent rate of spend­ing, it would take 400 years to com­plete his retro­fitting plans. While devel­op­ment goes on at a blis­ter­ing pace, pub­lic offi­cials in Hous­ton wait for state and fed­er­al offi­cials to make funds avail­able to speed up planned flood infra­struc­ture projects. But as the over­flow of the Addicks and Bark­er reser­voirs dur­ing Har­vey shows, which the Army Corps of Engi­neers allowed to del­uge near­by homes in order to spare down­town Hous­ton from flood­ing, some infra­struc­ture can actu­al­ly aggra­vate flood­ing under the extreme weath­er con­di­tions that are becom­ing the new normal.

Enough False Solutions

The belief that cities can engi­neer their way out of the prob­lems gen­er­at­ed by cli­mate change and devel­op­ment runs deep. And Hous­ton offi­cials are not the only ones to embrace such hopes. Mia­mi Beach, for exam­ple, has adopt­ed a resilien­cy strat­e­gy called Ris­ing Above that involves ele­vat­ing more than 100 miles of roads, build­ing 80 new storm water pump­ing sta­tions, and rais­ing sea walls in vul­ner­a­ble areas. Mia­mi Beach May­or Philip Levine admits that these mea­sures alone will do lit­tle more than buy Mia­mi Beach a few short decades before flood­ing over­whelms the low-lying city. Yet such mea­sures can often gen­er­ate unfore­seen and unjust forms of envi­ron­men­tal blow­back. Raised roads, for exam­ple, can flush storm water into adja­cent homes. Ele­vat­ed sea walls around expen­sive hous­ing devel­op­ments push high­er lev­els of flood water into less afflu­ent near­by neigh­bor­hoods who lack fund­ing to install such walls. And mas­sive water pump­ing sta­tions are run on pow­er gen­er­at­ed by fos­sil fuels, so that, indi­rect­ly, pump­ing the water out grad­u­al­ly aug­ments the amount of water com­ing in. But such big infra­struc­ture projects let pub­lic offi­cials trum­pet to the media that they are doing some­thing in the face of cli­mate change. Since a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the fund­ing for infra­struc­ture spend­ing comes from tax­es on real estate devel­op­ment, flood infra­struc­ture also gives pub­lic offi­cials a gold­en ali­bi for green­light­ing con­tin­ued devel­op­ment in their imper­iled cities: With­out the tax dol­lars that such devel­op­ment pro­duces, offi­cials can claim, the city would not be able to pro­tect itself from ris­ing tides. Just don’t ask them about the log­ic of con­tin­u­ing to build lux­u­ry con­dos in flood zones.

This kind of wrong­head­ed but high­ly lucra­tive adap­ta­tion to cli­mate change is on dis­play not just in Mia­mi but in cities around the world. With help from Dutch con­sul­tants, for exam­ple, the Indone­sia cap­i­tal city Jakar­ta is build­ing a huge sea wall shaped like a myth­i­cal bird. The wall is to be cov­ered with elite hous­ing devel­op­ments where the country’s rich can stash their cash by invest­ing in real estate. But since the city only has one func­tion­ing waste treat­ment plant, the bay formed behind the giant sea wall could become a lagoon of tox­ic waste. Lagos is build­ing its own ver­sion of such a lux­u­ry sea wall city, a devel­op­ment to be called Eko Atlantic, which will stand cheek-by-jowl next to some of the city’s worst slums, where hun­dreds of thou­sands of poor peo­ple eke out an exis­tence with­out clean water or elec­tric­i­ty in a par­tic­u­lar­ly stark ver­sion of the cli­mate apartheid that is becom­ing increas­ing­ly wide­spread.

Hous­ton makes the fun­da­men­tal hypocrisy of such devel­op­ment par­tic­u­lar­ly plain. After all, the city’s boom­ing real estate mar­ket is tied to a sig­nif­i­cant extent to prof­its from oil. High prices for oil helped fuel the growth in devel­op­ment that imper­iled Hous­ton, while also iron­i­cal­ly gen­er­at­ing the glob­al warm­ing and the cli­mate change denial that con­tributed to the city’s dev­as­ta­tion. As the great­est cen­ter for the petro­chem­i­cal indus­try in the Unit­ed States, Hous­ton exem­pli­fies the dead­ly con­tra­dic­tions between a fos­sil fueled eco­nom­ic sys­tem based on unfet­tered eco­nom­ic growth and the envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty of our great cities.

As in pre­vi­ous unnat­ur­al dis­as­ters in extreme cities, it is the most vul­ner­a­ble urban cit­i­zens who will suf­fer the most. Air Alliance Hous­ton has warned that the shut­down of petro­chem­i­cal plants before Har­vey hit Hous­ton put more than 1 mil­lion pounds of harm­ful pol­lu­tion into the air. Those liv­ing clos­est to these tox­ic dis­charges are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly low-income com­mu­ni­ties of col­or. The impact of Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na on New Orleans showed that it is pre­cise­ly such com­mu­ni­ties that are most dev­as­tat­ed dur­ing unnat­ur­al dis­as­ters. And it is not just dur­ing floods that these vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties suf­fer dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly. As the recon­struc­tion of New Orleans fol­low­ing Kat­ri­na showed, a process that Nao­mi Klein dubbed dis­as­ter cap­i­tal­ism,” post-dis­as­ter rebuild­ing can entrench and exac­er­bate exist­ing inequal­i­ties and envi­ron­men­tal injus­tice. After Kat­ri­na, pub­lic hous­ing was demol­ished, munic­i­pal hos­pi­tals were shut­tered and the pub­lic school sys­tem was pri­va­tized. It is a tru­ly bit­ter irony that many of those cur­rent­ly being evac­u­at­ed from Hous­ton moved to the city after being dis­placed from New Orleans dur­ing and after Katrina.

A just recon­struc­tion of Hous­ton will hinge on stead­fast rejec­tion of anoth­er round of the neolib­er­al dog­ma of pri­va­ti­za­tion. The city can­not aim to rebuild to where it was before Har­vey since its pre-dis­as­ter state was marked by extreme eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty and envi­ron­men­tal unsus­tain­abil­i­ty. Recon­struc­tion must instead be based on envi­ron­men­tal­ly sound poli­cies: pre­serv­ing the city’s remain­ing green space, curb­ing devel­op­ment in flood­plains and plan­ning for the future impact of cli­mate change, rather than rely­ing on past expe­ri­ence to project the impact of extreme weath­er to come. The rebuild­ing effort must also be based on social­ly just poli­cies, includ­ing pro­vid­ing well-pay­ing recon­struc­tion jobs and the skills to car­ry out those jobs to eco­nom­i­cal­ly dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties in the city.

Plans for a just recon­struc­tion must also con­sid­er the ques­tion of strate­gic retreat. After the FEMA flood maps were redrawn in 2001, over 330,000 homes remained in the vul­ner­a­ble parts of the 100-year flood­plain — the area with a 1 per­cent chance of being flood­ed in any giv­en year over a 100-year times­pan. The res­i­dents of these homes were nev­er offered fund­ing to move away from flood zones. What­ev­er relief fund­ing comes to Hous­ton from the fed­er­al and state gov­ern­ment fol­low­ing Har­vey should be direct­ed first and fore­most to peo­ple liv­ing in such per­ilous areas so that wealthy res­i­dents of the city do not use the lion’s share of relief to fix up their hous­es, as has hap­pened after many dis­as­ters. In addi­tion, res­i­dents of neigh­bor­hoods in East Hous­ton endan­gered by the petro­chem­i­cal indus­try should be part of the con­ver­sa­tion about strate­gic retreat, and should have emer­gency relief funds ear­marked for them. These com­mu­ni­ties must be empow­ered to deter­mine their own course of action so that strate­gic retreat is not per­ceived as sim­ply anoth­er land grab by gen­tri­fy­ing elites. This was pre­cise­ly the con­cern stirred up by plans to remake por­tions of New Orleans fol­low­ing Kat­ri­na, where mem­bers of low-income com­mu­ni­ties feared that plans to shrink the city were part of a much longer his­to­ry of remov­ing black res­i­dents from valu­able urban real estate.

The unfold­ing tragedy in Hous­ton also needs to spark a much broad­er con­ver­sa­tion about our imper­iled coast­lines and the extreme cities locat­ed along them. Less than two weeks before Har­vey hit Hous­ton, Pres­i­dent Trump signed an exec­u­tive order revok­ing Oba­ma-era reg­u­la­tions that required fed­er­al infra­struc­ture projects to fac­tor in sci­en­tif­ic pro­jec­tions on the effects of cli­mate change. Such spec­tac­u­lar­ly fool­ish pol­i­cy­mak­ing and the cli­mate change denial it builds on needs to be seen for what it is: a wicked­ly cor­rupt capit­u­la­tion to pow­er­ful mon­eyed inter­ests like the fos­sil fuel and devel­op­ment indus­tries that puts hun­dreds of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans in the direct path of griev­ous dam­age and eco­nom­ic ruina­tion. We must revamp the fed­er­al flood insur­ance poli­cies that have encour­aged peo­ple to set­tle along imper­iled coast­lines. At present, FEMA flood insur­ance poli­cies dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly ben­e­fit eco­nom­ic elites since by far the great­est per­cent­age of sub­si­dized insur­ance goes to homes in afflu­ent coun­ties. But such pol­i­cy changes must not leave poor com­mu­ni­ties under water, both eco­nom­i­cal­ly and lit­er­al­ly. We also need to have a frank con­ver­sa­tion about whether it makes sense to keep rebuild­ing cities like Hous­ton, where 500-year floods have become a reg­u­lar phe­nom­e­non. Per­haps it’s time to devel­op a nation­al plan for relo­cat­ing peo­ple away from vul­ner­a­ble coast­lines en masse. Unlike, for exam­ple, the Dutch, we are for­tu­nate enough to have the space to do this. But most of all, the trag­ic flood­ing of Hous­ton should cat­alyze a frank recog­ni­tion of the fatal con­tra­dic­tions of fos­sil cap­i­tal­ism. Until and unless we rec­og­nize that an eco­nom­ic sys­tem based on feck­less growth and unstint­ing car­bon emis­sions is sui­ci­dal, we will not be in a posi­tion to plan a bet­ter future. And we will by con­se­quence face ever more fre­quent unnat­ur­al disasters.

Ash­ley Daw­son is the Cur­rie C. and Thomas A. Bar­ron Vis­it­ing Pro­fes­sor in the Envi­ron­ment and the Human­i­ties at the Prince­ton Envi­ron­men­tal Insti­tute. He is the author of two recent books on top­ics relat­ing to the envi­ron­men­tal human­i­ties: Extreme Cities: The Per­il and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Cli­mate Change (Ver­so Books, 2017), and Extinc­tion: A Rad­i­cal His­to­ry (O/R Press, 2016).
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