For the purposes of this post, let’s pretend climate disruption does not exist (!). Let’s pretend Hurricane Harvey had no climate component, and that Hurricane Harvey was just another, big storm afflicting the fortunes of the U.S. Gulf coast. The village and eventually city of Houston has long had a relationship with the Buffalo Bayou, including extreme floods in the early half of the 20th century. (In fact, the first flooding was experienced shortly after the village was established in 1836.) These were contained by a major flood control project, but, in recent years, the long term lessons of that effort have been forgotten, and Houston has expanded beyond sensible development, sensitive to the risks such development entailed. In recent years, flooding has been repeated, such as the event of 1994.
I’m emphasizing Houston’s failure to listen to Nature, not only to put recent events in perspective, but to underscore how, as Professor Robert Young of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines has repeatedly pleaded, such ignorance of the loud assertions from Nature have been repeatedly ignored along U.S. coasts, especially in the aftermath of extra-tropical storm Sandy. People continue to rebuild where they were located before and, in fact, the laws of the United States and politicians of all parties, including ones, like Senator Schumer of New York and Senator Warren of Massachusetts, continue to defend and support the need for federal bailouts of property owners who are thereby shielded from the risks their location of property have embraced, creating tremendous moral hazard, in economic terms. Houston is far from unique. Professor Young attended and spoke at a symposium on Boston’s coastal future, and he was not complimentary regarding the plans he heard.
The consequences of this failure are playing out in the news, before our eyes, in humanitarian tragedy, in business loss, in what we’ll see as biological and chemical contamination across wide swaths of property, and in terms of environmental destruction of habitat and of life. It is tragic.
This post goes farther, however, and tries to argue that what would make this tragedy permanent is if the critical underlying lesson were lost, the “model solution“ which President Trump touted abandoned, and if Houston were simply rebuilt as it was, consistent with the pattern of failure we have thus far seen elsewhere. In this instance, if such rebuilding occurs, it will be an incredibly expensive fail, because it is likely to be undone, and soon.
But, despite precedent, I am optimistic. I think the experience of Hurricane Harvey could be the beginning of a change in how Americans build their homes. I think it could be the beginning of a new found realization that, for many reasons, we need to learn how to coexist with Nature, not try to conquer Her. The latter eventually fails. And I hope the lessons are appreciated by the people who are promoting a sea wall around Boston. That will simply never work, if for no other reason than that we do not really know how high to build such a sea wall.
The government and the public are tired of spending. As Professor Young relates, much of the monies spent by the federal government benefit very few — and often very wealthy — individuals, even through mechanisms like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Financial exhaustion might be one reason.
“Always when there is a hurricane, you have compounding effects of ocean flooding — surge — and terrestrial flooding …” Harvey, he said, is a prime example of how these two factors work together to create the perfect storm, producing catastrophic coastal flooding when they occur at once. And now, he said, we need to pay more attention to the way these factors work together when we’re estimating flood risks for coastal regions — before disaster actually strikes. Scientists tend to focus on one flood driver or another when conducting flood hazard assessments for any given area — evaluating either the risk of terrestrial flooding, which occurs inland as a result of excess precipitation and overflowing rivers, or of surging ocean waters. But in many coastal areas, where rivers run out to meet the sea, both factors play a major role in the risk of regional flooding. Focusing on only one or the other can run the risk of underestimating the likelihood of a major flood.
The work of Professor AghaKouchak and colleagues is reported at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Bloomberg reports how the present outcome is the result of bad city planning. I have heard calls now, as during Hurricane Katrina, to focus upon the humanitarian response, that anything else is ‘politicizing the tragedy’. But, as Professor Young again pointed out, during his presentation at Harvard’s HUCE HUBweek in 2015, the trouble is that without the immediacy of the tragedy, the United States seems to lack the political will to do anything about these problems. Moreover, we seem to only be able to focus on one thing at a time, and as Hurricane Harvey recedes into memory, eclipsed by threats from North Korea, or racist behavior of police in Akron, Ohio, the public is distracted, with its famously short attention span. Possibly recognizing this, some of my colleagues, progressive environmentalists, try to roll up a big ball of activism, combining environmental problems with racial and social justice, so people can focus on something. The trouble with that, as Professor Young points out, is that in doing so, the set of people who agree strongly on all these issues together is much smaller than, say, the set who might agree on having to do something regarding flooding and city planning, and, so, an opportunity for a critical discussion and consequent action is lost. In fact, this is expressible mathematically:
where is the set of people interested in issue 1, is the set of people interested in issue 2, , and is the set of people interested in issue .
But there’s money being lost in Houston, not only from damage to retail and nearby refineries, but because those same companies cannot operate if their people cannot get to the facilities or have a place nearby to live. It is possible that the painful lessons of Hurricane Katrina were learned, and things will be different. Let’s hope so.
I am hopeful.
But I know if they are not, there will soon be another Hurricane Harvey-sized flooding disaster, perhaps not at the coast, perhaps inflicted by an old hurricane-as-tropical-depression or perhaps inflicted by a nor’easter, which will bring the memory back. And, as thick-headed as our United States polity appears to be, eventually the message will get through.
The Economist this week (2nd September 2017) also highlights the perverse incentives some government policies have which make the effects of flooding worse.
(The above is from the Darmouth Flood Observatory at the University of Colorado at Boulder. They manage an online database of flood events from around the world.)