My hometown is under water.
I’ve been obsessed with following the flood news from the Houston area. I don’t have any family down there any more, but I do have friends in the area.
While I’m worried about my friends and have compassion for the many people who are suffering, my obsession isn’t sentimental. You couldn’t pay me to live in Houston, and the parts of the surrounding area that I used to like – including the once-tiny town of Friendswood where I grew up – have been swallowed up by unlimited growth. I’ve maybe spent a year all-told there since I left at eighteen and that includes a couple of summers during college.
It’s not sentiment; it’s that I know the area and can grasp the problems. Even though Houston has grown enormously, it’s grown in predictable ways. I understand how the place fits together.
It’s also that I knew – like anyone with any sense – that this disaster was waiting to happen. Houston has flooded regularly in recent years. Record rainfalls are nothing new. This is the third 500-year flood in three years.
In fact, while Harvey broke a lot of Houston-area rainfall records, it doesn’t seem to have reached the North American record for most rainfall in 24 hours. Which is 43 inches and was set in 1979 right over my parents’ house, meaning there was a very bad flood in the Houston area 38 years ago.
In all the coverage of earlier storms, I haven’t seen that one mentioned, probably because of all the other records being broken. But that flood also made the front page of The New York Times. That’s the storm that made me aware that the problems on the Gulf Coast weren’t just the natural ones of living in hurricane country.
Sure, hurricanes happen and Houston was due for a big one (though the actual hurricane hit poor Rockport). But that’s not the last word. Climate scientists are always very careful about tying any one storm to climate change, but it appears that the extra rainfall and stalling in this one is tied to the fact that the Gulf of Mexico had a record high low temperature last year. Lots of warm water in the Gulf contributes to extra rainfall from a storm.
The thing is, it’s not just climate change that’s making the problems worse for Houston. It’s overdevelopment and subsidence. That is, there’s too much concrete and people are taking too much water out of the ground.
Houston is sinking. That’s been an established fact for years. The Houston Chronicle did a nice overview on it. Whenever I set future stories in Texas, I assume Houston is underwater.
But the other problem is that there’s concrete on top of a lot of pastures and other open places that used to soak up the water from a bad rain. Climate scientist Andrew King points out:
As the region’s population grows, more and more of southern Texas is being paved with impermeable surfaces. This means that when there is extreme rainfall the water takes longer to drain away, prolonging and intensifying the floods.
It doesn’t help that Houston was built on a swamp and wetlands.
Can I just note how ironic I find it that many of the stories about the floods focus on all the refineries affected? I’ve already seen a piece predicting economic disaster because gas prices will rise while crude oil prices fall unless the refineries are back in business ASAP.
There will be a push for more oil and gas production to “help” Houston recover, which, of course, will just lead to more carbon in the atmosphere and more climate change. And, of course, people will rebuild and the city will keep growing (because that’s what Houston does best) and the situation will get worse.
One of these days we humans will figure out that we need to stop making the problem worse as our “solution” to problems like floods and fires and other so-called natural disasters. But I’m not holding my breath.