Hurricane Season

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.



Hurricane Season — 13 Comments

  1. 1) This could be the tipping point for the US to start switching your lifestyle towards more sustainable energy and transportation solutions, more livable cities, and healthier lifestyles (if active travel solutions become incorporated into land-use and city planning). If you grab the chance now, the way the Netherlands did in the 1970, when the oil embargo limited access to gasoline at the same time the campaign against increasing road fatalities “Stop the child murder” took off, you too could reap the benefits of more livable cities and both healthier and happier lifestyle choices, as well as the economic growth and job growth inherent in an expanding alternative energy sector.
    I just fear that the entrenched petrochemical industry, together with the strongly internalised worldview coming from a century of promoting cars above all else, will be strong enough to block that path.

    2) Recently I’ve seen a few articles about how Exxon internal documents show that they have known climate change is real, man-made and serious for a long time (1979!); while constantly continuing to cast doubt on it in communicating with the American public.
    I hope this may serve as the wedge to break Big Oil’s hold on the public discourse and the US beliefs regarding climate change, the same way the Philip Morris papers did with Big Tobacco, and give you the chance to start dealing with reality.
    Here are two links, talking about the same study:

    3) Once you break the hold that misinformation financed by big financial interests (like the oil companies) has had on public discourse in the US, I don’t doubt you will be able to come up with strategies to deal with the results. Though whether those strategies will be the kinds that work for all Americans seems to me to depend on how strong the stranglehold of some other big-money interests on the US political system will remain, after the oil lobby has been broken the way the tobacco lobby was. There’s still the bankers and the pharmaceutical lobbies, as well as a bunch of billionaires out for their own gain at the expense of everyone else, to contend with.

    4) I really wish all Americans had the same freedom of choices that we do, here in the Netherlands; instead of limiting everybody’s personal choices (often in the name of freedom).
    I can and do use all modes of transport, depending on circumstances: walk to the neighborhood shop (less than a mile), bike to work and the shopping center (less than 5 miles), take my car to visit my parents (about 60 miles), the train to my sister (200 miles), the train and bus or tram to go book shopping at the American Book Center in the big town (30 miles). Infrastructure lacking safe separate bike lines and pedestrian facilities (and promoting lots of fast car movement), and a lack of public transport in a lot of America seems to limit your viable transport options to cars, and only cars, in a lot of situations – even for short trips.
    I can switch jobs without fearing the loss of employer-provided healthcare. I can risk starting up a business, without needing to pay for health-insurance for my employees, and without being afraid to end up in poverty without income or health-care if my new start-up fails (as a lot do) – there is a good reason that the socialist democracies of north-west Europe do better at innovation and starting up new companies, while the US system is set up to support big corporations and promote monopolies (& monopsonies, if you want to be technical about the details).
    Our votes all count the same, one person = one vote, instead of being weighed differently per state and county.
    The government doesn’t get between me and my doctor.
    Sorry, I’m drifting off topic here…

    TL;DR: I wish all Americans the same freedoms I enjoy, and hope that the combination of the damage done by Harvey to the refineries and the reputation damage starting with the Exxon documents will be enough to break the hold Big Oil has on your society, and start your path back to living in a democracy that works for its people, and increases your health and happiness for the long term as well as the present.

    • Hanneke, thanks for providing such a detailed update on how things can be different. I’ve always said I never wanted to be an expatriate, but your description of life in the Netherlands makes me envious. Maybe I need to rethink that. (And I’m a Peterman on my mother’s side — if I claim that heritage will the Dutch let me in? 😉 )

      In all seriousness, the Dutch have led the way in dealing with sea level rise and related issues. But I’m afraid it’s going to take a long time and a long fight to rein in Big Oil. I look at how long it took to get some control over Big Tobacco, and it wasn’t as powerful as the oil companies. (And we’re still subsidizing the growing of tobacco.)

      Here in Oakland I use all means of transportation like you do, though I bike less than I would if we had more bike lanes (they’re coming). But life in Houston without a car would be miserable. There are a few walkable neighborhoods, such as the Montrose, but they’re not that big and many things you need are not close by. And I know that if my life was a little different here in California, I’d need a car all the time, just like many of my friends do.

      • For those longer trips, we tend to use a combination: bike to the station, train to destination town/area station, (bikeshare-)bike or bus to the destination. Bus and train stations are next to each other, with timetables often integrated; you use tge same transport card for both. The railways run large cheap bikeshare rentals at all the larger stations (on the same transport card), as well as large bicycle parkings: if your destination is a place you go every working day you can keep a cheap second bike there, instead of using bikeshare.

        On the other hand, nowhere on earth is entirely perfect. My nephew just moved to Sweden to study, because he loves surfing and snowboarding, and we have neither.
        Also, we have a lot more rules about some things, but in my opinion they tend to be sensible ones concerning where one person’s freedoms would impinge on another’s, or where it concerns shared resources and natural physical limits; like not being allowed to build in floodplanes (the water will come, and it has to go somewhere – if you build an obstruction here, the people upstream will get more flooding), and not carrying guns around everywhere and making people feel threatened. (Rules that make no sense will not be obeyed, and we dislike heavy-handed enforcement, so there’s no sense in making them anyway.)

        I’m sorry you are having such difficult times, and worrying about people in danger and distress. I really hope everybody omes through all this safely, and it will lead to something better.

  2. Houston and surrounding areas climate is definetly a drawback to try bicycling. At least for meRon did ride five miles a day before his back surgery.

    It just galls me that in 1938 to 1940 or so, people were smart enough to build the Barker Cypress and Addick dams in order to control flooding along Buffalo Bsyou. Thereby keeping downtown Houston from flooding. So the experts (?) let developers and builders were allowed to build anything g they wanted on all the surrounding green space. Now people who live in those homes, and don’t know the history, blame the dams for flooding them.

    Many years ago, Houstonians, Galvestonians and others fled to an area called The Heights in order to escape the heat and mosquitos. The Heights had the highest elevation st that time.

    I’m not an e left, but common sense tells me you can’t cover every squRe inch of subsiding ground with concrete and expect to live happily ever after!

    One last comment, we are in Friendswood which had 52 inches of rain, have no power, on cable tv, no internet. All of which I can live with for a week or so EXCEPT having to rely on data on this phone to communicate! The keys and screen are too small and my eyes are too old.

    Take care all , the sun is shining and the water is slowly receding. Life is good!

  3. PS. Didn’t proof that long. Moment. Please excuse the spelling and grammatical L errors. It’s the little keys fault!

    • I can’t type worth anything on a phone screen either. Thanks for taking the time to give us such a long report. I’m glad you’re OK, even without power. 52 inches is an incredible amount of rain.

      I didn’t realize those reservoirs were so old. That was one good idea; too bad they didn’t do more of that and prohibit building near them. Perfect places for parks, of course, but you don’t make money on parks.

      Houston is the poster child for “build anything anywhere,” but it’s a problem nationwide. If we’d blocked building on barrier islands (along the Atlantic and the Gulf), we’d have few problems. Out here in California they’ve had to close an apartment building that’s about to slide down a cliff into the Pacific. And the biggest problem with our wildfires here in the west is that people insist on living so close to areas that are going to burn, so we end up with huge efforts at fire suppression instead of the ongoing use of controlled burns to keep the forest healthy. There’s lots of bad decision making to turn around.

  4. The number of people whom I know personally, to varying degrees of familiarity and friendship, who are vastly affected by this catastrophe is larger than I even actually know. Too many of them are seemingly without capacity for contact. Though we keep trying so far nothing.

    It includes many who left New Orleans after losing everything from Katrina’s flooding for Houston. Now they’re back in that state. Again.

    Then there are some of our vastly wealthy friends — who weren’t there, but in other houses elsewheres they own. Some of them, I have to say, are at the very least partially responsible as they are Big Oil Bidness and Real Estate developers. I am guessing, from where they live, a great deal of priceless art has been if not entirely destroyed, damaged. I know certainly that some of their houses are seriously flooded. Hey, it may be one of the wealthiest per capital communities in the nation — but it has river in its name . . . .

    • I cannot say I’m all that worried about the folks in River Oaks. Though it is lovely there. Reminds me of the 1979 tornado in Wichita Falls, which went through both working class and wealthy neighborhoods leaving havoc everywhere, instead of just doing the usual thing of knocking out the trailer parks.

      Worried about the other folks, though.

      • Exactly.

        And — one may think they were irresponsible about the art. Particularly one of our friends who owns a lot of priceless Assyrian artifacts and sculptures, some of which were set up in the grounds of his and N’s home.