In the coming weeks and months a more complete picture of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Harvey will emerge, but the initial estimates of the damage are staggering enough: the greatest single rainfall ever recorded in the continental United States, more than 150,000 homes destroyed across southeast Texas, the cost likely to be greater than that of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined. A week after the storm more than sixty deaths have been confirmed, though that number, along with the number of the displaced and homeless, will likely rise. Events like these don’t discriminate, and indeed Harvey is a reminder that everyone—rich, poor, native citizen, immigrant—is at nature’s mercy. Houston, which was hardest hit, is the nation’s fourth-largest city and one of its most diverse, and the countless instances of people hurrying to help strangers as well as neighbors, sometimes at their own peril, are an inspiring reminder of how in times of calamity Americans pull together.

At the moment, a similarly collective spirit seems to be guiding recovery efforts. Loose talk of a U.S. government shutdown, which would have prevented funding in the aftermath of the storm, has subsided, and with it the clamor for money to build a border wall. The Trump administration is seeking some $14 billion in initial recovery aid, and fiscal conservatives in Congress have temporarily muted their calls for cuts in federal spending to pay for emergency expenditures. Still to be legislated is an overall aid package that’s expected to far exceed the $50 billion allocated after Sandy in 2012; Congress has pledged to avoid the regional and partisan acrimony over funding that hobbled recovery efforts for that storm. Meanwhile, President Trump has expressed his intent to avoid repeating the mistakes George W. Bush made with Hurricane Katrina, and if he can avoid further conflating the magnitude of the response to Harvey with his own self-perceived stature, then perhaps a milestone in leadership will have been reached.  

There must also be some acknowledgment of why the Gulf region, Houston in particular, is so vulnerable to such disasters. No city can be expected to withstand a fifty-inch deluge, but it’s long been known that Houston, at risk of inundation even after ordinary storms, experiences some of the highest rates of property loss from floods in the United States. Geology and geography are partly to blame; the city is low-lying, laced with bayous, underlaid by poorly draining clay, and routinely in the path of storms blowing up through the Gulf. But human behavior explains the rest: rapacious development made possible by Texas’s notoriously lax zoning and environmental regulations has led to untrammeled sprawl, with homes built in floodplains, water-ways rechanneled to accommodate shipping and oil-refining, water-absorbing grasslands paved over, and some of the widest freeways in the world. When it rains, there is simply nowhere for the water to go. And the severity and frequency of heavy rainfall are on the rise. This was Houston’s third five-hundred-year flood in three years, and experts agree that the rising sea levels and warmer ocean temperatures attributable to climate change will make “extreme rain events” far more common. (This past winter, for the first time ever, the water temperature of the Gulf did not drop below 73 degrees.

When it rains, there is simply nowhere for the water to go.

Natural disasters like Harvey underscore once again the importance of a functioning government capable of mustering the financial, logistical, and humanitarian resources needed to respond to a large-scale crisis. They also can force a rethinking of short-term priorities. Before the storm, Trump and some Republican lawmakers were seeking major cuts to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and thinking of leaving the National Flood Insurance Program unfunded; these proposals are now stalled. But the storm also presents an opportunity for re-envisioning longer-term priorities. These include commonsensical zoning, safety, and environmental regulations, especially in areas vulnerable to storms and floods. Strategies for “managed retreat,” a gradual abandoning of endangered coastal regions, are also necessary; some local governments already are doing this, but more towns and cities need to. But most important is a collective commitment to acknowledging and addressing the effects of human-induced climate change. Texas’s congressional delegation shares the current administration’s hostility toward climate science and its willful imperviousness to facts. As heartening as it is to see the people of southeast Texas starting to recover from this disaster, it’s alarming to consider how little their elected officials are doing to protect them from the inevitable: the next catastrophic storm.

Published in the September 22, 2017 issue: View Contents
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