After three harrowing days, our cousins and their dog, Harry (see photo from drier days), were rescued Monday from their home in the Meyerland section of Houston. They live but a stone’s throw from a bayou in a gracious neighborhood in which we had taken leisurely walks in April. Folks in the area had just barely recovered from floods in 2015 and 2016 when Hurricane Harvey and the ensuing deluge hit. No one was prepared for what reports are calling a 1000-year storm, of biblical proportions.
Obviously, our first concern as a nation is for survivors’ safety and health. The immediate challenges are restoring electricity, roads, and fuel plus opening schools. But, when the water recedes and the sodden carpet, stained furniture and wrecked appliances and cars are cleared away, when the broken windows are fixed and the moldy door jambs replaced, there are many questions that need answering.
Some look back: Should whole neighborhoods have been required to evacuate, and, if so, where to? (The answer to the question is, probably not.) Should certain neighborhoods, including plazas and shopping malls, have been built on wetlands in the first place? Given the water table and other flood conditions, what steps should have been taken structurally to reduce the threat of such a disaster?
The most important questions look forward: In the next month, will Congress reauthorize the federal flood insurance program? What program reforms are really needed? Two weeks before Harvey hit, the Trump administration issued an executive order repealing Obama administration standards for flood control on infrastructure projects. Will anyone challenge that?
Our tweeter-in-chief recently said it would be a good thing to shut down the government if funds for his wall are not included. Will Congress now dismiss this absurdity out of hand? Similarly, Trump proposed that FEMA’s budget be cut, providing more money for defense spending. Really?
The President quickly agreed to designate Texas and Louisiana as a federal disaster area, but there are not enough funds to cover the anticipated losses. Will Washington now provide a larger pool of money for disasters in advance, or at least lift the cap going forward?
In 2012, 20 Texas Republicans voted against helping New Jersey and others on the east coast in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, claiming that any relief provided be offset by equal budget cuts elsewhere. Some said they were opposed because the bill was two thirds pork. The Washington Post totally debunked the claim made by, among others, Senator Ted Cruz. How will Congress vote on funds for remediation for Houston? New Jersey Governor Chris Christie hit Cruz on his hypocrisy, but both Christie and New York Rep. Peter King have predicted their states won’t abandon Texas.
Will the Trump administration submit to a fact-based discussion about climate change? Scientists won’t say global warming specifically caused Harvey, but there’s general agreement that the intensity of the hurricane was greater because of climate change. The temperature of the Gulf of Mexico never dipped below 73 degrees this summer, for the first time ever. Warmer water, more moisture evaporating into the air, more intense rain storms. Rising sea levels, greater storm surges. Don’t take my word for it: read the experts.
Republicans hate regulation. But what about locals rethinking rapid development that eats up wetlands and over-expands parking lots with their non-permeable surfaces? One study finds 24 percent more pavement in the last 15 years, with little opportunity for absorption. Texas ranks 49th in state spending for flood control prevention and planning. And what about the non-existence – God Forbid – zoning laws in Texas? as in, just one small example, requiring higher elevation in new construction? Our spring visit to Houston inspired awe about the growth, the burgeoning population, the creation of businesses. The dynamic is exciting to be sure, but where do climate considerations enter the picture?
For that matter, what are we in Boston doing to prepare for climate change? Sea levels along the northeast coast are said to be rising three to four times faster than the global average. We can’t keep our heads in the sand either.
One final question looking ahead. Houstonians and others have shown admirable generosity, reaching out to others, effecting rescues at their own peril, opening their homes to complete strangers. Will that last? Recovery will take a long time, years perhaps. The privations get old very fast. How can we preserve this best of humanity, this coming together, which is so unlike the tenor of recent times?