How Houston Was Left To Drown Under Hurricane Harvey by Seth Uzman

Coast Guard aircrews conduct flyovers to assess Texas ports

Image by Coast Guard News via Flickr

Dandelion Salad

by Seth Uzman
Socialist Worker, Aug. 30, 2017
September 1, 2017

STORMS ARE natural, but what happens in response to them is not. Flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which smashed into the Gulf Coast on August 25, has left at least nine people dead, thousands in need of rescue on rooftops or in boats, hundreds of thousands more without power and tens of thousands in need of shelter.

Yet characterizations of the carnage by the National Weather Service as “historic,” “unprecedented” or “beyond anything experienced” should not be conflated with the spurious claim that the devastation wrought by Harvey is “unpreventable” or “unexpected.”

The outcry by advocates, experts and activists against the unplanned, for-profit development of cities like Houston has been consistently ignored by city officials, leaving millions–especially the poor and people of color–in the fourth-largest city in the U.S. in a death trap.

“Houston is the fourth-largest city, but it’s the only city that does not have zoning,” Dr. Robert Bullard, a Houston resident and a professor who studies environmental racism, told Democracy Now! on August 29. “[As a result], communities of color and poor communities have been unofficially zoned as compatible with pollution…We call that environmental injustice and environmental racism. It is that plain, and it’s just that simple.”

The image of elderly people in a nursing home sitting in waist-deep water is a shocking illustration of how the most vulnerable segments of the population are struggling to deal with the effects of Harvey. Thankfully, all of those people have been rescued and brought to safety.

But, as Dr. Bullard points out, the nightmare for tens of thousands of the city’s poorest residents living in close proximity to Houston’s vast petrochemical industry is just beginning. They are literally being gassed by and steeped in the toxic materials unleashed by the floodwaters that have damaged the oil refineries and chemical manufacturers that surround their homes and neighborhoods.

The choices facing people in these neighborhoods are gut-wrenching. Should you and your family stay as toxic floodwaters rise all around you? If you decide to go, where do you go?

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THE CHOICES confronting Houston’s undocumented population are equally terrifying.

Just hours before Harvey made landfall (and exactly one week before the state’s notorious “show me your papers” bill known as SB 4 is set to take effect), Customs and Border Patrol officials announced they would maintain their checkpoints to verify immigration status as people fled north, evacuating ahead of the approaching destruction.

Although Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, bowing to the ensuing public criticism, announced that those fleeing would have access to shelters regardless of their immigration status, the overall message to the undocumented was clear: drown or get deported.

The private prison corporations running Abbott’s detention centers, their cells filled by raids and roundups carried out by the state’s deportation machine, were similarly opaque about their plans to deal with the prisoners under their control.

Confusion continued with contradictory orders from city and state officials about whether residents should stay or flee. Many stayed behind, some without the money to do otherwise. The homeless were naturally distrustful of the police, who have denied them access to food and hounded them from the streets, under the rule of Mayor Sylvester Turner.

The common refrain from local officials in Houston and elsewhere was that telling people to leave would simply trap people on the roads as the storm arrived–so people should just take shelter where they were and hope for the best.

But this makes it seem as though the situation facing city managers in Houston was an unanticipated dilemma, and that the city’s captains of industry and elected officials haven’t had a hand in constructing the conditions that made the effects of Harvey so devastating and turned parts of Houston into a deathtrap.

Houston’s lack of infrastructure to manage potential flood events is in many ways an environmental expression of the crisis of neoliberalism. As a crucial port city that thrives off of oil revenues, Houston is one of the largest profit-making urban areas in the U.S.

The flood of fixed capital, particularly into the construction and petrochemical sectors, has also made the city a flood capital. Heavy investment in impermeable concrete has turned wetlands into high rises, shopping malls, parking lots and manufacturing platforms.

But wetlands are irreplaceable as natural shock absorbers for heavy rainfall and reduce the risk of flooding. Concrete, by contrast, acts like a sluice to transmit and concentrate water. The activities of developers thus transform nearby neighborhoods, once relatively safe from flooding, into basins for collecting floodwater.

Even when regulations are imposed, they are routinely ignored and go unenforced. But regulation is rare because elected officials are the lapdogs of developers who regard better drainage systems as an unconscionable cost that others should pay for–in particular, through regressive taxes on working people.

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LOCATED IN a region prone to heavy rain, Houston’s last significant flood prevention measure was a set of dams introduced in the 1940s to prevent the city’s system of bayous from overflowing into its central business district. The dams, however, were in the middle of repair as the storm arrived Friday–just as the levies around New Orleans were being upgraded when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.

In order to avoid the embarrassment of a levy breach reminiscent of Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers opted for a controlled release of a limited amount of water to lower the stress on the dams, their fragility a hieroglyph of a general crisis of public infrastructure thrown into sharp relief by Harvey’s arrival.

Houston meanwhile has been subject to devastating floods for decades, the most memorable of which was not Hurricane Ike in 2008, but tropical storm Allison in 2001, which left 41 people dead. Massive storms that flooded the city in 2015 were likewise described as “unprecedented.”

Having ignored the warnings of scientists and the protests of trapped residents, officials are now feigning ignorance and surprise despite the fact that they facilitated the transformation of Houston into a capitalist fantasyland that doesn’t absorb water, but gathers it in.

We drown in the accumulating water; they “drown” in the accumulating profits.

But if “unprecedented,” “once-in-a-lifetime,” “historic” weather events are happening with greater frequency–the number of natural disasters has quadrupled since 1970, according to the Economist–then it should be obvious that they are no longer unprecedented, once-in-a-lifetime, historic events. They are the new normal, brought about fossil-fueled climate change.

In that sense, they may in fact be unnatural storms.

Rising air and ocean temperatures alongside increased levels of water vapor in the atmosphere–the consequences of extracting and burning fossil fuels–have created the conditions for powerful storms, like Harvey, to emerge in the Gulf. These conditions cause them to move slowly through the open ocean, siphoning up ever-increasing amounts of water that return to earth once the storms make landfall.

When Harvey struck, worsening atmospheric conditions also meant that there was little wind to keep the storm moving once on land. As a result, like Allison, Harvey came ashore and hovered, dumping 11 trillion gallons of water and transforming poor and working-class neighborhoods into water tanks. (A couple years ago, this was the exact shortfall of water responsible for California’s “unprecedented” drought.)

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HOUSTON’S FATE provides merely a glimpse of what’s to come for other coastal cities as sea levels continue to rise.

Nuclear power plants and petrochemical processing sites in Bay City, just east of Houston, and elsewhere along the coast are unnatural disasters lying in wait for an unnatural storm to set them loose.

Reports have estimated damages in the tens of billions of dollars and claimed the storm has set Houston back years. But the fact is that capitalism has rigged the cities of the Gulf Coast for disaster from top to bottom.

As in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina and more recently after Hurricanes Ike and Sandy, the destruction in the wake of Hurricane Harvey will leave Houston wide open to the vultures of “disaster capitalism” as publicly owned infrastructure, liquidated by the storm’s unnatural carnage, is replaced with further private development–and more impermeable concrete.

The White (House) supremacist, meanwhile, seems to have been overcome by an irrepressible urge to flatter Hurricane Harvey on Twitter, as if the mainstream media’s personification of the storm is real. It makes you wonder whether he thinks Gulf Coast residents did something to provoke Harvey, with its flooding “on many sides.”

Trump made his priorities clear as he doubled down on his racist economic nationalism by announcing his plan to resume the transfer of military hardware to police forces and pardoning the grotesque Sheriff Joe Arpaio as news coverage of Harvey–a storm already reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina, which laid bare the fault lines of race and class in New Orleans–was ramping up.

Houston’s ruling class has no ability (not just for want of competence, but that too), much less interest, in resolving the city’s flood problems, and Trump is certain to buttress their project by fomenting racial divisions among the downtrodden while he diverts the necessary funds for urgently needed public services to a barbaric budget for military spending.

Ultimately, a real recovery from social tragedies like Harvey will come from struggles that seek to reconfigure urban space in the interests of working-class people–by overturning the system that currently designs it to maximize the extraction of profit no matter the human or environmental cost.

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A Just Harvey Recovery (#AJustHarveyRecovery)

see also:

Eyewitness Harvey: Toxic chemicals, biased coverage and prisons by Gloria Rubac

from the archives:

We Must End the Empire of Militarism and Bring Our Taxpayer Dollars Home by Ralph Nader + Christian Parenti: We Need to Rip Away the Veil of the “Free Market”

Climate Change is Racist. Where To Donate For #AJustHarveyRecovery by Drew Hudson

Dr. Robert Bullard: Houston’s “Unrestrained Capitalism” Made Harvey “Catastrophe Waiting to Happen”

Hurricane Harvey Devastates Houston + Catastrophic Flooding Hits Houston (#AJustHarveyRecovery)

The Democratic Party Stands for the Socio-pathological System of Class Rule Called Capitalism by Paul Street

13 thoughts on “How Houston Was Left To Drown Under Hurricane Harvey by Seth Uzman

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  6. Yes, the Addicks and Barker dam and levee systems proved inadequate and there were intentional releases through a couple of gates in the Addicks system and the Buffalo Bayou gate in Barker that worsened flooding further downstream. These releases were to prevent even worse floods at the edges of the earthworks.

    Addicks and Barker were funded in 1938, but were not completed until 1945 and 1948 because of diversion of funds to WWII.

    And yes, this was all caused by the fact that about 200,000 people have moved into the Addicks drainage area. Whether or not Houston has a zoning board like other cities or influences development by other means is irrelevant. All of these areas were far outside the city limits when the Addicks and Barker systems were built and no one imagined that Harris County would be on its way to five million in population.

    And we have at least done something. Every new suburban development has a retention pond disguised as a decorative lake that simulates the water holding capacity of the wet forest they replaced. Wal-Mart has to drain their parking lot into a moat behind the store.

    But Harvey showed all these efforts may be in vain, And maybe Harvey is the new normal.

    We are aware of our problems. And we are thinking about long term solutions. Houston mayor Bill White put Houston on a green energy plan. Houston since White’s time has been the largest municipal buyer of wind energy, and converted many fleet fueled vehicles to lower carbon CNG and LNG engines. Annise Parker continued this program and helped found the Climate Mayors movement after she was term limited out of office.

    Mayor Sylvester Turner signed on to the Climate Mayors movement after Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord.

  7. Pingback: Hurricane Harvey: It’s A Capitalist Crime Scene by Deirdre Griswold – Dandelion Salad

  8. Seth Uzman, I believe that you have it right. We need to create a better economic system that doesn’t harm the Earth or people. Capitalism has failed to provide well for the vast majority of people on this planet; in fact, that was never its aim. It has always worked to make a small number of wealthy at the expense of the many, and at cost to the environment, which never gets factored in with people who only look at the bottom line of profit. We need to change our economic system. We need to change all of our systems to be fairer, more just and more equitable. It’s obvious that capitalism will not take us in the future. And it isn’t working very well for most people in the United States right now.

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