An American deluge

Hurricane Harvey devastated the coastline of Texas and Louisiana in early September, leaving behind an enormous trail of loss of life and property and large numbers of poor and middle-class people further dispossessed and spiralling into economic uncertainty.

Published : Sep 13, 2017 12:30 IST

In Houston, near the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs, after Hurricane Harvey.

In Houston, near the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs, after Hurricane Harvey.

September came to the American Gulf Coast with an overpowering force of nature. Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas and Louisiana coastline with the power of a Category 4 storm (Category 5 being the most deadly in the scale). A storm is given the designation of Category 4 if the winds rush between 210 km/hr and 250 km/hr. The technical term for the amount of precipitation that falls during such a storm is “unfathomable rain”, and in this case, rainfall of 20 trillion gallons of water was forecast. It turned out that the rain was greater than this estimate, 27 trillion gallons of water. Harvey was everything that had been predicted and more. It devastated the coastline of Texas and Louisiana and flooded Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States.

It was evident that Harvey would be a large storm. Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruise ships rushed out of the flight path of Harvey. Oil companies evacuated their workers from offshore drilling and oil extraction platforms. One rig was hastily dismantled and removed from the area. Two weeks before it hit the coastline of the U.S., the storm tore through Guyana in South America and several Caribbean islands. Guyana’s Civil Defence Commission reported that on August 18 the storm hit the village of Jawalla, killing several people and destroying a number of homes, schools and medical centres. About 50 people died in the storm in Guyana. In neighbouring Suriname, strong winds blew the roofs off several houses; even the roof of the Presidential palace in Paramaribo suffered severe damage.

There was little international coverage of these disasters. The media, focussed on the U.S., imagined the storm to begin only when it struck the U.S. border. The wind came through Houston, and behind it rushed in the floodwaters. The National Hurricane Center (NHS) predicted “catastrophic and life-threatening flooding”. Houston’s Mayor, Sylvester Turner, did not order a mandatory evacuation of the city even though there had been considerable evidence before the storm hit land that the devastation would be complete. He said evacuation of a city with millions of people would be impossible. “You literally cannot put 6.5 million people on the road,” he said at a press conference afterwards. “If you think the situation right now is bad, you give an order to evacuate—you are creating a nightmare.” Turner had a point. When the city tried to evacuate in 2005 before Hurricane Rita hit, 100 people died in that chaotic process, and it resulted in billions of dollars of damage. What this suggests, though, is not the impossibility of evacuation but the lack of a policy in major U.S. cities that should anticipate more, not less, catastrophic weather conditions.Even as Turner spoke, Interstate 10, one of the main highways, had turned into a massive river and Houston’s airports too were closed. Exit from the city had become impossible.

When Hurricane Katrina was within a day of hitting New Orleans in 2005, the Mayor had ordered a mandatory evacuation. That was a city of only half a million. With poor public transportation and 100,000 people without access to cars, the evacuation order was meaningless. The city had simply not produced public services for the working poor and the indigent. They were trapped. The Mayor’s evacuation order meant nothing.

In early September 2017, the floodwaters rushed through Houston. During the first 24 hours of the storm, the emergency call centre received 75,000 calls—more than eight times the usual volume during storms. Pleas for help went out on Twitter, where the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies monitored the traffic. Emergency crews, whittled down by budget cuts and privatisation, tried to do their best in the circumstances. It was near impossible to tackle the extent of the damage. The magnitude of the loss is enormous. As many as 40,000 homes were damaged and close to 10,000 were destroyed; 82,000 homes lost electricity. Hospitals and trauma centres closed down. At least 50 people died and many more were badly injured. Exploding chemical and fertilizer plants and leaks from damaged oil refineries threatened further damage and more injury to people and animals in the area. ExxonMobil’s Baytown refinery, the second largest in the U.S., was struck by the rising waters, with one of its tanks immersed and emitting toxic volatile organic compounds. Houston is oil refinery country. There has been no immediate assessment of the damage to the U.S. oil industry or to the environment. The bad news is not over yet.

Indiscriminate devastation

Houston’s two main reservoirs, Addicks and Barker, have been victims of real estate growth. As new developments emerge, more and more water has been released into these near-full reservoirs, making them unable to absorb excess water when large amounts of rain fall on the city. The large floodplain that is expected to flood every 500 years is now heavily built-up. It has flooded thrice in the past three years. Climate shifts have overcome optimistic estimates about rising waters.

A major study by Texas Tribune and ProPublica published in 2016 had some strong words to say about Houston’s real estate development. “Houston’s explosive growth is largely to blame. As millions have flocked to the metropolitan area in recent decades, local officials have largely snubbed stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial areas of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater. That has led to an excess of floodwater during storms that chokes the city’s vast bayou network, drainage systems, and two huge federally owned reservoirs, endangering many nearby homes.” No one paid heed. Real estate expansion continued apace without regulation and foresight.

While this has meant that the devastation, to some extent, crossed the divides of race and class, those divides are deep and wide. Houston’s Fifth Ward is not only deeply poor but also largely non-white. Here the residents saw several feet of water sweep into their homes. The wreckage was harrowing. Residents did not have access to boats and canoes to help each other out, nor did they have reserves of food and water. When 60 per cent of the neighbourhood itself is indigent, it is difficult to find the wherewithal to prepare for the aftermath of the storm. The disabled waited for several hours to be rescued. Many suggest that the relief went to the more affluent neighbourhoods before it came to their own. These are the victims of Hurricane Harvey who will probably never recover from this blow. Their fate mirrors those who still suffer the after-effects of dispossession by Hurricane Katrina. These cyclones are not short-term affairs. They prey on social divides and widen them.

The poorer residents have no insurance and rely upon government assistance, which has, in the past, been anaemic. Less than 20 per cent of Harvey’s victims have flood insurance, not only because they could not afford it but also because they believed in the notion that the floodplain was immune to such devastation. Moody’s Analytics estimates that the property damage alone will be about $40 billion. This money will not come from the federal government, whose numbers for relief for property damage are much lower. That means large numbers of poor people and middle-class people will have to abandon their homes, take on high debt and spiral into further economic uncertainty.


U.S. President Donald Trump arrived in Houston, accompanied by his wife, Melania. At a press conference, Trump appeared ebullient. “I will tell you,” he said, “this is historic, epic, what happened. But you know what? It happened in Texas and Texas can handle anything!” His statement and tone sounded as if he were at a campaign rally. “What a crowd!” shouted Trump. “What a turnout!” He seemed unfazed by the damage and the pain. There were no compassionate words for those who had been ejected from their homes and for those who had lost loved ones to the storm. It is not in Trump’s nature to exude compassion. That is an ethic that does not detain him. Trump is a booster. In this case, he boosted his fellow Republicans and suggested that their magic touch would revive the city. Trump promised to rebuild Houston, and said that he wanted to do the relief “better than ever before”. Initially, Trump’s team said he would personally donate $1 million to the relief work but later backed out of the promise. In any case, Trump’s donation would be a drop in the bucket. The estimate for reconstruction now stands at $190 billion, the most expensive reconstruction effort in U.S. history (the reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina cost $160 billion). This bill for reconstruction is the entire gross domestic product of Greece. It is a prince’s ransom.

Trump made a request for $7.9 billion for emergency relief. It is estimated that in storms before Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. government had only covered 17 per cent of the cost of reconstruction. After Katrina, the federal government was forced, largely through public and corporate pressure, to cover an average of 62 per cent of the damage. This has been a huge drain on the exchequer. The bill will go to the Congress, where logjam has set in and where the appetite to write such a large cheque is not present. Roughly 90 per cent of the money that Congress sets aside will go towards reconstruction of infrastructure, most of it done by private companies that have already begun to lobby for the maximum amount and for the success of their own bids. Only a fraction of the money will reach the indigent. They will be left to pick up the pieces largely on their own.

No wonder, then, that Trump called for a National Day of Prayer for the victims and the recovery. It will take prayer and more to raise the funds and fortitude to build this devastated city.

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