Flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which smashed into the Gulf Coast on August 25, had left at least 23 people dead by August 31, 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 characterisations 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 was “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. This has left millions — especially the poor and people of colour — in the fourth-largest city in the US 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 colour 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 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 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 neighbourhoods.
The choices facing people in these neighbourhoods 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?
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 Governor Greg Abbott, bowing to 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 centres, their cells filled by raids and roundups carried out by the state’s deportation machine, were similarly opaque about their plans to deal with their prisoners.
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. People should therefore 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. It suggests 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 death trap.
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 oil revenues, Houston is one of the largest profit-making urban areas in the US.
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. They reduce the risk of flooding. Concrete, by contrast, acts like a sluice to transmit and concentrate water.
The activities of developers thus transformed nearby neighbourhoods, once relatively safe from flooding, into basins for collecting floodwater.
Even when regulations are imposed, they routinely go unenforced. But regulation is rare because elected officials are the lapdogs of developers. These officials regard better drainage systems as an unconscionable cost that others should pay for — in particular, working people through regressive taxes.
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 on August 25 — just as the levies around New Orleans were being upgraded when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.
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. The fragility of these dams is a symbol of a general crisis of public infrastructure thrown into sharp relief by Harvey’s arrival.
Houston has been subject to devastating floods for decades, such as tropical storm Allison in 2001, which left 41 people dead. Huge 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 does not 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 by fossil-fuelled climate change. In that sense, these are unnatural storms.
Rising ocean and air temperatures alongside higher levels of water vapour in the atmosphere — the consequences of extracting and burning fossil fuels — have created the conditions for increasingly 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 neighbourhoods into water tanks. (A few years ago, this was the exact shortfall of water responsible for California’s “unprecedented” drought.)
Houston’s fate provides merely a glimpse of what is to come for other coastal cities as sea levels 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. The fact is that capitalism has rigged the cities of the Gulf Coast for disaster from top to bottom.
As in New Orleans with Katrina and more recently after Hurricanes Ike and Sandy, the destruction in the wake of 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”.
As news coverage of Harvey — a storm already reminiscent of Katrina, which laid bare the fault lines of race and class in New Orleans — was ramping up, Trump made his priorities clear as he doubled down on his racist economic nationalism. He announced his plan to resume the transfer of military hardware to police forces and pardoned the grotesque Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Houston’s ruling class has no ability, much less interest, in resolving the city’s flood problems. Trump is certain to buttress their project by fomenting racial divisions among the downtrodden while diverting 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. It would need to overturn the system that now designs it to maximise the extraction of profit no matter the human or environmental cost.
[Slightly abridged from US Socialist Worker.]