Three decades of bad decisions have led us to this moment.
It is the Christian thing to do in the middle of tragedies like the one currently unfolding along the Texas-Louisiana Gulf coast not to politicize human suffering and, certainly, the stories of people rescuing their fellow citizens from this calamity deserve to be told and they deserve to be spread as widely as possible. But there is nothing I can find in the Gospels that would forbid us from politicizing politics. So let us summon the ghost of Walter Winchell and review some of the events of the past few days.
Item: In Crosby, Texas, there is a place called the Arkema chemical plant where they work with something called organic peroxides. This plant is located amid a residential and business district where, remarkably, human beings live and work. If the cooling systems in the plant fail, as they apparently have, these organic peroxides can explode. A 1.5 mile radius around the plant has been evacuated.
Item: Houston is home to a great number of SuperFund sites—at least a dozen in Harris County alone—because, what the hell, they have to be somewhere, right, and some place has to be the Petrochemical Capital Of America? From the WaPo:
With its massive petroleum and chemical industry, Houston, part of the “Chemical Coast,” presents a huge challenge in a major flooding event, said Mathy Stanislaus, who oversaw the federal Superfund program throughout the Obama administration. Typically the EPA tries to identify Superfund sites in a major storm’s path to “shore up the active operations” and “minimize seepage from sites,” Stanislaus said. “This is not the time to dictate; it’s the time to work together well with state and local officials to think about needs that need to be met.”
Item: In Baytown, there is a Chevron Phillips petrochemical facility in a place called Cedar Bayou. As you might have guessed from that name, the facility is, at present, fish food. ExxonMobil has similar problems, which it is involuntarily sharing with its fellow Texans and will be for some time.
Item: Repeatedly over the past 15 years, the Texas legislature refused to pass any plan to adapt the affected infrastructure as long as that legislation contained any reference to climate change. (The climate crisis, of course, is the thing that makes storms like Harvey the most predictable of all). As the International Business Times reports:
Burnam proposed his climate adaptation plan bill in 2009, 2011 and 2013. (The Texas legislature meets only every other year.) All three bills died in committee, either never coming up for a vote or making it out of one committee but, in a procedural sleight of hand, never being placed on the legislative calendar by the Republican-controlled Calendars committee. The bill would have required most major agencies in Texas to create a plan that included a “climate change vulnerability assessment” and review their programs and plan for how to complete their missions in light of changing climate conditions. That list of agencies includes the state’s Department of Housing, Department of Public Safety and Health and Human Services, all of which were caught off-guard by the scale of Harvey’s destruction. In 2007, Burnam also proposed a “global warming task force” that would have created a report studying the “global warming challenges and opportunities facing Texas” including “protecting public health from the effects of global warming.” That bill never was never voted on in the Energy Resources committee.
The governor of Texas at that time was Rick Perry, who now is the Secretary of Energy, not that he’s apparently doing anything there.
Item: Houston has been a flooding calamity waiting to happen for decades. The local and state governments stubbornly have refused to prepare it for a perfectly predictable meteorological catastrophe. Between its wild west zoning practices, its lascivious and unregulated romance with the petrochemical industry, and the fundamental facts of its underlying geology, the fourth-largest city in America essentially has sprawled itself across a dry lake bed, the consequences of which, we are finding out now, include the discovery that political obstinance, like water, inevitably finds its own level. From the L.A. Times:
The storm was unprecedented, but the city has been deceiving itself for decades about its vulnerability to flooding, said Robert Bea, a member of the National Academy of Engineering and UC Berkeley emeritus civil engineering professor who has studied hurricane risks along the Gulf Coast. The city’s flood system is supposed to protect the public from a 100-year storm, but Bea calls that “a 100-year lie” because it is based on a rainfall total of 13 inches in 24 hours. “That has happened more than eight times in the last 27 years,” Bea said. “It is wrong on two counts. It isn’t accurate about the past risk and it doesn’t reflect what will happen in the next 100 years.”
Shuhab Khan, a geologist at the University of Houston, has documented that some areas of Houston are sinking at up to 2.2 inches per year, a rapid rate in geological terms. While some of the subsidence is caused by natural movements of salt deposits, Khan said that most is the result of pumping oil and water from under the city. So far, it appears some of the hardest-hit flooded areas, such as the Jersey Village neighborhood, are also the ones affected by subsidence, he said. In the 1930s, a new residential subdivision was built in the Brownwood neighborhood, which at the time was 10 feet above sea level. Forty years later, it was less than 2 feet above sea level, a subsidence blamed on ground water pumping along the Houston Ship Channel. The neighborhood was destroyed in Hurricane Alicia in 1983 and is now the Baytown Nature Center.
Which is not to mention…
Another long-term problem is the city’s rampant growth and urbanization. The city has 2.2 million residents and the metropolitan area has 6.5 million, all living in a state that eschews much of the zoning and land-use controls that help keep construction away from flood zones in states with more regulations. “It is naturally prone to flooding,” said Don Riley, the former chief of the Army Corps of Engineers civil works division. “People have built in this massive flood plain. They have to understand that.” The Corps and local officials have discussed ways to avert even greater risks by improving zoning, reducing the amount pavement to allow better drainage into the soil, building retention ponds in new housing developments and constructing new storm barriers. But when the Corps has tried to encourage land-use controls, the local reaction by politicians and developers has often been swift and furious, Riley said.
The effects of climate change are just an exacerbating bonus. It is now apparent that the city of Houston has managed itself in a way that was not dissimilar to the Monty Python sketch about the apartment building constructed through hypnosis. Stop believing in it, and it all falls to pieces.
The spell, of course, in this case, was cast 30 years ago, when it became political death to increase anybody’s taxes who had any political influence at all. It was cast 30 years ago, when conservative movement politics pitched deregulation as a panacea. It was cast 30 years ago when the fiction of a “business-friendly” environment overcame Republican governors, and more than a few Democrats as well. It was cast 30 years ago when conservative movement politics declared that important decisions on things like the environment and public health were better left to the states, despite the fact that many states, like Texas, were unable or unwilling to pay to do these jobs properly. It was cast 30 years ago when conservative movement politics consciously moved away from empirical research and science, beginning the long march that has ended with a Republican party committed root and branch to all of these fanciful propositions, and to climate denial. It has filtered down through all the levels of politics, from the White House and the Congress, to the state houses and the local zoning boards.
Once, long ago, the conservative activist Grover Norquist famously said that he wanted to shrink “government” to a size at which it could be drowned in the bathtub. Well, people actually are drowning in Houston now, and so is the political philosophy that reached its height when Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural that government wasn’t the solution, but the problem itself. We all moved onto a political flood plain then, and we’re being swept away.