Why are we still here? I know how we got here but why haven’t we made some humane progress? These were just a few of my questions as I watched and read about Hurricane Harvey and all of his fury.
The “here” I’m talking about is the response to disasters. Notice that I am intentionally not using the term “natural disaster.” They’re mostly human-induced disasters. That’s because it’s been humans who have negatively contributed to global warming, especially in the U.S. It’s humans who have resisted implementing the policies and remedies that could slow down the negative impacts on global climate. I’m talking about the corporatocracy and its cronies in government.
We are now 12 years out from Hurricane Katrina, the hurricane that put hurricanes in the public eye in a way that forced us to look closely at them. There is still unfinished business in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities – including unidentified bodies, unbuilt or partially built homes and businesses, shattered souls – 12 years later!
The first chance that I got to go to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I received a valuable lesson. Stop blaming the problem on the hurricane, people said. The flooding that enveloped the city and other parts of the Gulf Coast was about the levees breaking. The residents’ view was that disaster was not primarily about Mother Nature’s wrath but more about man’s negligence and greed.
Most of us who don’t live in flood plains or hurricane regions really didn’t start paying attention to this phenomenon until Katrina. Since that infamous breaking of the levees, there have been 13 hurricanes. Yes, that unlucky number should have provided us with many valuable lessons, but our policy makers and elected officials seem to be tone deaf. Lessons about the scientific impact of global warming and climate change. Lessons about efficient evacuations. Lessons about building in high-risk areas.
What Katrina and Harvey have in common are the rescue and recovery responses were and are rooted in race and class. The residents of the predominantly black districts – the “Bloody 5th” Ward in Houston and the Lower Ninth in New Orleans – all sang the same refrain. The urgency of rescues, services and supplies was not the same as for white, middle-class people. The same inequalities that persisted years before the flooding were exposed again in the aftermath of the disasters.
Houston is a good example of the impact of the ravages of capitalism on our environment. The city has enjoyed a prosperity boom over the last few decades but at what expense. The city witnessed the unfettered growth of chemical companies and oil refineries in the largest U.S. city without zoning laws. Some of these companies pose new threats to the community should there be explosions or leaks based upon the trillions of gallons of rain that fell and the subsequent flooding.
There are three things going on here: the refusal to seriously claim responsibility for global warming, the refusal to rethink/redesign communities most vulnerable to these disasters, and the refusal to develop a pro-active evacuation plan.
After Hurricane Katrina, a local ad hoc group led by folks like Cecilia Nadal called for the city and county to produce its plans should there be a need for mass evacuation. Sadly, neither had much of a plan. This is a good time to revisit that effort. There are many people at universities and at environmental non-profits who are studying the complexities of these issues and have some realistic recommendations that we should be discussing.
We can’t expect the man in the White House to take the lead on this issue. He doesn’t even believe in climate change and, worse, we can see that Trump is incapable of addressing solutions. Those of us who are informed, critical thinkers must ramp up the agitation around climate change if we expect to see any measurable changes. We will begin to see this as a public safety issue as the impact of global warming becomes more and more devastating.