It’s the best of times, the worst of times in Houston today. Hurricane Harvey’s slowly receding waters offer us interesting revelations about our modern city. The catastrophic damage and impact on the lives of the people in this calamity is immense. At best, disasters bring people together, makes us take stock of our lives and what’s most important. It can awaken us to a profound level of human spirit in spite of the great material damage. People open their doors to their neighbors, Mattress Mack opens his showroom, donations flow in from remote places, churches and communities of faith kick into high gear. It reveals to us a strange mix of cultures. One is the ordinary functional modern Houston, the air conditioned oil boom town, celebrating its entrepreneurs, robust business and hustler culture. The other is the extraordinary just under the surface, the rich texture of human community which is sadly amnesiaed in more mundane times. In Harvey, we see these dueling ethics clash in amazing ways, and reveals how Houston’s disaster could hopefully open our minds to learn how to survive the future peril of a new climate reality.
An interesting thing about being in a natural disaster like a hurricane is its capacity to shake us from the mass cultural illusions. If you’re in the disaster zone, it becomes a call to adventure, perhaps a call to basic survival. Disasters have a way of warping time. It shuts down the routines of the city. It shuts down transportation, normal duties, normal cares of the workaday world. Electricity may be cut, television goes silent. Boundary lines become blurred as the streets are inundated. It also blurs lines between self and other – neighbors talk to each other, help each other out. The Cajun Navy goes into action, plucking people off their roofs taking them to safety. It is, as anthropologist Victor Turner called, liminal communitas. It’s a spontaneous action of humans mutually aiding each other. It’s an imperative for the communities struggling through a disaster. For outside observers, it becomes a sentimental touchstone reminding us that we aren’t all rabid self-seeking creatures in a grand social Darwinian neoliberal experiment, but have innate capacities for a mutual aid society. In essence, a natural disaster like Harvey puts the pause button on our ideology, it offers us a glimpse of how we could be. It’s ironic that despite the material destruction, spirits are raised, families reunited, neighborly love is resuscitated, and people attribute this all to some sort of divine blessing.
The trouble with this whole thing is that once the waters have receded and reconstruction inevitably happens, perhaps with a more cautious mind, people tend to drift back to the regimented time and space of late capitalist society, which will once again inscribe itself on us all. The liminal communitas from the hurricane time becomes a story, an anecdote, perhaps a tragicomic story of “that time when …”
It’s this story that outsiders like to reminisce about and it catnip for the media. It’s the clichéd feel good stories about the resilient human spirit and yada yada yada. The remote spectator has easy access to this, the feeling it engenders offers an obscured utopian hope of another world, one stripped of illusions where a mutual aid society could exist. But that fleeting moment is quickly turned into the spectacle of the hackneyed human interest story, already fodder for an entertainment industry ready to banalize the event. Perhaps a t.v. miniseries for Showtime is in the works while we are lead to marvel at the numbers. Just as analytics has taken over performance measures in the workplace, the workout, the profit margins, the field goal percentages, rates of addiction and incarceration, numbers porn has been applied to the measuring tape of Hurricane Harvey. Category 4. 135 MPH winds. 55 inches of rain. 21 trillion gallons of water. $150 billion in damages. 500,000 vehicles destroyed. 50 or however many lives lost. Two months to drain the water. And despite all the marveling at the numbers, being awestruck by the pictures and human scale of this event, despite the words “unprecedented,” and “apocalyptic” by the usually even keeled National Weather Service. It’s been called the biggest downpour from a single storm event in continental U.S. history. And for those keeping score, Houston has had a so-called 500-year flood or greater for each of the last three years. The odds of this occurring are one in 125 million. Something has definitely changed.
According to the old conventional view, hurricanes are acts of god, force majeure. Of course, we only want to attribute good things to God, so disasters must be the work of Mother Nature – already the splitting occurring there, blame Eve for the calamity. It’s ironic that in a world so controlled, so measured, so data driven. We are the inheritors of a civilization that precisely sought to control nature. As the philosopher Francis Bacon put it, “to interrogate nature for its secrets.” We are the inheritors of a worldview that requires human mastery over starship earth, to be its shepherds and dominionist masters. When things don’t go according to plan we attribute this to nature, not ourselves.
In the past this perspective may have been more understandable, but not anymore. The scientific community has recently adopted a new concept for our geological age – the Anthropocene – the idea that humans are so many and so industrious that we are literally remaking the planet. Razing forests and mountains, damming and routing rivers, changing the chemistry of the sky and sea, it’s rather apparent that the hallmark of this time geologically is that it really is human centered.
Naomi Klein’s recent article in the Intercept argues that now is the time to talk about climate change. Well, it’s more than that really, because there has been enough talk, enough data, for decades. It’s time really for us to take what we already know seriously. The question for me – why isn’t a catastrophe of this magnitude capable of making us understand and act on our climate reality? Or, more to the point, what will it take shatter our demented fantasyland? How many Harveys will it take? An iceberg the size of Delaware broke off Antarctica’s Larsen Ice Shelf C this year, the same year Donald Trump decided to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Each consecutive year is bringing record-breaking and unprecedented temperatures. Rising temperatures in the ocean like the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico fed the rapacious Harvey’s downpour. Again, this has happened three straight summers in Texas, on the heels of two years of severe statewide drought. And this is more and more looking like the new baseline in our current climate reality.
There are more on- the-ground derangements as well in the economics of city planning. People are asking why Houston is underprepared for floods. This is not exactly true. Houstonians know all about floods. In my 34 years there, I’ve been through 4 hurricanes and a dozen other tropical storms. Even run of the mill summer tropical rains flooded the streets. Any decent sized rain turns Houston into Venice. A sweltering Venice with floating rafts of fire ants. Houston flooding is local lore and a part of the culture. I thought I’d seen it all after Allison, in 2001, a month before 9/11, dropped up to 36 inches in some places, flooded the Medical Center so severely that they added submarine doors to their basement labs where millions of dollars worth of equipment was lost. The Army Corps of Engineers added reservoirs in the west of Houston as a flood aid to the aptly-named Bayou City. We are talking about a city not far above sea level that is built on a dark clay some call Texas gumbo that does not absorb water. Water just scoots along top of it. Natural bayous and waterways could absorb some water, but they were unpredictable, changed course over the years, and made development alongside them difficult. They were turned into concrete-lined sloughs barely resembling their original bayou moniker.
The need for buildable land has led developers to place their monochromatic corporate housing subdivisions within floodplains, notably around the Barker Cypress reservoir between Katy and Houston proper. More buildings and roads and parking lots over the years of intensive urban sprawl have given the rain even fewer places to be absorbed in the growing paved floodplains of doom. In places like Katy, Texas, developers lobby the greased hands of the Texas government to allow development permits in those floodplains, ready to put risk out of mind when profit can be had. Point being, the increasing risk of flood is in direct proportion to the acceleration of development. Floods like this always have a political, economic, social, and racial dimension. They are human disasters.
There is yet another level of human created disaster. In no small measure, Harvey can be considered a “cruel irony” of climate blowback against a city that is really the capital of the new world climate, the hub of hydrocarbons. Houston, capital of the energy sector with major corporate presence by all the dirty fuel giants like BP, Exxon, Shell, Texaco, Chevron, and hundreds of companies that are in design, construction, manufacture of everything to do with oil. The Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coasts refine most of America’s oil and gas, the destination point of the proposed Keystone XL from the Alberta tar sands, along with thousands of miles of pipeline already in flowing in.
Houston is known for its low taxes and big-business friendly culture. It prides itself as a boomtown for entrepreneurial big money, a bustling cosmopolitan international city is also the nation’s most diverse.
But it’s also one of the most environmentally unfriendly cities in America. The city has no recycling program. The Texas Railroad Commissioner which gives licences to the oil industry is run by a proud conservative and big oil lobbyist Wayne Christian, who is pro-coal and cheered Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s an open road for oil exploitation, the Texas countryside recently popping up with new wells thanks to hydraulic fracturing technology and new companies seeking to cash in on a new oil boom. These folks live in a bubble where climate change denial is de rigueur. Houston is the jewel of this economic growth, its Harris and surrounding counties among the fastest growing in the nation. Houston’s ever growing concentric circles of freeways circle between office parks, strip malls and subdivisions dotted by repeating patterns like wallpaper, of the same chain stores and restaurants. Pushing sprawl to the limits with no feasible mass transit system, Houston is designed for the automobile, a half million of which are now under water. Sections of the city are described by their proximity to the grid of freeways. The city center, or the “inner loop” has a different strategy lately – building upward as historic neighborhoods like Montrose and the Third Ward are increasingly razed in order to build new mid-rise condos as totems to the new economy.
And then there are the poorer districts. East Houston in particular is the blue collar industrial side of town where petrochemical plants contribute to toxic air emissions. There is a website where you can look up the risk of your school being dangerously polluted. Air standards there have high levels of toxicity, landing above the 95th percentile of polluted schools in America. I’ve known teachers working at Caesar Chavez High School who regularly developed rashes that would not fade. Some developed cancer. These industries are highly under-regulated in Texas fashion. Former Governor George W. Bush infamously suggested that these industries should “regulate themselves.” These are communities victimized by good old-fashioned NIMBY-style environmental racism and classism.
It’s rather significant that in the wake of the racial animosities Trump has embroiled himself in, in the weeks after the Charlottesville fiasco and his political overtures to white nationalists, and then has the audacity to pardon bigoted Arizona Sheriff Arpaio precisely during Hurricane Harvey’s tv ratings bonanza as a convenient subterfuge. During the same weekend it was reported that border patrol would not allow people to cross even if they were evacuating danger, at the same time it was reported that it was proposed to cut a billion dollars from FEMA to help fund Trump’s pointless bigoted border wall.
Just as there is a lot of good will and all that mutual aid society mumbo jumbo, there are those who would be dicks as well. One story involved an upstairs neighbor who charged her inundated downstairs neighbor 300 bucks to come inside her home. Or the Best Buy price gouging 43 dollars for a case of bottled water. Not liminal communitas – that’s normal capitalist Houston.
And such as it is with economics in Houston in general. When one is to ask where are the flood precautions, there are scarcely developed despite the long history of flooding in Houston because the city and state lack the will for centralize planning with its mania for privatization and limited government. It’s a city that has been suckered into giving huge tax-funded payouts to build hundred of millions of dollars for sports stadiums, effectively handouts to the billionaires who own the Rockets, Astros and Texans, yet has limited new infrastructure to deal with its historic flooding despite the warnings of experts. It’s yet another cruel irony that the Rocket’s former home, the once publicly owned Summit, the site of the mid-1990s Rockets championships, is now home to Lakewood Church’s Joel Osteen, who bought the palace from the city for pennies on the dollar in 2010. Osteen’s normal Houstonian reaction has been exposed by the hurricane when he was criticized for shutting his doors in the Harvey aftermath. It’s not surprising really since the prosperity gospel Osteen promotes to the cosmopolitan city precisely dramatized the wealth-worshiping and Jesus-will-provide-if-you-believe-it magical thinking of Houston’s new economy; it has no community or environmentally-oriented ethic whatsoever.
So it’s the same phenomena that plagued New Orleans during Katrina: aged infrastructure, degregulation, development in flood plains, and lack of foresight. And when the disaster struck, there was a lackluster Federal response, the result of a government peopled by representatives who go to Washington promising that the government doesn’t work and should get out of the way while giving handouts in corporate welfare and tax credits to the billionaire class. This is a class that has no interest in, and finds no profit in, assisting poor and working families. And in a disaster, it’s clear who is affected the most. Poor and working people who could not evacuate, or whose possessions were destroyed, who likely did not have insurance, who could go back to work but are not without a car in a very car dependent city.
And there are Houston’s thousands of ill and disabled, the most vulnerable population in a flooded city where there is scarcely any welfare security. Houston has a dubious distinction as being the capital of fraudulent handicap tags for car parking. And it also leads in Medicare fraud (and here) as a rash of outpatient clinics and care homes were billing for medical equipment and ambulance rides for patients who didn’t need them to bilk the federal purse. Where there is little to no welfare, where thousands of elderly and disabled adults were wading around in toxic flood water where they are where housed in for-profit privatized care homes, some of which I’ve worked in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike.
Houston is not alone in this distinction, as a city that by its very construction defies reality. Mike Davis’s book The City of Quartz about Los Angeles provides a deep dive into how it’s almost a human challenge to accomplish a city that is precisely built to defy the forces of nature. But in our culture of simulations and mass derangement shamed and corrupt Texas politicians like Former Governor Rick Perry and former House Majority Leader Tom Delay find fame on Dancing with the Stars. It’s almost comic in its irony that candidate Rick Perry, the GOP hopeful of 2012, ended his run in a gaffe where he could not remember that he wanted to cut the EPA should he become president. It’s now a department he’s in charge of, presumably to dismantle it from within. According to The Nation’s national affairs correspondent John Nichols, Perry said he didn’t understand the full scope of the agency, however, and was surprised to learn that it’s in charge of disposing of nuclear waste – a substance that no one wants near them. True to Texas form, he’s looking to privatize the task and get tax payers to outsource the job to a company willing to bilk the government for as much as it can and then cut corners to maximize its profit. It’s just par for the course after incidences like the BP oil disaster in 2011 and the Texas City refinery explosion in 2005 were chalked up to cost cutting.
It’s been said that everyone is a socialist after a hurricane, even a dogged free market ideologue like Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz, who fought federal aid to New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy now has his hand out for Texas. It’s a bit of a joke, though, really, because the government does not have goods or infrastructure to provide aid to the most needy. It rather uses it fiscal power to outsource these tasks in what they will call “public-private partnerships” and “school choice” but what amounts to corporate welfare. Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine outlined this as a neoliberal strategy to respond to crises by using it as an opportunity to cash in on new private developments. In New Orleans, this meant the opportunity to destroy public schools with a clean slate of charter school initiatives. We can expect more of the same, I expect, in Texas.
Troubling all the more is the new normal of our climate reality. The city will expand. What new steps it could take in terms of infrastructure are unclear because it’s the development itself which exacerbates the problem. It also now has to be considered an increasingly likely event to have more Harveys as the oceans begin to rise, as Louisiana slips off into the Gulf of Mexico, as the storm season continues each year in a warming Gulf and a warming atmosphere that is tilting the scales of catastrophe beyond what we now understand. As I write at this moment, a new named storm, Ira, has gathered momentum in the Atlantic, its cone headed west. And it’s not isolated to the U.S. either. In just the last couple of weeks, monsoons in Bangladesh have claimed 1,200.
Capitalism, ever quick to outsource expenses, requires us to chalk these events to acts of God. And as rebuilding occurs, the poor and working people are likely to get left behind. Construction companies, car companies, entrepreneurs all look at these disasters as opportunities for capital. But it is blind from accepting any responsibility for the consequences of its dirtiest behaviors. The media barely mentioning climate change as the key contributor to Harvey’s extreme magnitude, even MSNBC cut the mic of a reporter illustrating the connection.
We must stop thinking of these events as acts of nature and understand their scope hand in hand with human responsibility. Just as terrorism is blowback against Western hegemony, hurricanes must now be considered blowback against the fossil fuel civilization killing this planet. The cognitive dissonance is similar in each case, the causal relationship mystified, given to acts of God, or Mother Nature. The Anthropocene thesis gets us to challenge this notion, to look afresh at our new climate reality, calling us to examine the practices of our dissociated civilization’s relationship with the planet. Without consciously responding to Harvey’s loud warning, without waking from our somnambulism, we could be seeing more and more signs of this culture’s destructive blowback in more and more frequent calamities of the warming planet. To become sustainable, we have to glean lessons from the darkness of this storm: relationship, community, and mindfulness of our place on the planet.
Lind, Dara. The “500-year” flood, explained: why Houston was so underprepared for Hurricane Harvey.” Vox. Aug 28, 2017.
Stephensen, Wend. “Houston’s Human Catastrophe Started Long Before the Storm” The Nation. Aug 29, 2017.
Samenow, Jason. “Harvey is a 1,000-year flood event unprecedented in scale.” The Washington Post. Aug 30, 2017.
Wright, Lawrence. “America’s Future Is Texas.” The New Yorker. July 10 & 17 2017.