For part two of our Hurricane Harvey coverage, we explore the aftermath and future of this and other “climate-assisted catastrophes.” We probe how Boston would fare in the face of a similar hurricane, and how the country as a whole could function if catastrophes like Hurricane Harvey occurred regularly.
We would be amiss if we did not explore the lessons that we learned from what happened in Houston. Since we live in the “Athens of America,” good old Beantown Boston, we ask you listeners (readers), how would we survive if something like Hurricane Harvey hit us? There was some speculation that if Sandy had turned our way Boston would have been devastated. WGBH’s Adam Reilly interviewed Austin Blackmon, the city of Boston’s Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space, and Deanna Moran, Director of Environmental Planning, about the risks that Boston would face in a hurricane. The seaport district of Boston would be essentially a catch basin if something like Harvey hit. Reilly discussed some of the climate resiliency policies that Boston should have in place, but we assert that policies may not be enough if there is flooding in an area where there probably shouldn’t be development—for example, Boston’s Back Bay. If you look at a map of Boston from 1776 – it is a markedly different city from today. The reason that Paul Revere said “one if by land two if by sea” is that either the British were going to walk down the neck of road that is now Commonwealth Avenue or they were going to come across Chelsea in boats. The Back Bay didn’t exist. The whole seaport didn’t exist. We have filled all that land in since the revolution. If we get a big storm, Back Bay is what is going to go first. Mayor Walsh is declaring that Boston is going to find a way to be resilient against these things and to be much more conscious of what would happen in a Houston style disaster.
The sustainable solutions lab at UMASS Boston is discussing the feasibility of a hurricane barrier alongside Boston Harbor. The wall would cost about $10 billion. To fund it, Massachusetts would have to borrow money or raise taxes—what would the reaction to that be in Massachusetts? Probably not popular, even though it would save potentially $85 billion of assets that are in the flood plain and many lives. In Houston, for years experts advised against building in certain areas of the town. Many of these experts were called “anti-development,” and the city did not heed their advice. Eric Holthaus in Politico notes the infrastructure problem, writing that parts of Houston were not planned with climate impacts in mind. He writes, “Houston has been sprawling out into the swamp for decades…now, all that pavement has transformed the bayous into surging torrents and shunted Harvey’s floodwaters toward homes and businesses. Individually, each of these subdivisions or strip malls might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but in aggregate, they’ve converted the metro area into a flood factory.” Unfortunately, this sounds all too similar to Fenway and Back Bay (note: a “fen” is another word for a swamp; our beloved Fenway is named after the fens, or swamps, that we filled in to create it).
All of this is just a few weeks after Trump signed an executive order that said he would streamline the infrastructure projects by eliminating the planning steps related to climate change and flood damages. Even some conservative said that this is ill-advised because it is short-term thinking and governments will have to pay for the repairs in the long term. According to the Washington Post, R.J. Lehmann, a senior fellow at the conservative R Street Institute, said, “….evidence shows that every $1 spent on disaster mitigation can save $4 in post-disaster recovery and rebuilding costs.”
In this article from The New York Times, Lisa Friedman summarizes the three Obama-era rules to flood-proof new infrastructure projects that the Trump Administration rolled back. To plan their projects, the federal government “ could use the best available climate change science;  they could require that standard projects like roads and railways be built two feet above the national 100-year flood elevation standard and critical buildings like hospitals be built three feet higher; or  they could require infrastructure to be built to at least the 500-year flood plain.” Many say these were common-sense measures to prevent taxpayer money from being sunk—perhaps literally—into projects threatened by flooding. We have to think in a 20 or 50-year timeline. Obama was headed that way, and we have taken a short detour with the new administration. Hopefully, we can return to a sane policy soon.
Resiliency planning—adaptation—is necessary but we can’t take our eye off of mitigation. Mitigation means you reduce the amount of carbon emissions you put in the air; adaptation means you are better able to take the punch when it comes. Two sides of the same coin—survival. Back to the $10 billion hurricane dike across Boston harbor that we mentioned earlier. Dear listeners (readers), please consider this: if we took that $10 billion and built a million wind turbines, would we better off? We would venture yes, though we probably need both at this point.
One other interesting implication of Harvey – it is likely to cost well over $100 billion to support this; Hurricane Sandy received a $110 billion package, and Katrina was $108 billion. On an earlier podcast, we talked about CliFi and Ted mentioned Rivers: A Novel by Michael Farris Smith that is set in Louisiana about 50 years from now. The area is subjected to a continuous hurricane – think Hurricane Harvey except it goes on for months and months, making the entire coast unlivable. It is fiction, but it prompts a question for us: Could even a country as rich as the United States can support multiple disasters if they are at $100 billion a piece? If another storm were to come and hit Miami—note: Hurricane Irma is headed in that direction at the time of this publishing—and that puts the U.S. another $100 billion in the hole just a week after Harvey, at what point is the economy just not able to handle that need? Thom Hartmann discussed the prospect of extreme weather events become so sustained that you could have a series of extreme weather events that do the same thing to the economy that the 2008 financial crash did. He postulates that we will have a new Depression caused as the result of extreme weather events.
These are doomsday scenarios, but there are things that we have to recognize are possibilities; we need the insurance policy of avoiding it by taking action in the present. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said that Hurricane Harvey assistance may take as much as $3 billion of the federal disaster relief funds available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which FEMA says that it has, but also that Harvey is “quickly drawing down,” disaster balances, according to an article in The Washington Post. Louisiana has also now declared a state of emergency. Harvey is the third 500-year flood to happen in the past three years. To clarify for listeners (readers) that are not familiar with the term, a “500-year flood” means that the storm is of sufficient intensity and a sufficient departure from the normal that you are only likely to get one to occur every 500 years. There is a certain amount of rain that happens once a year, or once every ten years and so on. Based on the science and measurements, the probability of having a storm dump as much water as Harvey did is once every 500 years. But if, in fact, a storm of that intensity happens in three successive years, that means that the assignment of the probability is not accurate anymore. The likelihood is much, much higher for these extreme events and that is what climate change is. According to Scott Weaver from Environmental Defense Fund, the United States had five 1000-year floods in less than a year. As Weaver puts it, “we may…already have shifted so far into a new climate regime that probabilities [to predict annual events such as floods] have been turned on their head.”
We have had the example of Katrina, Sandy, the New Jersey coastline being devastated—now we have an example of Houston, which is going to have many thousands of houses that are going to be unlivable due to water damage, mold and so forth. What image or vision do we present for how that city should rebuild? Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian from The Young Turks—say that ExxonMobil will be asking for taxpayer dollars to rebuild its infrastructure in Houston. Cenk has started a petition that refuses to give ExxonMobil money to rebuild. Instead, can we rebuild Houston with renewable energy—in a way that is better for everyone’s health and that will help prevent things like this from happening in other places? What would sustainable recovery look like and how would you go about getting there? That is the challenge—it is like trying to saddle a horse while you are riding it. Everyone is in Houston now, they have to deal with the reality of being there, but how do you move toward a future where we are less susceptible to these kinds of climate-assisted floods?
Georgetown, TX is a deeply conservative town three hours northwest of Houston, TX. The city runs on 100 percent renewable energy. We talked about them briefly in our August 19, 2017 podcast. Their conservative mayor took them to 100 percent renewables this year because it saved them a lot of money. Greensburg, Kansas had an enormous tornado level the town, and they rebuilt it green. You only build what you imagine. So if we start imagining a Houston that is sustainable then at least you have the possibility of building it. As Ted said so poignantly, “If you don’t enunciate the dream then it is never going to happen.”
Houston has a long and hazardous road ahead of them. Here are several ways you can help:
Donate to NextGen America’s Hurricane Harvey Community Relief Fund. NextGen America will match your donation and is an excellent organization that “acts politically to prevent climate disaster, promote prosperity, and protect the fundamental rights of every American.” Click here and scroll down to the Hurricane Harvey Community Relief Fund. You can find Houston local charities here.
Because we recognize the necessity of personal accountability for our actions, because we accept responsibility for building a durable future and because we believe it is our patriotic duty as citizens to speak out, we must insist that the United States put a price on carbon.