The flooding that has occurred as a result of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas has left lots dead and thousands in need of rescue or shelter. Portrayals of the catastrophe by the National Weather Service and the media as ‘historic’ and ‘natural’ should not be confused as meaning ‘entirely unexpected’ or worse ‘unpreventable’. The outcry buy activists and residents against the unplanned, all for profit development of cities like Houston has been constantly ignored by officials, leaving millions of already downtrodden people in a death trap.
The image circulating online of elderly people sat in a nursing home waist deep in water is a shocking illustration of how some of the most vulnerable sections of the population are struggling to deal with the effects of Hurricane Harvey. While the people in that photograph have been rescued, the poorest residents of Houston who are surrounded by Houston’s vast petrochemical industry, are being gassed by and seeped in the toxic materials unleashed due to damage of oil refineries.
Residents are now facing a gut wrenching choice of staying in Houston or getting out in the desperate hope of finding somewhere else to go.
The Storm was anticipated
The choices facing Houston’s undocumented immigrants are equally terrifying. Just hours before Harvey struck, Customs announced that they would maintain their checkpoints to verify immigration status as people fled from the coming destruction. Although, due to public outcry, Texas Governor Greg Abbot announced that those fleeing would have access to public shelters regardless of their immigration status, the overall message to the undocumented population was clear: Drown or be deported.
The Private prison corporations running Abbots detention centres, their cells filled with victims of raids carried out by the states deportation machine, were equally vague about their plans to deal with prisoners under their control. Confusion continued with contradictory orders from both the state and local authorities about whether residents should flee or stay put. Many stayed behind, lacking the money to do otherwise. The homeless were naturally distrustful of the authorities who denied them access to food and hounded them from the streets.
The common excuse from local officials in Houston and elsewhere was that telling people to leave would simply trap them on the road as the storm arrived, so the best solution would be for people to take shelter and hope for the best. However, this makes it seem as though the situation facing officials in Houston was somehow unexpected, and that the heads of industry and elected officials there didn’t have a hand in creating the conditions which led to the city becoming such a death tap in the first place.
Houston’s lack of infustructure 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 a large profit making area in the US. The flood of private money into the petrochemical industry has also contributed toward the risk of literal flooding. Heavy investment in impermeable concrete has turned wetlands into high rises, shopping centres, marking lots and manufacturing platforms.
The problem with this is that wetlands act as natural shock absorbers for heavy rainfall. Concrete however, acts like a channel to transit and concentrate water. The activities of developers in Houston then have helped transform neighbourhoods once relatively safe from flooding into basis for collecting floodwater. Regulation on these developers is rare because elected officials are their lapdogs who regard better drainage systems as a cost that others should pay for. In particular, through regressive taxation on working people.
The last significant flood prevention that Houston had was a set of dams introduced in the 1940s to prevent the cities system of bayous from overflowing into the central business district. However, as Hurricane Harvey arrived on Friday and the flooding started, the dams were being upgraded. This marks a frightening similarity to how the Levies around New Orleans were being upgraded, just as Katrina struck in 2005.
The dams in Houston are in fact a clear example of the crisis of public infustructure there. This is not the first time Houston has been subject to devastating floods. Not by a long stretch. The most memorable of these is tropical storm Allison in 2001, but they also suffered severe storms in 2008 and 2015. What is similar about them is that in each of these cases the storms 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 basin which does not absorb water, but collects it.
Of Couse, if ‘unprecedented’ and ‘unexpected’ storms are happening with greater frequency, and if we accept the fact that the number of natural disasters has quadrupled since 1970, then it should appear obvious that they are no longer ‘unprecedented’ events are they? They are the new normal, bought about by fossil fuelled climate change. In that sense then, they can even be justifiably labelled as ‘unnatural disasters’.
Rising air and ocean temperature alongside increased levels of water vapour in the atmosphere as consequences of extracting and burning fossil fuels, have created the conditions for powerful storms like Harvey to emerge in the Gulf. When Harvey Struck, worsening atmospheric conditions also meant that there was little wind to keep the storm moving once on land. As a result, Harvey came ashore and hovered dumping 11 trillion Gallons of water and transforming poor and working class neighbourhoods into water tanks.
Houston’s fate provides a chilling revelation of what’s to come for other coastal cities as sea levels continue to rise. Nuclear power plants and chemical processing sites along the coast in places such as Bay City, are unnatural disasters just waiting for an unnatural storm to set them loose. Reports that we have seen so far have put the disaster damages cost in the tens of billions, and claimed that the storm has set the city even further back than they were in terms of development. What they haven’t mentioned is that capitalism has rigged the entire Gulf Coast for disaster.
As with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the destruction reached by Harvey will leave Houston’s economy laid bare to be feasted on by the vultures of ‘disaster capitalism’. Publicly owned infustructure, already destroyed by the storm, will be replaced with private development and yet more impermeable concrete.
Trump meanwhile has been busy flattering hurricane Harvey on Twitter, almost as if he thinks the residents of the affected areas did something to provoke Harvey, leading him to make the case for violence happening ‘on many sides’. Aside from this Trump made his priorities abundantly clear as he doubled down on his racism by pardoning the grotesque Sherriff Joe as news coverage of Hurricane Harvey – a storm which made clear the fault lines of race and class division – was growing ever more serious.
Houston’s ruling class has no ability or interest to deal with the cities flood problems, and Trump is not likely to help as he pays attention to racial divisions and diverts necessary funds for much needed public services to a barbaric budget for military spending.
This is why, a recovery from social tragedies like Harvey which benefits ordinary people, will come from struggles that seek to reconfigure urban space in their interests. By overturning the system that currently designs it to maximise the extraction of profit – no matter the human or environmental cost.