At the very core of the Hurricane Harvey story is a writing problem that has bedeviled me ever since Harvey hit Houston a year ago. When Harvey struck Houston in August 2017, it tied with Katrina in New Orleans a dozen years earlier: Together, they are the two costliest tropical cyclones ever in recorded history. So what do we call that?
In a time when weather-driven urban infrastructure catastrophes are piling up on each other like cabs in a Chicago traffic jam, what word is appropriate for storms bigger than history? All of the cheap superlatives seem to pale.
Monster? Monster storms are a dime a dozen in Houston by now. As Mimi Swartz recounted in a piece in The New York Times last Sunday, monster storms were almost business as usual in Houston by the time Harvey arrived. People there thought they knew how to do it. Harvey punished them brutally for their pride.
So I found it at last, the word. Well, somebody else did. It was in a great piece, also last Sunday, by Dallas Morning News energy and environment writer Jeff Mosier, in which Mosier quoted an environment scientist at MIT who used the word, “biblical,” to describe Harvey.
Kerry Emmanuel, the scientist, wasn’t just reaching for some term that would be even more outlandish than the last one. Instead, the word, biblical, as he was using it, was suggested by numbers.
Under the assumptions about flooding that were in place through much of the 20th century, Harvey was a catastrophe of a size and impact that should have occurred once every 2,000 years. Emmanuel’s point was that storms of Harvey’s girth have been promoted to a rate of incidence closer to once every 100 years — an astonishing and utterly frightening leap forward if you’re paying attention.
The 2,000-year measure is what would make Harvey biblical, at least for those people whose connection to the Bible is through the New Testament. Maybe if we wanted to get really technical we could call Harvey a New Testament storm, but, no, no, I think we’re getting a bit lost in the Bible there. Let’s just say biblical.
I like biblical, because it inches up toward the point where I truly believe these storms will finally arrive — apocalyptic. They will become apocalyptic for two reasons: 1) We are causing them to get worse. 2) We can’t stop ourselves. We’re like the junkie on his way across town on the bus to steal his grandmother’s Social Security check. We just can’t wait.
Even Swartz’s essay in the Times, evocative and beautifully written as it may have been, was completely separated from reality. Her coda at the end of the essay — Houston is screwed because the feds and the state aren’t giving it enough recovery money — is blind to the reality of what it would take to save Grandma’s check.
Look at the numbers. Swartz offers $200 billion as the total cost of Harvey. That's high according to other estimates, but we’ll take it. She refers to the $2.5 billion bond package overwhelmingly approved by Houston voters last weekend. Nice try, obviously not enough.
Swartz observes acidly that the $89 billion Trump set aside for storm damage must be shared by Florida, Puerto Rico and Texas — another cup in the bucket. She writes, “Gov. Greg Abbott has refused to spend even a pittance from the state’s nearly $12 billion rainy-day fund.”
Some arithmetic tells me that Swartz’s numbers leave approximately $167 billion in Harvey damages with nowhere to go. So that means the governor could pour the state’s entire rainy day fund into Harvey relief 12 times over and still not get the job done.
And then there is this. Last April the Houston City Council voted unanimously to approve almost 1,000 new homes on a disused golf course that had served as an area of absorptive soil before Harvey. The mayor and the developers told people not to worry. The golf course, they assured, was in the so-called 500-year floodplain, meaning it should flood only once every 500 years. By then, you know, people will be able anyway to fly out of harm’s way by flapping their ears.
Oh, wait. What about the biblical? If the 2,000-year flood is now the 100-year flood, what does that make the 500-year flood? This is territory where an English major should fear to tread, but I believe that would make the former 500-year flood about a 25-year flood now — less than the life of your average mortgage.
Twenty-five years from now, the developers and the mortgage companies may be able to fly away to Palm Springs by flapping their wallets, not to mention the mayor, but the poor trusting souls who bought houses on top of the old golf course are going to be stuck in the mud back in Houston living in FEMA trailers. And that will be the very least of the damage done by paving over the golf course.
Since the 1990s, it has been established noncontroversial science that the only effective means of flood control is land-use control. In the mid-1990s a national commission on flood safety published a report (“Sharing the Challenge, Report of the Interagency Floodplain Management Review Committee to the Administration Floodplain Management Task Force, Washington, D.C., June, 1994”) urging state and national government agencies to provide less relief, not more, to people who buy houses in flood-prone areas.
If that sounds heartless and Draconian, you should know the recommendation was based on the very same arithmetic we just did higher on this same page. Based on science and international experience, scientists and bean-counters the world over were finding that the problems were far worse than a mere shortage of money for repairs. The real problem was that the money that societies were spending on so-called flood safety — the money itself — was one of the primary causes of the ever-worsening damage.
And, remember, this was all largely before anybody started taking climate change seriously. In fact, this was back when Harvey was still expected to happen only once in every New Testament.
The real math is in the sky. We all live by the seashore. It’s straight up above us in the clouds. Every so often, that ocean of water needs to fall down out of the sky. Nature’s design is that the water in the sky will rain through the atmosphere and then keep right on raining, though more slowly, down through the soil until it reaches the water table, the only tank big enough to hold it.
Rivers and streams are overflow mechanisms — Mother Nature’s rain gutters. Most of the water needs to seep into the soil. Next to nature, our man-made dams and canals are playthings, a child’s bucket and pail on the beach. But we don’t know that. We think we rule nature. Nature is stupid. We are wise.
Then in addition to our arrogance, we must take into account our greed. Somehow we have it in our head that happiness and success in this life are entirely material and that somehow every human being has a need and even a right to be materially rich. Therefore every person who means well and works hard should be able to own a rich man’s house, a castle with a moat and a forest and water, towers, a wall.
The only way to provide people of ordinary means with a version of that skewed dream is to eat land — plow up cheap land that used to absorb the rain and cap it over with McMansions. And here is the real secret, the real driver of it all. The only way to sell those houses is to lie about the environmental costs and off-shore those costs to somebody else, somehow, elsewhere, later.
“Oh, no, this isn’t the 25-year floodplain at all. This is in the semi-biblical floodplain, once every 500 years. This won’t flood until well after we’ve all been supplanted by robots anyway. And, you know, screw robots.”
A quarter-century ago the bean counters and the scientists were already beginning to quantify the way that so-called flood safety and flood-relief money was being used to exacerbate the problem. Let’s look at Houston now. A good share of that $2.5 billion in bond money the voters just approved will be used to deepen and strengthen two big federal flood-control reservoirs that failed, supposedly, in Harvey.
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But, wait a minute. They didn’t fail. They worked like gangbusters. They held back an enormous amount of water that spilled into them from what had once been absorptive rice fields, now plated over with subdivisions. Had those subdivisions not metastasized over the land after the reservoirs were created, the reservoirs would have been more than adequate.
The problem was that the amount of water the reservoirs could hold without breaking the dams was finite. When water finally had to be released, the rushing waters found the same thing ahead of them that had pushed them into the reservoirs in the first place — subdivisions.
Now, clearly — they’re already doing it — Houston will use its $2.5 billion in so-called flood safety money to encourage more development on absorptive land and/or flood-prone land. Put climate change into the numbers, and all of it worsens at some geometric rate.
Houston is a great example at the local level of a dilemma we seem to be facing in national politics. What if democracy has a half-life, a limit, a rate of incline that it can no longer surmount? Who is going to get elected running on a platform of abnegation, of no more cheap castles? Maybe we can learn the lesson here from only one teacher, catastrophe herself. How is that for biblical?