Hurricane Harvey, the first Category 4 hurricane of 2017, dumped over four feet of rain on Houston and its environs this week. Four feet. That’s more than a year’s worth of precipitation for the Mid-Atlantic area the author hails from, as well as for Houston itself. Not surprisingly, this had the effect of flooding most of the low lying areas of the city, which pretty much describes a large portion of it–an area that is largely flat as a pancake.
The waters are just starting to receded and rescue efforts are beginning to transition to cleanup. And like the awful smell that is starting to arise from the mess left behind, pundits and partisans are starting to squawk about why Houston was flooded, with each spinning a yarn convenient to their political interests or leanings.
Flood control. Environmentalists and left-leaning journalists with an ax to grind in this subject matter have started talking about Houston’s lack of green spaces, shrinking wetlands, and uncontrolled building and a lack of zoning regulations. Their reasoning? That an expansion of natural landscaping features and flood control ponds would have absorbed the rainfall. While there is no doubt that green space and wetland defense have benefits for flood control and many other areas besides, there also can be no doubt that 50 inches of rainfall would have overwhelmed these land features. Houston isn’t like New Orleans, the latter of which relies on a rotting and receding river delta that is the only thing that stands between the Gulf of Mexico and a city that is below sea level. In fact it doesn’t matter what city in the US or what elevation is involved. Six inches, never mind 50 inches of rain is going to submerge or wash out most jurisdictions. Just look at the result of Harvey (now just a tropical storm) crossing the southern US, flooding number of other cities and towns in its path.
Global warming. Climate change advocates and scientists have been beating the climate change drum for about a decade and a half. And it seems intuitive…more industrialization and less green cover means more greenhouse gases and a hotter planet. How much hotter? About 2 degrees hotter in the last 150 years, which has resulted in oceans rising about 8 inches. A hotter atmosphere means storms contain more moisture, as well as generating more weather events in general. Did this contribute to the severity of Harvey? Undoubtedly. But 50 inches worth? Not a chance. Rather, the length the storm squatted over Houston and the unusually warm winter and summer in Eastern Texas and the Gulf of Mexico (about ten degrees warmer than usual) meant that Houston received more than its fair share of moisture than can be blamed on the effects of global warming.
So while weary Houston residents return to their mud-spattered and soaked homes, the pundits and partisans continue their pandering, eager to provide angry citizens with dogma to vent their spleens at. Their reasoning offers a convenient way to deflect blame from unfortunate and ill-timed decisions like building homes and businesses in a 500-year flood plain, or voting for politicians that fail to take into account natural risks that will occur past the end of their terms in office. Heck, when someone’s life is in ruins, it is only human to lose perspective and assign blame elsewhere. But it doesn’t make it, or the pundits and partisans, right.