In one sense, first responders, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and government officials at the local, state and federal level have learned from the experience of Katrina. The Christian Science Monitor reports:
Ahead of the storm, there were questions about whether Texas-style self-reliance or a centralized, civil-defense-era response from the federal government should govern. But as an all-hands-on-deck response to historic floods has unfolded, the all-of-the-above support exemplifies something new, disaster experts say: a template for what the nation’s top emergency managers call “whole-community” response. It’s a dramatic shift since hurricane Katrina in how the United States prepares for natural disasters …
“I do think we’ve seen a change,” says University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, author of “An Army of Davids,” in an email. “But the real difference isn’t citizens getting involved, it’s the willingness of responsible officials to see that involvement as a plus rather than a potential problem. I think the excellent record of civilian volunteer responders in the post-9/11 record is behind that willingness.”
The immediate search-and-rescue operation and preparation to house, feed and clothe evacuees in the short term have benefited from the experience of integrating private and public supply chains and from social media. (“In Houston, citizenry also had help from social media, where some residents were able to get around swamped 911 lines and go directly to the top. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzales answered help calls personally on Twitter, asking residents to stay strong and hold on until rescue arrived. Some of those who sent out SOS tweets say their pleas were answered.”)
That’s the good news. But look a little deeper and the underlying social, economic and political fault lines exposed during Katrina have not been attended to. In a deep-red state like Texas and in the GOP-controlled Congress and White House, there needs to be some soul-searching, accountability and change of heart as well as policy.
We can start with climate change. Scientists are not about to link a specific weather phenomenon to global warming, but it’s not disputable that warmer air holds more moisture and that melting glaciers raise sea levels. The BBC explains:
There’s a well-established physical law, the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, that says that a hotter atmosphere holds more moisture. For every extra degree Celsius in warming, the atmosphere can hold 7% more water. This tends to make rainfall events even more extreme when they occur.
Another element that we can mention with some confidence is the temperature of the seas. “The waters of the Gulf of Mexico are about 1.5 degrees warmer above what they were from 1980-2010,” [says] Sir Brian Hoskins from the Grantham Institute for Climate Change . … “That is very significant because it means the potential for a stronger storm is there, and the contribution of global warming to the warmer waters in the Gulf, it’s almost inevitable that there was a contribution to that.”
Moreover, intensity of rainfall can also be linked to temperature change. (“Researchers are also quite confident in linking the intensity of the rainfall that is still falling in the Houston area to climate change. ‘This is the type of event, in terms of the extreme rainfall, that we would expect to see more of in a warming climate,’ Dr Friederike Otto from the University of Oxford told BBC News.”)
Activists for stronger measures to slow global warming should not overplay their hand here, but this should be a time to explain the human cost of climate change. As former secretary of state and life-long Republican George P. Shultz has argued, the greater the chance for devastating results from climate change, the more incentive there should be to “take out an insurance policy.” He favors “significant and sustained support for energy research and development” and leveling the playing field “so that costs imposed on the community are borne by the sources of energy that create them, most particularly carbon dioxide.” He argues, “A carbon tax, starting small and escalating to a significant level on a legislated schedule, would do the trick.” Let the climate change deniers from Texas and elsewhere make the case that we should continue to ignore the science no matter what the potential costs and abandon even voluntary efforts (under the Paris climate deal). Not even oil companies — or former Exxon chief executive and now-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — buy that.
Beyond climate change, the tragedy in Houston should prompt scrutiny of measures such as President Trump’s elimination of a flood risk standard, which was already controversial. In addition, examination of policies that permit unbridled urban sprawl, which also plays a part in natural disasters such as this, should be undertaken. The Post reports, “Growth that is virtually unchecked, including in flood-prone areas, has diminished the land’s already-limited natural ability to absorb water, according to environmentalists and experts in land use and natural disasters. And the city’s drainage system — a network of reservoirs, bayous and, as a last resort, roads that hold and drain water — was not designed to handle the massive storms that are increasingly common.”
And finally, but certainly not less important, is the tenacious problem of urban poverty, uneven resources, poor housing conditions and lack of mobility (both social and physical) in major American cities. The notion that — pardon the expression — a rising tide lifts all boats has been disproved when we see that some fellow Americans literally and figuratively drown without greater government intervention. This is not an argument for a monstrous, centralized welfare state, nor for forgoing reform. To the contrary, we need more than ever to hold politicians accountable for the lack of results of programs ill-suited for the 21st century. Nevertheless, Harvey is one more reminder that the right wing’s unending attacks on the social safety net in the name of “limited government” must end.
In short, many of the nostrums of the far right — climate change denial, unregulated growth, attacks on the safety net, etc. — in the harsh light of the Harvey cleanup should be challenged with new determination and scientific rigor. Is the nostalgia for a 1950s — or even pre-1932! — government not only foolhardy but also cruel and dangerous? Do we really think tax cuts for the rich are socially responsible? Do we really want to go down the road pitting neighbor against neighbor and frightening residents with the fear of deportation if they access emergency services? If there are lessons to be learned here, they should extend well beyond the particulars of rescue and recovery and challenge the notion of those who see a dog-eat-dog society as the epitome of “freedom.”