Nobody wants to pick on Texas, or especially Houston, after a 1,000-year weather event that for several days turned the city into a lake and dispossessed thousands of their homes, belongings and, in some cases, loved ones.
The ultimate effects of the storm blandly named Harvey are yet to be fully understood. What is known is that most of the homes destroyed were uninsured for flooding and that U.S. taxpayers will be doing much of the bailing.
Meanwhile, comparisons to Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago are intriguing, if one is fortunate enough to be hugging dry land. Chief among the obvious differences is the death toll. Katrina took close to 2,000 lives. As of Friday, Harvey’s toll was 46, and the figure wasn’t expected to rise significantly.
Numbers matter little to those in mourning, but such comparisons can be instructive. In explaining differences between Katrina and Harvey, most experts naturally examine the weather itself and topography. During Katrina, New Orleans, which is shaped like a bowl, was hardest hit. Flooding from burst levees, as well as the colossal tidal surge driven by winds, essentially filled the bowl.
In Houston during Harvey, the main force of the storm came from the skies, which dropped 9 trillion gallons (nearly 50 inches) of water onto the city, the flat topography of which gave residents an obvious advantage over New Orleans. Although cataclysmic over time, Houston's flooding was less abrupt and gave people more time to find higher ground.
Setting aside weather factors — and postponing for now a critique of human failure — a couple of distinguishing psycho-techno-sociological factors also came into play. First, in 2005 when Katrina struck, there was no widespread use of smartphones — the iPhone hadn’t hit the market yet — and social media was in its incipient stages. Facebook was only a year old and still restricted to college students. Just think: When George W. Bush was beginning his second term as president, no one was tweeting.
A second important factor affecting outcomes was the way people responded to the storm. Many New Orleans residents, given their historical distrust of public officials, disregarded warnings and failed to heed evacuation orders. In Houston, there was no call to evacuate.
And although many of the poor in both cities often had no means of personal transportation, nearly every household in sprawling Houston has at least one car, according to the Census Bureau. New Orleans in 2005, by contrast, had the fourth highest rate among 300 metropolitan areas of individuals without access to a household car.
Thus, the storms were very different, as were the people primarily affected. Reaction to the two storms also was initially different, although a common denominator seems to be the God factor. Recall that when Katrina hit New Orleans, some members of the cloth, including the Rev. Franklin Graham, Catholic priest Gerhard Wagner and televangelist John Hagee, opined that God was punishing the city for its legendary indulgences and supposed sins.
But where is the comparable condemnation of Houston given Harvey's Noah-esque proportions? How soon before some looney says Houston, the epicenter of America's energy and oil industry, bears responsibility for the flood? Already, one pastor is saying Harvey was retribution for Houston's leniency toward the LBGT community. And Ann Coulter suggested that Harvey was more likely God's punishment for Houston's former lesbian mayor than a result of climate change.
No matter what one’s religious beliefs or commercial incentives, it is absurd to blame cities or their residents for natural disasters. When otherwise intelligent people engage in such hyperbolic rhetoric, they encourage the sort of dumbing down that gets people killed. The science behind weather events isn’t that complicated to understand.
As a footnote, the Christian God doesn’t single out the poor or the powerless for punishment. Rather, as Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” and also that the meek would inherit the Earth — if they still want it.
But make no mistake: We are being warned. Storms of the Harvey variety will become not 1-in-1,000-year events but 1-in-100. And then, well, who knows beyond worse-is-coming? The least we can do is exercise our free will — and our reasoning powers — to mitigate the effects of human activities on global warming to the extent possible.
If we don’t, Mr. President, we’re going to need a bigger ark.
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