Hurricane Harvey: How It Happened And How To Help

Hurricane Harvey Rescue
Soldiers with the Texas Army National Guard move through flooded Houston streets as floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey continue to rise, Monday, August 28, 2017. More than 12,000 members of the Texas National Guard have been called out to support local authorities in response to the storm. (U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Zachary West)

Hurricane Harvey struck Texas nearly a week ago, but its effects will continue to be felt by the state and the entire country for the next weeks, months, and years to come. Houston is underwater. Rockport has suffered widespread destruction and Beaumont has lost access to its water supply. At least 38 lives have been lost. Some parts of the state saw 47 inches of rain fall in just a few days. As CNN reports, the 27 trillion gallons of rain that fell on the region would be enough to fill the Houston Astrodome 85,000 times.

With the whirlwind of news reports, heartbreaking images, and social media posts, it can be difficult to keep track of all that has happened. So that’s what we’re doing today. We’ll answer your burning questions, share information about the environmental impacts and implications of Hurricane Harvey, and most importantly, let you know how you can help out.

Let’s start things off with one of the biggest questions people are asking…

What’s the connection between climate change and Hurricane Harvey?

This is an important question to ask. Seeing the destruction that Hurricane Harvey has brought to our country’s fourth largest city, we need to know – what is the likelihood that this could happen again?

First, a brief primer on climate change. The burning of fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases (like carbon dioxide and methane) into the atmosphere, which essentially act as blanket, allowing the sun’s rays to enter, but not to leave. This traps heat, which causes a rise in global temperatures.

What you might not know is that the vast majority (93 percent) of that heat is actually being stored by our planet’s oceans. This causes the temperature of our oceans to rise. And guess what hurricanes love? Warm waters. That’s where they gain their energy and how they’re able to grow and intensify.

The warming of the planet also causes more moisture to be trapped in the atmosphere (because the heat quickens the pace of evaporation). This means that when a hurricane does hit, it can bring with it even more rain than might have been possible before. Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, told the Atlantic this week that up to 30 percent of the rainfall coming out of Hurricane Harvey could be attributed to human-induced climate change.

How else does climate change impact hurricanes? Climate change melts ice caps and causes the world’s oceans to rise, which means that storm surges during hurricanes can become more severe.

To be clear, all of these factors (increased temperatures and moisture, rising sea levels) are things that can make an already existing hurricane worse. They don’t necessary cause more hurricanes to happen. As the New York Times reports, research is still being done to explore the direct link between climate change and hurricanes.

As climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe explained on her Facebook page this week, “Hurricanes are a naturally-occurring hazard for anyone who lives or works along the Gulf Coast, in the Caribbean, or up the Atlantic coast of North America. We care about a changing climate because it exacerbates so many of the natural hazards we already face today – like hurricanes.”

So then why should we care? As Katharine explains, as far as the connection between climate change and natural disasters go, it’s all about resilience. It’s time for us to expect the unexpected and realize that our infrastructure (especially along the coast) might need some major improvements in order to maintain our collective safety, health, and economic well-being.

What’s the connection between Hurricane Harvey and development?

There have been a lot of news stories over the past few days about the effect that widespread development has had on Houston’s ability to manage flooding. These stories point to the city’s relatively lax regulations and lack of official zoning code (although Houston does have other rules that influence development in one way or another) as factors that might have contributed to making the impacts of Hurricane Harvey even worse. So what’s going on here? How can development impact flooding?

The concept is fairly simple. Open green space is great at absorbing water during a flood. For example, the Katy Prairie (located just northwest of Houston) is home to acres of prairie grass, whose roots extend 14 feet underground, allowing them to absorb lots of water over a long period of time. When these grasslands are replaced with concrete, the rain has nowhere to go and flooding occurs. According to the Katy Prairie Conservancy, recent development has paved over three quarters of this land in the Houston area.

This is an issue that the nonprofit news organizations ProPublica and the Texas Tribune have dived into recently. Less than a year ago they published, “Boomtown, Floodtown,” a lengthy investigation into the effect of unchecked sprawl on Houston’s ability to deal with flooding (and the unwillingness of local officials to deal the problem). The greater Houston metropolitan area is larger than the size of the state of New Jersey.

In “Boomtown, Floodtown,” Sam Brody, a Texas A&M University at Galveston researcher, said that as wetlands were lost, the amount of impervious surface (like concrete) in Harris County increased by 25 percent from 1996 to 2011.

In the same story, Houston’s longtime head of the flood control district (Mike Talbott) said that he doesn’t believe the city’s recent heavy rains are connected to climate change and that no additional development since the 1980s has contributed to Houston’s flooding problems. In “Boomtown, Floodtown,” The Texas Tribune and ProPublica wrote that they could not find one scientist out of the dozen they interviewed to agree with Talbott.

Of course, it’s important to remember that Hurricane Harvey will still an extreme weather event. No one is saying that smarter development practices could have prevented all flooding. But in the storm’s aftermath, many serious questions have been raised about how to build a more resilient city in a world that is likely to experience more and more extreme storms. After all, this was Houston’s third 500-year flooding event in three years.

(A quick note – a 500-year flood only means that the flood has a 1 in 500 chance of happening in any given year. It doesn’t mean that a flood of that magnitude will actually only occur once every 500 years).

Some of the authors of “Boomtown, Floodtown” published an analysis this week calling on Houston officials to do four things to prevent future flooding disasters. They include:

  • Preserve and restore as much prairie land as possible
  • Restrict development in floodplains
  • Plan for climate change
  • Educate the public about the risks of buying homes in flood prone areas

So what does all of this mean for us here in Austin?

Frequent readers of the Austin EcoNetwork know that Austin is right in the middle of debating an important new city policy, known as CodeNEXT.

CodeNEXT is the city’s effort to rewrite its land development code, which is basically a rule book for the city, explaining what can be built where. CodeNEXT will determine how Austin looks 10, 15, and even 50 years from now. And it will affect everything from affordability, to transportation, to the environment. In other words, it’s a really big deal.

One of the central debates circulating around CodeNEXT is how to accommodate all of the growth Austin has been experiencing in recent years (or whether it should be accommodated at all). Some are calling for increased density as a way to provide more housing, lower housing costs, and reduce urban sprawl. Others worry that this could lead to too much development and reduce the amount of green space within the Austin city limits.

Although Austin is certainly not the same as Houston (our land development rules are stricter), there is no doubt that Hurricane Harvey will play a role in future discussions about CodeNEXT. As this New York Times article reports, Houston’s lax regulations have been lauded by some as fueling more affordable housing opportunities than cities like Austin have been able to offer. As Austin continues to grow, the city will have to figure out how to balance growth, affordability, and environmental sustainability.

Luckily, we are currently in the process of rewriting our land development code, so now is the perfect time to talk about it. The next draft of CodeNEXT will be released to the public on September 15th. Once it comes out, we’ll keep you updated on how you can give your feedback and get involved.

What about the oil/chemical industry?

Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast are major hubs of the US oil and gas industry, which means that when an extreme weather event like Hurricane Harvey hits, the consequences can be severe. As the New York Times reports, the refineries and plants encircling Galveston Bay are responsible for roughly 25 percent of the United States’s petroleum refining, more than 44 percent of its ethylene production, 40 percent of its specialty chemical feed stock and more than half of its jet fuel. Many of these plants have had to shut down, which has impacted not only the US fuel market, but also the people who live near the plants themselves.

A chemical plant in Crosby, Texas made headlines early this morning when a fire broke out and containers of chemicals burst after the plant lost power (and the ability to safely store its chemicals, which need to be kept at a certain temperature) due to flooding. All employees and residents within a 1.5 mile radius were safely evacuated in advance, but officials have warned that chemicals could leak into the nearby floodwaters.

Meanwhile, residents of Houston’s East End have been raising alarm bells for days about foul smells filling the air. In shutting down damaged refineries and chemical plants, a variety of harmful chemicals have been either released or flared into the air. As the Houston-based environmental justice organization TEJAS (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Service) points out, it is often communities of color who are living next to these plants and are are forced to suffer the consequences of both flooding and pollution.

In order to make sure that these communities are served during the Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, the Sierra Club has signed onto an effort dubbed, “A Just Harvey Recovery.” One hundred percent of the money donated through this effort will go back to communities that have been most effected by the storm and decisions about how the money will be spent will be made in partnership with organizations on the ground and the communities themselves.

“It is a tragedy of epic proportions. And we need to respond with all the tools we have to provide immediate relief and begin the long road toward a just recovery. One that takes into account the hardest hit and most vulnerable communities. One that recognizes that this is an intersection of social, economic, and environmental justice issues — and that if we don’t hold our principles of equity and justice at the center of this work, injustices will increase many times over.” – Hop Hopkins and Reggie James of the Sierra Club, in a blog post announcing their intention to work toward #AJustHarveyRecovery

 

How can you help?

If you would like to to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey, here are some ways to do your part:

And last but not least, since many Hurricane Harvey evacuees have made their way to Austin (and many more are coming), Austin Mayor Steve Adler is asking Austinites to make welcome kits for our new guests. You can learn how to make a kit of your very own with the video below. More information about where to take the kit once you’re finished is available here>>

With all of these new evacuees coming into Austin, translators are also in high demand. You can sign up to be a volunteer translator here>>

 

 

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