Monday evening, as I sat in my living room in the Manzanita Mountains, a storm like no other I have experienced in my 77 years burst on me. Large rocklike hailstones burst on my skylights, roof and windows like bombs exploding. It went on and on, faded away, returned, faded again and returned a third time.
Afterward, the ground was as white with hail as if from a January snowfall. We had a small leak in the roof, downed branches, leaves stripped from trees and wildflowers decapitated. But that was all. We were very lucky.
I recalled previous hailstorms in New Mexico—when Rich Ford in Edgewood suffered millions of dollars in damage to its cars parked outside, when hail killed a herd of deer in northeast New Mexico, when storms smashed windows and injured dogs and horses. I remember my own dog whining and cowering as hailstones stung her.
This storm was no disaster, at least not for me, but then I began to imagine a real disaster: Suppose that storm lasted three days instead of three hours, without relief, pummeling us without surcease. Suppose it flooded the small arroyos in the area, as previous monsoon storms have done, but then didn’t just quit but kept on until we lived in an inland sea.
That is exactly how the New York Times is describing the scene in Houston: like an inland sea. The Houston metro area is larger than the State of New Jersey, and most of it seems to be under water. And it is getting worse.
As I sit at my computer, the two big dams just south of downtown Houston, with more than 421,000 acre-feet of water, are on the verge of failing as water washes over the tops. Thousands of homes near the dams are being flooded.
Many of their owners, like the great majority throughout the Houston area, have no flood insurance. Early estimates are that their out-of-pocket costs will be $28 billion.
There is essentially no reasonably priced private flood insurance. There is a government program, but most homeowners feel its premiums are unaffordable. Now the entire program is in suspense as Congress and the Trump administration decide whether to renew it, cancel it or change it.
Officials in Washington, Austin and Houston said they wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in Plaquemines Parish exactly 12 years ago Tuesday. They bragged they had prepared well for Harvey. They had plenty of notice and claimed to have all the resources they needed. Instead, it is turning into another one of those great disasters.
Human mistakes are again converting a natural crisis into a manmade calamity.
Partly to blame are Texas’s remarkably lax building rules and nonsensical federal policies encouraging millions of people to build in flood-prone areas. We did it New Orleans, we did it in Houston. We are doing it all over America—in Florida, in New Jersey, along the Mississippi River.
Now add the problem of manmade climate change. Coastal waters in the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of California, the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean are warmer than in the past, creating more energy for storms to feed off of, thus making for higher winds, stronger coastal surges and heavier rainfall.
But federal insurance policies, local building rules and manmade climate change are only the beginning of the disaster humans have wreaked on Houston.
The Trump administration, apparently believing the federal bureaucracy is a disposable commodity, has been slow to nominate officials to run key programs (Trump said on Tuesday the vacancies reflected a deliberate policy to shrink government) and it has filled many jobs with people with little relevant experience.
The new head of FEMA, which is running the Houston relief effort, has only been in office since June. Trump has not even nominated an administrator for NOAA, which is charge of making predictions about rainfall, water flow and flooding.
The mayor of Houston said he did not order an evacuation before Harvey hit because he did not know where the rain would fall or which areas would be flooded. Is there a connection between ignorance and unfilled federal jobs?
It has been reported that the U.S. Corps of Engineers had maps showing where water from two endangered reservoirs would flow but refused to release them for fear of panic. Instead, thousands of residents were caught unawares, trapped by rising waters but with escape on flooded roads difficult or impossible.
Houston is a flat, low-lying plain crisscrossed by 1,700 miles of waterways and it sits only 50 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. It has repeatedly flooded in the past, and almost everyone knew it was in danger of flooding again in the future.
The two imperiled dams have long been ranked as among the six most dangerous in the United States, but nothing was done to repair or rebuild them.
Before the storm hit, a variety of federal and state agencies made provision for emergency equipment—boats, high-clearance vehicles, life vests, cots, clothing and food. Yet very little of it was pre-positioned in Houston. When, as predicted, Harvey flooded the roads, there was no way of getting all that stuff quickly to the people who desperately needed it.
These avoidable problems are just evidence that we really have not learned the lessons of how to deal with monumental disasters involving millions of people.
There is a kind of arithmetic at work: how much money and effort should we spend preparing for a horrendous calamity that is unlikely to happen at any given time but over the long term is inevitable?
The answer of our politicians—worried far more about the next election than the next generation—is to ignore it.
That is the discouraging lesson of our calamities. Our problems become calamities when subjected to the tender ministrations of weak local government and incompetent national leaders, compounded by almost nonexistent public transportation systems that make evacuations problematical.
It is possible to handle a crisis competently, as President Barack Obama and Governor Chris Christie proved in New Jersey and, on a much larger scale, as Franklin Roosevelt proved during World War II. But without constant vigilance, government sinks into its natural level of incompetence.
That is the real swamp that needs to be drained, the swamp of incompetence that encourages people to build in dangerous areas, that denies the realities of global climate change and that fails to recruit leaders who know what they are doing.