Our present century is notable for the scale of its disasters. Furthermore, scientific consensus predicts that mega-disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and Hurricane Harvey will grow even more intense as the millennium unfolds. As our planet warms, this change in the climate acts as an accelerant to storms that would otherwise be less intense. This climate science is, in the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson, “emergent scientific truth,” meaning that it is no more a matter of debate than are the Theories of Relativity, Evolution, or Gravity. This emergent scientific truth, along with the lived experience of disaster in our time (as of this writing, a record-breaking fire is burning in Los Angeles, while a category-5 Hurricane barrels toward the Leeward Islands and South Florida), brings disaster, disaster preparedness, and disaster response to the forefront of social justice.
Hurricane Harvey has proven to be the greatest rain event in recorded US History and, at $190 Billion, is predicted to be the most expensive storm recovery to date, more than Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined. Over 90,000 homes were flooded in Houston alone, with the cities of Port Arthur and Beaumont almost “completely underwater.” Oil refineries in the region account for 25 percent of national capacity, along with a petrochemical complex whose products appear in just about every manufactured good in the country. Five of these refineries, including the largest and second-largest in US, have taken flood damage and shut down. An Arkema peroxide manufacturing plant outside of Beaumont has exploded, and fires continue to burn there. Neither Arkema, nor the state authorities will reveal what chemicals are onsite. Officials downplay the health risks of the fire/explosion, while university scientists and a few journalists sound alarms. Meanwhile, individuals and organizations play heroic roles of rescue and assistance, and they keep doing it, over and over again. Hurricane Harvey has made it clear that when disaster strikes, we are the first responders.
Media coverage of the hurricane has focused on the vastness of the natural disaster and the heroic unity of those coming together in aid of each other and their neighbors. Beyond sight of the media, countless more are cooking and delivering meals, helping to gut and restore houses, sheltering the displaced, and much more. Less talked about are some disasters that are just now beginning to unfold: thousands of apartment dwellers are being evicted with 5 days’ notice. Many have nowhere to go. Often, they cannot even collect their belongings from their former residences because those residences are still under water. Many of these renters have also lost their cars. The city reeks of foul chemicals that have leaked, spilled, and leached from pipelines and processing plants here at the global headquarters of the petrochemical industry. Fenceline communities are literally being gassed in their homes, as twitter-users Downtown issue repeated alerts about air that is “foul … noxious … sickening.” Soon, home-owners will file flood insurance claims, and then will begin the harrowing cycle of long waits, fraudulent denials, and artificially low payments. 12 Superfund sites are flooded. Here in Houston, amid all the revelations Hurricane Harvey has brought to our door–in the form of this filthy, fire-ant-ridden floodwater–one stands out above all others:
We have to talk about climate change.