While Houston, Texas, is already regularly home to some of the worst flooding events that occur within the US, the reality is that, thanks to rising seas, increasingly extreme rainstorms, and increasingly powerful hurricanes, such events will actually become considerably worse over the coming decades.
Bearing that in mind, what happens next? How will residents respond to these increasingly devastating flood events? By doubling down on current city development “strategies?” By doing nothing? By the ones with means to do so abandoning the city, leaving it to the poor? What happens to the enormous and dangerous petrochemical and refinery complexes located along the region’s coastline?
Those are certainly interesting questions, and ones similar to those that will be facing a great many other large cities located near or along the world’s coasts in the coming years. I don’t know that it’s really possible to predict at this point what exactly will happen over the mid- to long-term, but an appreciation of the value of flood-zone awareness does seem to be seeping into the local public consciousness more.
I recently came across an interesting article on that subject on Climate Central that seems worth highlighting in part here. It concerns this slow change in an awareness of flood risks when deciding upon the purchase of a home. Here you are:
“Sam Brody is not a real estate agent, but when his friends want to move home they get in touch to ask for advice. He is a flood impact expert in Houston — and he has plenty of work to keep him busy.
“The Texas metropolis has more casualties and property loss from floods than any other locality in the US, according to data stretching back to 1960 that Brody researched with colleagues. And, he said, ‘Where the built environment is a main force exacerbating the impacts of urban flooding, Houston is number one and it’s not even close.’
“… Brody, a professor in the department of marine sciences at Texas A&M University’s Galveston campus, said the requests for help in Houston from people moving homes inspired him to create a forthcoming web tool so that people can type in an address and get a risk score.
“Significant rains have always been a feature of life in south-east Texas. What bothers Brody and local environmentalists is the extent to which human activity is making things worse.”
While commenting on the impact that the region’s poorly draining soils have on the creation of flood events, Brody noted: “It pales in comparison with the other driving force, which is the built environment. If you’re going to put 4 million people in this flood-vulnerable area in a way which involves ubiquitous application of impervious surfaces, you’re going to get flooding.”
Aside from the causes of flooding, an important matter is what happens when the region’s extensive petrochemical industry has to deal with a major flooding and/or hurricane event. On that count….
“If we get 20ft plus of water up the Houston Ship Channel it will be apocalyptic. I think all of us that have studied hurricanes are absolutely petrified about a big storm flooding the Houston Ship Channel and basically causing a number of those storage tanks to become unmoored and releasing their contents,” stated Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney and co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center at Rice University.
“There’s a lot of very dangerous materials that are generally handled, all things considered, fairly well, but they’re not designed against 20ft floods and if we have that it’s just going to be an incredibly bleak situation.”
“Incredibly bleak” in this case means the release of some 90 million barrels of crude oil and associated chemicals (with a 24 foot storm surge along the Ship Channel) into surrounding neighborhoods and into the Galveston Bay. While on its own such an event would probably be far and away the worst environmental disaster in US history, there’s also the matter of the effect on the wider economy, as a result of a large proportion of US refining capacity being taken offline — likely driving up gasoline and jet fuel prices considerably, and thus ground and air shipment costs.
So, what’s being done to mitigate the potential impact of such an event? Essentially nothing. I guess that’s a common response to problems nowadays — simply claim that what one doesn’t want to happen can’t actually happen. Everyone can do whatever they want without ever having to face personal accountability — that’s the face of modern culture as I’ve been seeing it as of late. And, after all, if something does end up happening that’s “unexpected” (because of arrogance and stupidity), then there’s simply some scapegoat that needs to be identified that can be blamed for everything, so that the collective can avoid facing its own culpability. Or so that it can at least be entertained by a sideshow while pretty much everyone in the “developed” world — “conservative,” “liberal,” or otherwise — continues contributing to the ongoing diminishment and impoverishment of the biosphere.
And, to be clear on that last point, what we’re currently doing to the world isn’t going to be undone anytime soon. The species diversification “dead zone” that followed the largest mass extinction event in recorded history, the end-Permian event, lasted for many millions of years. And that event is probably a fair analog to where we’re now headed. There’s a question there, though, of how severe what’s coming needs to end up being — that’s where serious personal and governmental action to reduce human impact on the biosphere and climate comes in. Or doesn’t, as it may be.