Adapt and survive

Growing up on the Gulf Coast, I got an early introduction to the force and unpredictability of hurricanes, starting with Carla, which hit Houston when I was a tyke. I remember vividly our crotchety neighbor telling me the roof was sure to blow off our house. When the heavy winds and lashing rain arrived, accompanied by a power outage and numerous tornadoes, we camped out in the back hallway with blankets, flashlights and canteens.

By 1969 we’d moved to New Orleans just in time for another Category 5, Camille, which dropped 23 inches of rain and made the Mississippi River flow backward for 125 miles. Historians estimate the winds reached 200 mph, but it’s hard to be sure since all of the measuring instruments were destroyed. Because early forecasts predicted a direct hit on the city, my parents considered evacuating. Fortunately we didn’t, because the storm turned at the last minute and obliterated the Mississippi coast, which would have been our escape route.

As I am writing this, the television screen is full of images of Harvey’s devastation in Houston, and the statistics are accumulating: 50 inches of rain (9 trillion gallons of water) in two days; more than 38 confirmed dead; 72,000 people rescued; 30,000 people in shelters and more than 100,000 homes destroyed. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has estimated that two million tons of hazardous airborne pollutants had been released from the region’s oil refineries, based upon industry reports, and the Arkema chemical plant explosion in Crosby has triggered the evacuation of all residents within a 1.5 mile radius and sickened 15 sheriff’s deputies who responded to the scene.

Climate scientists have warned us that the frequency and intensity of recent hurricanes has increased because of ocean warming related to climate change. While some people cling to the notion that climate change is not all man-made, there can be no doubt that human decisions exacerbated the flooding problem in Houston, most notably the city’s historical resistance to land-use regulations. Houston is the largest U.S. city to have no zoning laws. Going back to the 1940s, efforts by planners and citizens’ groups to limit development in flood-prone areas have been met with stiff opposition by developers and politicians, branded as “anti-business.” With free rein, developers have built in wetlands and grasslands, paving over land that could provide natural buffers to absorb, channel and contain floodwaters, ignoring basic storm-water management and the long term consequences of their decisions.

Harvey is only the latest lesson about what happens when the effects of climate change collide with irresponsible development, and it applies to us all. Here in the Upper Delaware as elsewhere, storm events will be more intense and prolonged. We are going to have to get beyond any knee-jerk resistance to planning and realize that we need to work mindfully with nature if we want to protect our homes and businesses from the floods to come. At least in the Upper Delaware, we still have time to adapt.


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