It is long past time to stop calling events like Hurricanes Sandy, Katrina, and now Harvey and Irma, natural disasters. There is no such thing. These may be natural events. But many of the costs of recovery—and who pays those costs—are the results of decisions people make. There is nothing natural about the catastrophic consequences of these choices.
Planning (or the lack thereof), underfunding the nation’s infrastructure, and a wide range of public policies and private practices that concentrate low-income and non-white families in vulnerable communities are just a few of the “unnatural” factors that have shaped the events unfolding in Houston now. Twelve years ago, Americans saw those same unnatural factors on display in New Orleans and southern Louisiana.
That Houston has experienced its third “500-year” flood in the past three years should tell Americans that something is amiss with such projections. Houston is not alone. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had a 500-year flood in 2008 and then a 100-year flood in 2016. The National Weather Service reported six 1,000-year floods between 2010 and 2015. Such patterns hint that climate change is a contributing factor: Most scientists agree that human activity has played a role in these bizarre meteorological events.
Human activity continues to play a key role in exacerbating the effects of hurricanes and other storms. The New York Times recently reported that the lax building codes and other rules that allowed developers to pave over lands that once sponged up flood waters also meant a failure to take steps that would reduce the impact and costs of flooding, even as local leaders credited those same regulatory decisions with fueling the region’s growth. The Houston Chronicle reported in 2015 on an investigation of permits issued to developers, which found that more than half failed to follow the Army Corps of Engineers’ directives to mitigate the destruction of wetlands that help absorb floodwaters.
When Katrina hit New Orleans, the early reports from the White House and major news media outlets indicated that the city dodged a bullet. The storm did relatively little damage as it passed through the area. The storm surge breached the levees, which led to 80 percent of the city being flooded and 1,800 people losing their lives. The Army Corps of Engineers later acknowledged that the agency failed to maintain the levees in New Orleans.
In 2005, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s infrastructure an overall grade of D. The group noted the United States needed to invest $1.6 trillion over five years in the nation’s roads, bridges, levees, and other public structures and services to bring them into good repair. In 2017, the country received a D+ with an investment gap of more than $2 trillion. To maintain and improve the nation’s system of levees alone would cost $80 billion over the next ten years.
Communities that have long suffered from poverty and uneven development experience the most significant disaster impacts. Brown University sociologist John Logan found that of the New Orleans neighborhoods most severely damaged by Katrina, 46 percent of the residents were black and another 21 percent were poor. Conversely, black residents comprised 26 percent of the population in undamaged areas, while only 15 percent were poor. The images of citizens stranded at the Superdome in 2005 just scratched the surface of the immediate, longstanding, and continuing racial and class disparities revealed by Katrina: A 2015 Kaiser Foundation report found that in 2010, 31 percent of African Americans reported being behind in their rent or mortgage payments and having trouble paying for food in the previous 12 months. Only 8 percent of whites had experienced those economic problems.
It is too soon to know how minority, low-income, and poor residents will fare in Houston. But Air Alliance Houston, an environmental education and advocacy organization, has reported that the harmful pollution effects of Harvey due to the concentration of petrochemical plants will be problematic for the nearby residents. More than five million pounds of air pollutants have been released beyond the levels permitted by law. Moreover, 13 of the 41 Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund sites in the region have been inundated, raising fears about additional property damage and water pollution in areas abutting low-income and minority neighborhoods.
Robert Bullard, a Texas Southern University sociologist and a leading scholar of environmental justice issues, told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman:
When we talk about the impact of sea-level rise and we talk about the impacts of climate change, [we’re] talking about a disproportionate impact on communities of color, on poor people, on people who don’t have health insurance, communities that don’t have access to food and grocery stores. So you talk about mapping vulnerability and mapping this disaster and the impact, not just the loss of housing and loss of jobs, but also the impact of having pollution and these spills, and the oil and chemicals going into the water, and who is living closest to these hazards?
Historically, even before Harvey, before this storm, before this flood, people of color in Houston bore a disproportionate burden of having to live next to, surrounded by, these very dangerous chemicals. And so you talk about these chemical hotspots, these sacrifice zones. Those are the communities that are people of color.
Houston is the fourth-largest city, but it’s the only city that does not have zoning. And what it has is—communities of color and poor communities have been unofficially zoned as compatible with pollution. And we say that is—we have a name for it. We call that environmental injustice and environmental racism. It is that plain and it’s just that simple.
Exclusionary zoning ordinances in wealthy white communities and redlining by banks and insurance companies have long forced blacks and the poor into ecologically vulnerable areas that may not be adequately protected against hurricanes and other storms. The disparities in damage caused by Harvey no doubt will be dwarfed by the unequal resources various groups will bring to the recovery effort.
Strong storms do wreak havoc. But devising environmentally appropriate local zoning laws and putting into place community development initiatives can mitigate damage and better assist recovery. Preserving more land for green space to absorb the water in Houston generally would have mitigated the damage. More democratic participation by all affected communities in local development initiatives can encourage more equitable distribution of community development resources generally and recovery resources in particular. As Shannon Van Dandt, a professor at Texas A&M and head of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, observed:
The most effective method of expediting recovery for the most vulnerable among us was … to engage with communities in a pre-recovery planning effort that identified a team of caseworkers, builders, engineers, architects, and other professionals who can take responsibility for initiating and executing a housing recovery program as soon as it is safe to be on the streets. … Importantly, it also engages community stakeholders in developing a vision for the future of their community. Consequently, when a disaster opens the window of opportunity and infuses the community with disaster recovery funds, such a plan will help the community to guide recovery in a way that is consistent with the vision laid out in the plan.
Fair-housing groups in Houston, like Texas Housers, have long documented housing discrimination issues in that community, including after events like Harvey. They offered the following guidance on how fair-housing planning can facilitate recovery from such events:
- Because the same communities that have been historically underserved are also those most affected by natural disasters, government recovery funding should be based on unmet need.
- The federal government should formalize a data-based allocation formula based on unmet need and incorporating challenges to recovery, and CDBG (federal Community Development Block Grant) disaster recovery funds should be distributed according to this formula on both the federal and state level.
- Recipients of federal disaster recovery funding must have a clear understanding of their civil rights obligations, and damage assessments must specifically assess the disaster’s impact on protected classes.
- Disaster recovery must involve making communities more resistant to the next disaster, rebuilding in a way that does not exactly replicate pre-disaster conditions in housing, infrastructure and economic development, but without displacing or excluding protected classes.
- To ensure a fair and effective recovery, states should engage in pre-disaster planning, identify best practices, build the capacity of local jurisdictions, and collaborate with a broad range of stakeholders including grassroots community groups.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Irma, an even stronger storm, will make landfall in Florida in the coming days. Irma will stretch the nation’s limited recovery efforts as Houston’s needs continue to grow. Yet viewing Katrina, Harvey, and Irma simply as natural disasters allows Americans to ignore the steps that can be taken to create more resilient communities. Most importantly, the country must finally realize that reducing the surging concentration of poverty of recent years and ending enduring patterns of racial segregation must be part of the recovery toolkit.