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Hurricane Harvey is showing us the future of climate change

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Texas is getting a preview of life in a billion-dollar disaster zone—but it doesn’t have to be this way

People walk down a flooded street as they evacuate their homes after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In March of last year, ProPublica and the Texas Tribune jointly published a damning report cautioning that Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest metro area, was facing a dire threat of being devastated by a hurricane. “Scientists say Houston’s perfect storm is coming,” warned the piece, “and it’s not a matter of if but when.”

The series is being widely shared as Hurricane Harvey (downgraded to a tropical storm as of Saturday) continues to dump an unprecedented amount of rain on the region, causing widespread damage across Southern Texas that will not be able to be fully assessed until the skies clear.

At least ten people have died in the Houston region, a number that officials hope does not increase as rescues continue. But even without the full extent of the damage known, Harvey is part of a startling string of Texas weather events which may end up being the costliest in U.S. history.

"We need to recognize that it is going to be a new normal. A new and different normal for the entire region,” said Texas Governor Greg Abbott today, in an attempt to show the state’s resilience to rebuild.

Recognition is one thing, acceptance another. This doesn’t have to be the new normal.

The billion-dollar disasters

Since 1980, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has tracked “billion-dollar disasters” in the U.S.—the costliest and deadliest extreme weather events (with figures adjusted for inflation). Flooding has been specifically cited by NOAA’s experts and other scientists as the most dangerous extreme weather event facing U.S. cities.

The catchall terms “100-year-flood” and “500-year-flood” you’ve heard are calculations based on probability to inform the construction of dams and levees. NOAA’s model is a far more comprehensive way to assess the historical impact of a weather event because it goes beyond record-breaking rainfall amounts or wind speeds and looks at the overall economic and social impact, from the financial toll to human lives lost.

Billion-dollar flooding events are, without question, on the rise—they are one of the climate disasters which have increased in frequency, along with severe storms and extreme heat, over the last decade. And no place knows this better than Texas.

Since 1980, Texas has experienced more billion-dollar climate disasters than any other state.
NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters (2017).

Why Texas?

Texas is the second-biggest state, geographically speaking, with the second-highest population. And Houston is the fourth most-populous city in the entire country, with a diverse range of vulnerable assets including oil refineries, aerospace manufacturers, and military operations. But even taking those factors into account, Texas has been hit exceptionally and repeatedly hard by expensive extreme weather events.

A spate of climate disasters has pummeled Texas over the past two years. March and April of 2016 were particularly costly (and deadly) in ways the state might have previously expected to happen decades apart. Some parts of Texas were affected by two billion-dollar flooding events within the course of a single month:

And if you compare this to the billion-dollar disaster map from 2015, it’s even worse: Parts of Houston that had been flooded in a May 2015 event were submerged by another storm just 11 months later.

And then Harvey happened.

Parts of Houston have already received 30 inches of rain—and the forecast predicts it won’t stop raining until later on Tuesday. The storm obliterated the 24-hour rainfall record at Houston’s Intercontinental Airport. And there are estimates that rainfall totals may top an all-time continental U.S. record for a single storm. (It’s still raining, so, again, we won’t be able to fully gauge until it stops. Update: The record was broken at 51.88 inches.)

Many reports—including ProPublica’s—are pointing to Houston’s zoning and development policies which have encouraged building in floodplains, or the way that the city’s streets are designed to be the frontlines of flood-mitigating infrastructure, or even the layout of the city itself—a series of concentric highways encircling various densities of sprawl.

Once the waters have receded, there will be time to have the conversation about how and where to rebuild. There are an estimated 450,000 people who will need assistance, and 30,000 families who will need housing, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But when cities are witnessing events “beyond anything experienced,” it is no longer just about “recovering” after disaster.

It’s: When will we decide to stop this?

Regulations are protections

On August 18, I reported on President Donald Trump’s decision to roll back regulations around building in flood-prone areas. Those regulations required planners to consult with climate scientists in addressing future risk before building new infrastructure. One day later, his administration dissolved a federal climate change committee that had specifically warned of the dangers of more extreme flooding.

Even as the president admits that “experts have said they’ve ever seen one like this,” he is silencing those very same “experts” by defunding climate science. (Not to mention pulling out of the Paris climate accord, slashing budgets for disaster planning, and allowing the mismanagement of federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, two federal bodies empowered to address the fact that climate change is making flooding events like this worse.)

Regardless of the stance that federal, or local, administrators might take on climate science, one cannot deny that there are more of these storms costing the country billions more dollars than even a decade ago. From a fiscal perspective alone, elected officials have a moral responsibility to prevent the destruction of their constituents’ livelihoods—not just allocate money to relief efforts after the fact.

Right now it’s Texas struggling with too much water. But it could just as easily be California’s battle with too little water. The next billion-dollar disaster could be anywhere, and it’s no longer permissible for cities to be unprepared. But it’s not about adjusting to a "new normal," it’s about admitting this is not normal—and that it’s time to act.