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Are Some Cities Too Big To Be Saved? Hurricane Harvey and Lessons from South Texas

By Jeff Justice

The disaster which has been unfolding in South Texas demonstrates that Greens are right to be proactive in approaching potential disasters, not out of pessimism but out of the realism that they will strike. Being prepared means reducing the damage and suffering they cause, and Europe should pay close attention to what has happened in South Texas, learn from the mistakes made as well as from what went right — and some things did — and take steps to mitigate the damage and loss of life that occurs when disaster strikes heavily-populated areas.

Hurricane Harvey developed rapidly in the Gulf of Mexico, but Texas local officials had time to decide whether to evacuate coastal cities. Corpus Christi, population 320,000, issued a voluntary evacuation order. Houston, population 2.3 million, did not. Houston city officials later vehemently defended their decision not to order an evacuation on grounds that doing so would be worse than riding out the storm. Houston, they said, is too big to safely evacuate. We have seen much research on the dangers of urban life, including food deserts, increased summer temperatures, loss of green spaces, and so forth. The impracticality of evacuating Houston raises another angle on the question as to how we address continuing urbanisation in the future, and not just in South Texas.

An unprecedented hurricane

We have seen the viral image through Twitter of nursing home residents, many wheelchair-bound, awaiting rescue from a lounge in water up to their knees. The US National Weather Service predicted that a staggering 50 inches (127 cm) of rain would fall in some areas, as the storm stalled over the Texas Gulf Coast region. Needless to say, climate change scientists quickly pointed the finger toward anthropocentric activity as a major cause behind the unprecedented rain levels in the area. They also issued yet another stern warning that more such storms will come.

Harvey developed quickly but not so fast that local officials did not have time to react at all. Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi issued a mandatory evacuation of its campus and ordered all resident students and staff to leave, as their ‘Code Blue’ webpage shows. Corpus Christi was lucky compared to its neighbours to the north and east. Multiple media reports show devastating wind and flood damage throughout the Texas Gulf Coast.  But, as of this writing, some fifty people have been confirmed deceased, which is a tragic but still astonishingly low number, given the high number of people affected. Officials fear that number may rise dramatically as the aftermath of the storm becomes clearer.

Houston, Harvey, New Orleans, Katrina, and Europe

Harvey’s potential and ongoing impact drew comparisons to Hurricane Katrina before it even struck land. New Orleans did take steps to evacuate before Katrina struck, yet a number of the evacuees died from a variety of causes after fleeing the storm-struck city. Its pre-storm population was right around one-fifth of that of Houston when Harvey struck. Much of New Orleans recovered, and social scientists provided numerous reports regarding how to rebuild the city. Among the suggestions made was to reduce the city’s footprint and to increase the number of green spaces available.

ProPublica ran a feature article laying the blame for Houston’s vulnerability to this kind of flooding on a lack of zoning, a lack of green spaces … and a lack of belief among key local officials that their city will be subjected to future storms of this intensity. They wrote that Houston city officials allowed uncontrolled and unchecked growth of the city in response to commercial interests looking to expand and grow in the area. This meant draining marsh lands that environmental scientists say could have absorbed some of the extraordinary rains with which Harvey pummeled the region. City and county officials responsible for monitoring the region for flood control ignored repeated warnings that climate change would increase the frequency of torrential rainfalls, turning so-called ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ flood events into several-in-a-decade occurrences.  Not only that, but those same officials failed to upgrade local infrastructure to account for the influx of people and construction building into the region. ProPublica also reported that scientists specifically call for better zoning and increasing green spaces as key components to managing future floods hitting the city.

What does Europe have to do with this? Generally, Europe does not see hurricanes of the type that hit the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the United States. However, a hurricane or other tropical system is not the only kind of storm that can produce excessive amounts of rain in a short frame of time. Additionally, severe weather is definitely not the only reason why we might need to evacuate quickly a given population centre.  Need anyone be reminded of Pripyat, USSR (now in Ukraine)[1]?

What Europe does have is an abundance of cities of about Houston’s size or larger:  Istanbul, Moscow, London, St Petersburg, Berlin, Madrid, Kiev, Rome, Paris, Bucharest, among others.  To be sure, well over 35 European cities have populations greater than pre-Katrina New Orleans.  If Houston was too large to evacuate on short notice, then the same logic well applies to these European cities. This means that European officials at all levels should take notice of what is going on in South Texas and learn the same lessons Texas and US officials are now learning from this current catastrophe.

Dealing with the issue by reducing the density of people

As noted above, scientists argue in favour of controlled zoning and urban construction that includes plentiful green spaces. This would address flooding issues to which European cities can also be vulnerable. However,  even with the best planning, a sudden event such as Hurricane Harvey may require a quick removal of people in order to save lives. Motorways can only handle a set number of vehicles at any given time, even when contraflow lanes are in use (many US coastal cities subject to hurricanes have contraflow traffic plans for routing evacuating traffic from a given area using all available traffic lanes, no matter which direction they normally carry vehicles). Helicopters can only carry a limited number of people, and passenger airplanes still require people’s ability to reach them; even then, storm conditions—assuming the emergency is a storm—may make air travel of any kind impossible.

Another possibility to consider is use of long-term public policy designed to decrease the density of people living in a given square unit of territory. This is not to say that governments ought to consider enacting laws strictly limiting the number of people who may live in a given urban area. It is to say that policies encouraging people to relocate to smaller, less-populated areas may provide some relief to the city that is too large to evacuate. For instance, governments would do well to provide incentives for companies to relocate to such areas, drawing jobs with them.  Yes, doing so would increase the population of those areas, but this would also reduce correspondingly the population of the areas being left. This is easier said than done; need anybody be reminded of increasing housing prices and costs-of-living in densely-populated urban areas? Given this limitation, government needs to think outside the proverbial box in finding such incentives, and those incentives will be far better received if they involve a carrot rather than a stick.

To be sure, people tend to move to cities despite the increased monetary costs because jobs and available housing are more plentiful. As climate change forces people to re-locate to more temperate zones in Northern Europe, we should expect to see cities in those regions experience rapid population growth to a degree that infrastructure might not keep up with that growth. For its part, Houston took in a number of evacuees from New Orleans after Katrina struck, and many of them took jobs in Texas and still live there. It remains to be seen how Houston’s population will be affected by Harvey. We should expect similar results as a result of people fleeing to Europe from climate-related (and other) catastrophes. Refugees attempting to enter Europe from war in Syria are but a mere taste of what is to come. A great many of those refugees had plans to reach major European cities.

The European angle: Who should be responsible?

Current Texas law leaves responsibility with local officials to determine whether to issue voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders in the face of disasters, with state and US federal officials able to supplement local needs through disaster declarations. As mentioned earlier, it is true that the media along with some state and federal officials openly questioned Houston and Harris County officials’ decision not to issue any kind of evacuation orders. This left it to individuals in the area to determine for themselves whether to leave in advance of the storm.

It is easy to levy criticism of this type, but those with the best logistical information will be those in the immediate area under threat. Is there more that those officials could have done to protect lives and property? I would imagine that a calm, collected analysis conducted later when the emergency is over and more facts become available will reveal deficiencies in their approach that will need correction. Houston officials, justifying their decisions, did point to those who lost their lives on Texas highways whilst attempting to flee Hurricane Rita over a decade ago. This lesson directly impacted their decision-making process. Europe has its own extreme weather taking a wide variety of forms, including heat waves – and wildfires in Greenland! – in some areas with extreme cold in others, floods in some places with drought afflicting others. Any of these events could potentially be cause to evacuate some or all of a vulnerable population on a short-term, medium-term, or conceivably a long-term basis.

Consequently, we have every reason to expect similar results would occur in Europe if such a disaster impacts a similarly-populated area. Local authorities should have immediate control over a disaster situation with support provided by regional and national governments when requested or the safety of the region or the nation requires it. The European Union can also stand ready to provide such support in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Those three levels of governance can also act in advance of any disasters happening by enacting policies designed to draw people away from densely populated areas by providing financial and other incentives for those people to relocate to areas less densely populated. They could also work with smaller communities to help them develop their infrastructure to a level that can cope with an increase in population in a manner that does not place an unsustainable burden on those resources.

To be sure, such incentives may not provide the relief desired, and even if they do, we should expect that we will always have built-up areas with populations dense enough to make evacuations difficult-to-impossible to complete.  Regional, national, and European authorities may well wish to work in partnership with local communities to develop infrastructure designed to facilitate rapid evacuation of people when a natural or man-made disaster threatens or afflicts a given area. Such infrastructure improvements may also have a positive side effect of improving overall transportation during non-urgent periods, which is clearly most of the time. Even better, this could take the form of greener, sustainable public transportation projects.  I leave it to urban planners and transportation experts to flesh out the details as to the form that these would take.

Whilst I argue for local control over immediate disaster areas, planning to mitigate the impacts of those disasters necessarily must involve all levels of governance. European Union policy already seeks to address the impacts of anthropocentric climate change, and those efforts should continue in conversation and cooperation with lower levels of governance. As European, national, and regional climate change policy continues to evolve, they should reconsider potential situations that would call for rapid evacuation of populated areas. Criteria to consider in drawing up such plans include, but are not limited to: saving the maximum number of lives possible, avoiding discriminatory, arbitrary or other inhumane behaviour in the process of saving those lives, not increasing the danger already posed by the disaster, and positioning or repositioning resources to the areas of greatest need to alleviate as much as possible the suffering that will result from having to evacuate quickly. These points are in keeping not only with Green concerns for our environment in any situation, but they also consider Green arguments in favour of local democracy and governance in addition to maintaining and promoting human rights.

This is a complex problem, and while it is one that Europe is not (yet) facing to the same extent that South Texas is at present, it is one that Europe will face in its own way if things continue as they are, and it is one that Europe will face far sooner than anyone might expect, possibly with about as much notice as Texans received that Harvey was on his way to pay a visit.

 

[1] Soviet officials hastily organised a massive evacuation of the city, of just under 50,000 residents, following the Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown. Only a small number of people died in the immediate days and months following. An evacuation of the size and scale of Houston would certainly have taken far longer to complete.

 

Are Some Cities Too Big To Be Saved? Hurricane Harvey and Lessons from South Texas