Superstorms are coming — are we prepared?
Crisis can change who we are and it can change what we want to do in the world. I’m no stranger to this experience.
For most of my life I worked to become a doctor until Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017, during my senior year at Rice University. In the wake of that disaster, I decided to pursue community organizing instead of medicine because I realized that truly making people healthy means addressing the inadequate systems that make people vulnerable and sick in the first place — systems that have only been compounded by climate driven disasters, like Harvey.
As I wrote in a previous piece for The Hill, Harvey was not my first hurricane; I was nine years old when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. At the time, my mother and I lived in Birmingham, Ala., and I watched as she, a nurse, worked with members of her community to fill the huge gaps — that had been left unfilled by the government — for those who had been forced to evacuate and establish a new life in other cities.
But resilience in the face of natural disasters should not be limited to examples of neighbors helping neighbors; resilience must be established at scale by the governmental institutions established to protect us and plan for the future. This future will be shaped and defined by record flooding events. In the last three months alone, we’ve seen an inland hurricane in Iowa, a dam failure in Michigan due to historic flooding and the most powerful hurricane in over a century hit Louisiana. These generational events illustrate the inextricable links between climate change and severe weather events. On the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the three year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey and on the heels of more record breaking storms to come, it’s time to reimagine what preparation and recovery looks like.
Years of redlining and residential segregation by race and socioeconomic status have placed vulnerable communities in substandard housing located in floodplains and in close proximity to major public health hazards. In the aftermath of Katrina, dozens of flooded oil rigs, raw sewage, lead and asbestos from hundreds of thousands of flooded structures created a “poisonous stew” containing contaminants and bacteria that were up to 10 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards. Following Hurricane Harvey, researchers reported several flooded Superfund sites and benzene levels six times higher than the legal limit. Dozens of petrochemical facilities were in Hurricane Laura’s path, and we are already seeing the results of this environmental catastrophe. We must learn from this. Recent data from the GAO indicates the majority of Superfund sites are located in areas that could be hit by wildfires and flooding. If we are to prepare properly and build resilient communities capable of taking on today’s super storms, we must address existing environmental health hazards. These threats demand that we require industrial facilities implement more robust emergency management plans and these threats demand that regulators incorporate climate, flood and environmental justice analysis in environmental-permitting cases.
In order to build resilience in the face of tomorrow’s natural disasters, we must also adjust how we conceptualize the costs of flood management. In 2018, a year after Hurricane Harvey, 85 percent of voters helped pass a $2.5 billion bond to invest in flood infrastructure in Harris County, Texas. This, in a state known for fiscal conservatism and short-sighted politicians who deny the science on climate change. As decisive as this vote was, the investment was merely a drop in the bucket towards rebuilding after a storm that caused about $125 billion in damages. We need to make greater flood infrastructure investments that meet the scale of the crisis. These investments will require policy makers to be open about the true costs of preparedness. It’s time to update flood maps even if they impact local home values and insurance costs. It’s time to resist blanket calls for parking lots and highway construction when it poses greater long term flood risks. And it’s time to make hefty investments in modernizing dams, levies and storm surge infrastructure that will save us money in the long term.
While natural disasters can reveal extraordinary grace between local residents, our governmental responses have failed to match the humanity of everyday people working to help others. First and foremost, we need to reform the processes that make it so difficult for people to actually get the help they need. FEMA and other recovery systems are not designed to distribute help to the greatest number of people at the greatest speed. The complexity of the process meant to bring relief has become a bureaucratic maze impossible to traverse for anyone, let alone someone who is reeling from a traumatic event. And even with patience, persistence and navigation resources, many communities are systematically deprioritized from receiving aid because of where they live and the value of their home. We must streamline and make the relief programs under the Department of Housing and Urban Development, FEMA and other federal agencies more equitable if we hope to build greater resiliency.
Government’s first responsibility is to protect people. Its duty includes addressing entrenched disparities before major storms hit and long after they leave. Natural disasters are increasing in frequency and intensity and we can no longer wait to build resiliency — the time for systemic change is now.
Justin Onwenu is an organizer for The Sierra Club in Detroit. He is also a Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.