While Hurricane Irma ravaged the Caribbean and Florida, Houston, TX began the long struggle to recover from the catastrophic flooding that occurred during August’s Hurricane Harvey. This was the storm the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Brock Long called “the worst disaster [Texas has] seen” (The Washington Post, “FEMA director says Harvey is probably the worst disaster in Texas history,” 08.27.2017). On Wednesday, Sept. 6, many of Vassar’s earth science and geography professors gathered to discuss the hurricane’s environmental and social impacts in a lecture titled “Houston After Harvey.”
The sizable panel featured Associate Professor of Geography and Chair of Earth Science and Geography Mary Ann Cunningham, Professor of Earth Science Jill Schneiderman, Professor of Geography and Director of Independent Program Joseph Nevins, Professor of Geography Brian Godfrey, Professor of Geography Yu Zhou and adjunct instructor of Geography Evan Casper-Futterman ’07, who called in via Google Hangouts.
Though there wasn’t as much discussion about Houston’s future as the lecture’s title may have implied, many of the professors touched on the factors that caused so much destruction, particularly why natural disasters like Harvey disproportionately impact poorer, primarily non-white parts of the cities they damage. Houston is one of the most racially diverse cities in the country, but like many other cities that rank high in diversity, it is also fairly segregated by race and class (FiveThirtyEight, “The Most Diverse Cities Are Often The Most Segregated,” 04.01.2015).
“[Catastrophes like Harvey] are a snapshot of who is least privileged,” said Schneiderman, who brought up the concept of environmental justice, which she defined as “a social movement that demands fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens.”
One of the major environmental burdens that activists focus on—and one that is currently affecting Houston—is the prevalence of toxic waste in areas populated by people of color. During Harvey, at least 14 toxic waste sites in and around Houston flooded, and dozens of petrochemical plants and refineries released 4.6 million pounds of airborne pollutants (The New York Times, “More Than 40 Sites Released Hazardous Pollutants Because of Hurricane Harvey,” 09.08.2017). Many of these sites were clustered in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods (The University of Virginia, “The Racial Dot Map”). “It remains to be seen whether this hurricane will become a model of environmental injustice,” Schneiderman noted.
Casper-Futterman also brought up the disparity in Harvey’s impact, noting that while it’s drawn many comparisons in the media to Hurricane Katrina, it may actually bear more of a resemblance to Hurricane Sandy. In New Orleans during Katrina, he explained, while many of the poorest neighborhoods were hit hardest, no part of the city escaped unscathed. In Houston, however, like New York and New Jersey during Sandy, that kind of totality of destruction didn’t occur, which could impact the governmental response and rebuilding efforts in the years to come.
“When an event is so totalizing [as Katrina in New Orleans], public officials have a more unified narrative to think through what their [constituents] expect them to do,” Casper-Futterman said. “The mayor of Houston is going to be dealing with people for whom daily life goes on and with tens of thousands of other people for whom that is not the case.”
The aftermath of natural disasters, Casper-Futterman went on to say, can sometimes be so devastating here, even in the wealthiest nation on Earth, because the United States is notoriously bad at mobilizing emergency response agencies like FEMA, often due to underfunding and understaffing.
He compared this disorganization to countries with strong central governments, like Japan or Cuba, saying, “One of the things that strong states—or socialist states—are particularly good at is mobilizing and deploying resources at the scale necessary to meet the threat and challenge of extreme weather events. The United States is in basically the worst possible position for this, because we have an actively anti-governmental attitude that prevents the federal government from having the resources necessary to help.”
Cuba did make a valiant evacuation effort during Irma, with over one million people reportedly leaving the most dangerous areas, but the hurricane still resulted in 10 deaths there, as of press time (The Wall Street Journal, “Hurricane Irma Blamed for 10 Deaths in Cuba,” 09.11.2017).
Beyond disaster planning, city planning also played a large role in the destruction in Texas. Houston, one of the most spread-out metropolises in the nation, has an enormous amount of impervious land cover—concrete, asphalt and the like, which don’t absorb water easily—and comparatively little green space, which exacerbated the flooding (The Atlantic, “Houston’s Flood Is a Design Problem,” 08.28.2017).
“With a climatic event of this magnitude, there was going to be flooding,” Godfrey noted. “But there is a broad agreement in urban planning circles that enlightened policy and public planning would have lessened the severity of the devastation.”
After the catastrophic back-to-back hits of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, it remains to be seen what impact these disasters may have on U.S. urban planning and emergency preparation in the future.