Hurricane Harvey has proven that to be a catastrophe of epic proportions. In addition to being a hurricane with devastating winds, it became an extreme tropical storm which has punished Texas with unprecedented rainfall leaving death and suffering in its wake.
I personally experienced a devastating hurricane firsthand when Hurricane Andrew struck Miami in August 1992. Andrew arrived in Miami as a Category 5 hurricane, the highest on the scale. Whole communities were destroyed and thousands lost everything.
While Andrew was a devastating hurricane, Harvey has been much worse. Harvey has punished Texas with nearly permanent downpours of at least 21 trillion gallons of rain and the images of human suffering. Lives have been lost, families have been forced to leave their homes, some have been separated, and thousands are left wondering “what happens next?” Clean up and rebuilding may take years.
(U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Zachary West)
Hurricanes like Harvey represent an immediate and long-term threat to public health as they leave infectious diseases, water pollution, air pollution, power outages, mold, economic and labor disruption and mental stress in their path. For vulnerable people such as children and the elderly or those with health problems, these impacts are even more severe.
Even without floods, losing one’s home is a source of serious physical and mental stress. It leaves us vulnerable, impacts our work and school and often our health. For low-income communities, these impacts are much more severe and linger far longer.
Some of the hardest hit communities by Harvey are low-income, communities of color, like the community of Harrisburg/Manchester, where 97 percent of residents are people of color, and 37 percent of them live in poverty. Even those not “officially” living in poverty are affected by other environmental injustices that are only exacerbated by disasters like these. One study by TEJAS and the Union of Concerned Scientists, found that 90 percent of the population in Harrisburg/ Manchester lives within one mile of an industrial facility — many of which have already been reporting hazardous chemical releases, as oil and gas facilities damaged by the storm have released more than two million pounds of dangerous chemicals like the cancer-causing benzene and nitrogen oxide which can cause problems such as wheezing, coughing, colds, flu and bronchitis, adding new health threats to Houston’s woes.
Low-income renters are also especially vulnerable group facing the loss of their homes and belongings with little recourse. Furthermore, the recovery and rebuilding of low-income rental housing will be the most difficult yet most critical task of recovery for a region with such high rates of poverty and inequality. For low-income impacted communities, the road ahead will be long.
Texas is also home to the nation’s second-largest Latino population, 9.8 million. The Houston-Woodlands-Sugar Land, metro area is home to 2,335,000 Hispanics, 36.4% of the population, many of which face economic and language barriers which make accessing aid and help challenging if not impossible. But by far those facing the most dire situation, are undocumented immigrants.
Anti-immigrant measures by the Trump administration have spread fear among many in the Latino community. Even young people who once felt safe and protected under the DREAM Act now live in constant fear of deportation. This very real fear stands in the way of many seeking any help whatsoever, even if their lives are at risk. Adding insult to injury, most undocumented immigrants also fear requesting any type of aid for damaged or lost property, meaning that any losses they have suffered will likely never be recovered.
So once again, it’s the neediest among us who suffer most. Those of our neighbors who already have to fight to get ahead, who struggle with low wages and poverty, those who already face discrimination due to the color of their skin, their accents, religion, gender, those who already struggle with illness, who suffer the most. While disasters themselves may not discriminate, but the way that we have developed our cities and our policies, and the way we treat millions of our fellow Americans, do.
We are all stakeholders when it comes to protecting our environment and as such it’s on us to make sure that we are all protected. Climate change is making hurricanes like Harvey more intense, wetter, and more severe. Warmer air holds more moisture, feeding more precipitation into storms resulting in more rainfall and increasing the risk of flooding. Policies proposed by the Trump Administration that ignore the reality of climate change put us all at risk and put these communities directly in harm’s way and lives at risk, and the toll can be seen worldwide. In the US, the impact of climate change is now clear, costly and widespread. While it’s too soon to tell, Harvey will likely cost us hundreds of billions of dollars and an unaccountable amount of human impacts.
While no one storm can be tied to climate change, ignoring the fact that climate change and inequitable and non-sustainable development puts us at greater risk, is foolish and reckless. Only when we face the facts and stop our reliance on fossil fuels, start developing communities that are sustainable and livable for all, and stop discriminating by race and socioeconomic status in our planning, will we truly begin to protect our neighbors from disasters, extreme weather, and harm. and start saving, not sacrificing more lives, hopes and dreams.