The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Hurricane Harvey:
A Man-Made—Not “Natural”—Disaster

Sep 4, 2017

Hurricane Harvey and the flooding that followed left a trail of devastation in Houston and the surrounding area. As of September 1, dozens had died, more than 42,000 people are in shelters, with 185,000 homes damaged or destroyed, 200,000 customers without power, and several hundred thousand residents without water. Despite an outpouring of assistance from people trying to help, evacuees complain of a shortage of beds and unclean bathrooms.

And more is yet to come. Flooding of sewage systems and subsequent runoff could lead to widespread contamination of private water wells, which are common in the area. The area is home to massive chemical and oil industries, and a busy shipping channel with close to 500 industrial facilities. The Environment Defense Fund tallied reports to Texas state regulators and found damaged refineries and other oil facilities had already released more than two million pounds of hazardous chemicals into the air. The fire at the Arkema chemical plant is just one example.

Whether or not residents can return to their damaged homes, they face these and other exposures. Then comes the task of rebuilding, which will be costly, for which the vast majority of homeowners are unprepared. Robert Hunter, the director of insurance at the Consumer Federation of America, estimates that only 20% of homeowners affected by Hurricane Harvey have coverage from flood insurance. That’s even worse than what occurred in Katrina, for which about half of flooded homes were covered.

Government officials and most of the bosses’ media would have us believe Hurricane Harvey was extraordinary and unforeseen–a natural disaster that couldn’t be avoided. The Houston metropolitan area is home to 6.5 million people, spread out across 600 square miles, much of it suburban. Its transportation system consists largely of freeways which themselves flood during major storms. For these reasons, they say, the politicians could not tell people to evacuate, for fear of causing freeway gridlock and trapped vehicles.

Yes, it’s true, the way the Houston area is designed, or more appropriately its lack of a coherent design, made this a disaster waiting to happen. But it’s false to say it could not be foreseen.

Urban engineers know the problem. Much of the Houston area lies in a floodplain, but that’s not the main problem. Water from rainfall and snowfall doesn’t have to lead to flooding. It can be absorbed into the ground.

Grass in prairies can grow to six to eight feet above ground and even deeper underground, which allows it to soak up huge amounts of water. The growth of cities, however, leads to the covering over of grasslands, parks, and residential lawns with cement. In most of the U.S. only about 1 percent of land is what’s called “hardscape.” In cities, up to 40% of land cannot absorb water. In Houston, it’s even worse. And much of the soil in the area not covered with cement is made up of clay, which also prevents water absorption.

The increasing frequency of large rainfall totals is at least in part an effect of climate change. Scientists have issued clear warnings and are finding the consequences of climate change occurring even sooner than they previously predicted.

If journalists and scientists know about this, so do government officials. Yet they’ve consistently supported the growth of industry and shipping in coastal areas that could be protected for grasslands. They’ve repeatedly opposed environmental regulations that might prevent or reduce the threat of the release of toxins in the event of a flood that might impede corporate profits. They’ve funded the building of freeways to carry people to suburbs where land for homes and industry, especially in Texas, is cheap.

In a rational society, steps could be taken to reduce industrial emissions that lead to global warming.

The government could impose protection of coastal grasslands. Methods of capturing and reusing rainfall, like building large cisterns under open fields and stadiums, could be employed.

In the event of flooding, large numbers of people could be evacuated, but that requires planning and the use of public transportation that could carry many more people out of a flood region in a smaller amount of time. Following Hurricane Harvey, ordinary people jumped in to rescue thousands of people government forces failed to reach.

We live in a society that cannot organize the rescue capacities normal people showed, nor organize the technology available today for the protection of human beings, because corporate profits come before human need. The consequences of Hurricane Harvey for the people of the Houston area show that capitalism is a worn out form of social organization that ought to be thrown out.