Climate change: is it time to head for the hills?

The Thinker by Rodin

I’d like to say from watching the effects of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey on the Houston area that Mother Nature must be sending us a message. Mother Nature of course does not exist, but nature is sending us yet another message about climate change anyhow. It just doesn’t appear that we are listening quite yet.

Harvey is not a thousand year flood. This is the sort of storm likely to become much more frequent. My bet is that you will see one of these events about once a decade now in the United States, and probably more often. While it is impossible to attribute this particular storm to climate change, given that global warming has made the Gulf of Mexico a hotter body of water in general, it’s going to make any storms that form more likely to be severe. In this case, its arrival in Houston was particularly bad because of its huge population. Houston and environs is roughly the same size as New Jersey, and it is both densely populated and low-lying. Add a storm that doesn’t move much due to warmer Gulf of Mexico atmospheric conditions feeding it and it feels like we need Noah and his ark. Unfortunately at 300 x 50 x 30 cubits, it’s not going to hold the population of the Houston area, estimated at around 6.7 million people.

The reality is there is not a whole lot Houstonians could do to survive this flood other than just hang on and hope or head for the hills. Actually, heading for the hills was tried before, which is why Houston’s mayor didn’t order a mass evacuation. Over 100 people died in 2005 fleeing Hurricane Rita’s approach to Houston, mostly stuck in traffic trying to get out of the city. Maybe when Harvey’s casualties are totaled up, a mass evacuation will look sensible, even if those casualties are replicated again.

Of course evacuation is not always an option, particularly for the poor and displaced. Houston’s form of governance makes evacuation more difficult: the city has no zoning laws! Rita proved that its highways could not quickly empty the city but any transportation engineer could have told you that. A better-managed evacuation might have worked. If you didn’t have a car though you were largely out of luck. Houston is typical of most cities, which do second-class jobs at best of managing growth. If our cities were properly engineered people would not be allowed to move into the city until the infrastructure was there to ensure the safety of its inhabitants. Cities constantly play a losing game of catch up. In reality though they cannot afford to pay for every contingency or even the most likely ones. So when you move to places like Houston you must accept the downsides that storms like Harvey are going to wreak havoc on your life from time to time. Only now these events are going to feel more routine than exceptional.

All cities like Houston can really do are to try to mitigate the effects of storms like Harvey. Some people will throw in the towel after this event, seeking opportunities on higher and drier ground. Most residents won’t have that option. You go where you can find work. Cities will continue to be the best bets for finding good jobs. However, the internet does make it possible for many of us teleworkers to relocate if our bosses will allow it. Harvey will give many of those with this option incentive to head for the hills.

Eventually even Texans are going to have to acknowledge they can no longer deny climate change. There are actions government can and should take. One big change could be that the federal government stops issuing flood insurance in areas that are most prone to flooding, or at least new flood insurance policies in those areas. It’s rather harsh, but it does recognize reality and shifts the cost for those living in flood prone areas from the government to these residents. FEMA already produces flood maps so you can assess your vulnerability prior to moving somewhere. Some home insurers require federal flood insurance to issue policies.

Ideally no government would allow new houses to be built on likely flood plains. I used to live in Endwell, New York, a small village on the bank of the Susquehanna River. Floods in recent years have pushed the Susquehanna twice over its flood stage. It’s gotten so bad that pretty much all the properties close to the river have been abandoned or demolished. These floods twice reached the Catholic elementary school I used to attend, making it uninhabitable. This year the county finally got around to demolishing it. Expect to see more berms along rivers and coastal areas. They can reduce the likelihood of floods but not mitigate the risk to lives and property altogether.

With sea level rise though this simply buys time, necessary time hopefully for people to relocate to higher ground. Cities like Houston can’t relocate. Massive pumping stations like New Orleans has might help but it’s unclear that there is any safe place to discharge any water collected with Houston being inland. San Antonio is used to flooding and has adapted by constructing flood tunnels. I don’t think Houston has anything like this, but it should be studied.

As I noted two years ago, you don’t want to become road kill on the global climate change super highway. Climate change is here, coming at us quickly but not so quickly that most of us can’t make sensible long term plans to rearrange our lives to be minimally impacted by it. Think of Harvey as a harbinger of worse things to come. You want to avoid the rush because at some point climate change will become so undeniable that massive migrations to safer areas will start. So the sooner you pack up and leave the better off you will be and the less expensive it will be as well. You are also more likely to escape our climate crisis alive. Dead men tell no tales. If we could read the minds of the casualties from Harvey they probably would have wished that they had headed for the hills long ago.