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.

The good life on the 30th floor

The Thinker by Rodin

Someone must have mistaken me for someone important. I am thirty floors up, living in this enormous hotel suite (which I calculate must at least be a thousand square feet) looking down on the breadth of San Antonio, Texas. To be specific, I am in the Marriott Rivercenter hotel. Perhaps my Marriott Silver Elite status entitled me to this free upgrade. In any event, I feel more than a bit flabbergasted. I have spent my share of time in four star hotels and in suite hotels. I have never had such an upscale hotel room as before. You could fit four standard Courtyard Inn hotel rooms (another Marriott brand) into this hotel suite.

All this space was purchased at a government rate, which is not much over a hundred dollars a night. I have to assume I won the Marriott lottery or something, or someone on our convention planning committee highlighted my name and told the hotel to make sure I got a really nice room. While probably higher graded than most of the attendees, there are plenty attending this convention that make more money that I do. This makes me curious: what are their rooms are like?

How do you make a luxury room more luxurious than the competition’s? To some extent you go to silly extremes. For example, my clock radio has dual stereo speakers and also comes complete with a MP3 docking port. The floor lamp has a foot control that you use to vary the light level. You make sure the toilet has two push buttons instead of a handle, a number one (which delivers a half flush) and a number two (which delivers a full flush). Presumably you use the number one for going Number 1, and the number two for going Number 2. I haven’t looked at my local Lowes to see if this model of toilet is available there. I am guessing not. In any event, press either button and you get a huge, instant whoosh that quickly carries away any excrement.

The room also comes complete with a high definition 42-inch television. Plain wooden furniture won’t do. The dresser has to have a marble top on it, and the drawers have to be on metal rails. The coffee and end tables appear to be brushed metal. The sofas and chairs have pillows for lumbar support. The bed, oddly, is much lower than my regular bed but like all four star hotels these days it comes with six enormously stuffed pillows, far more than any couple could possibly use on this king sized bed.

Alas, I am here alone. However, had I known I would have gotten a room this nice, I would have insisted that my wife accompany me. She could spend her days ambling up and down San Antonio’s lovely River Walk, which you can get to from a shopping mall on one side of the hotel. Moreover, with this magnificent view it seems kind of a waste for me to be here all alone. This is the sort of room where you should definitely include some romantic cardiovascular exercise, preferably with the curtains wide open and the lights off. I am betting the rear entry position while gazing out the window would never feel more ecstatic than here thirty floors up and with the city of San Antonio splayed like a postcard out my window.

In any event, this room has pretty much anything I could want except a whirlpool bath and a comely woman between the sheets. No matter, there is a large pool and Jacuzzi on the fourth floor, and I intend to try it out later tonight and perhaps some comely females in tight bathing suits will be there. I need the exercise from the pool, although I did at least amble a mile or so this evening along River Walk.  On the River Walk, the birds fearlessly grub for food among the tightly packed ambling humans. Motorized tourist boats chug down the small river (at best no more than three dozen feet across), and visitors can choose from literally hundreds of restaurants, many with live musicians and servers anxious to make eye contact so they can invite you to dine.

I haven’t found it yet, but somewhere near the River Walk is The Alamo, where occupying Texan soldiers were slaughtered by a much larger Mexican army some hundred and seventy plus years ago. As with most things, the Battle at The Alamo has been made to sound far nobler than it was. Vastly overwhelmed by the Mexican army, they could have easily been routed in a day, but Santa Anna wanted to play with the defenders, much like a cat will play with a mouse before killing it. While the battle does not deserve its overblown hype, it, plus the nearby River Walk helps bring in a lot of tourists, which makes the merchants, restaurant owners and hoteliers in San Antonio very happy.

San Antonio in May is quite warm and humid but still lovely. The River Walk is a strangely beautiful experience, but is somewhat marred by its many restaurants and shops that are clustered so close to its banks. It is full of paths and bridges, artificial waterfalls and limestone masonry. The city exists largely above it, which explains why I could not see it from my hotel room. This latitude has never agreed with me: it is too hot and humid overall, but at least along the River Walk you can forget the inch and a half long cockroaches and other scaly things you occasionally see here. Instead you can revel in the experience, which is sort of like the flume ride at Disney World without the flume, just the last bit before they haul you out of the boat on their artificial river. The San Antonio River is real enough, just smaller than I envisioned, with much of its water now able to be diverted along underground tunnels carved through the limestone. This is needed in the event of flooding, which happens periodically.  I learned today that San Antonio still holds the world’s record for the largest volume of rainfall delivered in less than twenty four hours.

Three more days of meetings in conference rooms await, with one day already behind me. Today I just listened and took notes. Tomorrow I speak for twenty minutes or so to sixty people or so signed up for our workshop. Down on the conference level the internet is free, but up here on the 30th floor, Marriott wants you to spend $12.95 a day for the privilege. It is too pricey for me to indulge, so instead I will take a quick ride down to the third floor to post this.

I expect during my week here to be charmed by San Antonio as well as eat a lot of great Mexican food, something I don’t do back home as my wife dislikes Mexican food. I expect to feel a little hot under the collar when I venture outdoors, which suggests I should first put on a T-shirt. This hotel, like most here in Texas, is a big believer in excessive air conditioning. Likely I will glad to be heading back to Northern Virginia on Friday.