August 31, 2017
By: Janet Brown, Associate Director

Houston, We Have a Problem

The rain is only just beginning to let up in Houston, but the nightmare will continue to unfold over the next days, weeks, and months. The photos and video of human suffering are hard to fathom. Hospitals overrun, nursing homes with residents in chest-deep water, highways turned to rivers, homes and businesses with ceiling-high water, and families upended, carrying children and animals and leaving behind all possessions.

Photo credit: NASA

With over 50 inches of rain falling over the last few days, meteorologists and reporters have struggled to describe how catastrophic and unprecedented this hurricane has been.
The National Weather Service has had to come up with additional colors to describe the intensity of this storm. The hurricane actually gained in intensity as it hit landfall rather than decreasing which has been attributed to the unusually warm waters around Houston on August 23rd, one of the hottest areas in the world. A warming Arctic has been linked to stalled weather systems that remains in one place and dumps massive amounts of rain. Sea level rise of over a half a foot in the last decade means far more flooding and destruction.

Scientists agree that climate change made Harvey worse. Would Harvey have happened without climate change? Yes. Hurricanes will still happen, but climate change puts these storms on steroids. With each of the last 15 years being consecutively the hottest years on record, this sets up the perfect storm. Our warmer climate holds 30% more moisture. Storms are bigger, draw in more water, move slower, and cause much more rainfall. It’s been described as the difference between draining a bathtub and draining a sink. A recent study shows that by mid-century, over 450 million people worldwide will be exposed to a doubling of flood frequency. This isn’t just a Houston problem, it’s happening everywhere. More than 150 people are dead and 10 million people are affected by flooding and landslides in Bangalore, India this last week.

These images of flooded areas and great human suffering are becoming all too common. Houston has seen three 500-year flooding events since 2015 according to the meteorologist Eric Holthaus. The city has also seen a 167% increase in heavy downpours than it had in the 1950s. Meanwhile, only one-sixth of its residents have federal flood insurance and many were too poor to evacuate. As we say, climate change will affect everyone, but not everyone equally. Usually the people most impacted are those with the least amount of resources and political clout to deal with it.

There is a great financial cost in addition to the great human cost of natural disasters. Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, dumping 15 inches of rain and killing over 1,800 people. It cost nearly $125 billion. New Orleans’ population is still 50,000 below where it was before; some people were never able to move back. Superstorm Sandy in 2012 was the largest Atlantic storm system on record, killing 159 people and costing $65 billion in damages. Sandy destroyed 650,000 homes and 300,000 businesses. Our own Duluth flood that same year brought 7–10 inches of rain to already saturated ground and cost over $100 million to repair utilities, streets, parks, and trails.

Lawmakers in Texas, who voted against funding for Sandy, are expected to request funding for Hurricane Harvey that will exceed $100 billion. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said, “there is a reality that we are just coming to grips with—we are just at the beginning of the this process.” The other reality is that climate change is here. It is real, and it is causing tremendous human suffering. We have the ability and duty to educate ourselves, to help mitigate effects by converting from fossil fuels, and to adapt by building our cities to be more resilient to flooding and other climate-related effects.

We need our lawmakers to understand, accept, and act on climate change. We cannot afford to have a calculated system of denial. President Trump was encouraged to pull out of the Paris Agreement by twenty two Republicans who all had ties to the oil and gas industry. He disbanded the Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment that our Director of Education, Kristen Poppleton, was a member of. Two weeks ago, Trump signed an executive order on infrastructure, which no longer needs to take into account the scientific projections for climate change effects. The EPA is now telling scientists that they should not be linking Hurricane Harvey to climate change. We absolutely must hold our elected officials accountable, including members of our own legislature in Minnesota who continue to deny climate science. These actions have a cost of human life and suffering, as well as dollars.

It has been powerful to see people in Texas pull together. Relief groups, volunteers, neighbors, and strangers are helping their fellow human beings and working tirelessly to make sure people make it to safety. We should absolutely support these relief groups and applaud their heroic efforts. But, after making a donation or volunteering, our next step is to call or write our elected officials and demand that they act on climate change. This is a problem we must all be working on.