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Harvey, Vulnerability, and Resilience in Context on the Gulf Coast

There has been no shortage of rapid assessments in the wake of Harvey, many of which point to endemic vulnerabilities embedded within US gulf coast communities (risk of hurricanes, large at-risk populations and critical infrastructure, the role of a changing climate, energy infrastructure, vulnerable petrochemical processing plants, etc.). Harvey’s impacts have also led to a “rediscovery” of past reporting and analysis that foreshadowed many of the hurricane’s more devastating outcomes. (e.g. ProPublica’s series on Houston flood risk, (lack of) zoning, and rapid development in the

Harris County Flood Plain Map. Image courtesy Harris County Flood Control District.

Houston area). They have also shifted media coverage to heavily emphasize context in Houston and Texas gulf coast (e.g. the Washington Post article on Houston’s “Wild West” growth and expansion). On top of rapid urban growth and development in flood prone areas, the stochasticity of weather and the persistent trend of a changing climate also played key roles in how Harvey unfolded (and continues to unfold). A large high pressure ridge over the West had the effect of placing what amounted to an atmospheric wall in the path of the storm (Fig. 3). A climatologist colleague put it simply: “If we had a large sprawling ridge across much of the US like we often do in the summer, Harvey would have kept moving west-northwest and probably would have sheared apart and turned into a rainy day for New Mexico.”

Beyond the social, policy, and environmental contexts, a series of questions are on people’s minds as they watch the images of people trapped in their homes, wading through flooded roadways, or waiting out evacuations on their roof: why are people there in the first place?  What are they still doing there?  A question asked less frequently in the moment, but no less important: what happens when communities return and start the slow process of recovery?

To the first question – there is no simple answer, but one of the major economic drivers in the region is oil- and gas-related economic activity – extraction, processing and refining, distribution, along with all the downstream economic activity associated with these jobs.  In Texas, oil and gas extraction and services makes up 2.2% of total Texas employment, while refining and chemical manufacturing makes up 0.9%; in terms of GDP, upstream activities and refining/manufacturing represent 14.3% and 6.0% of total Texas GDP, respectively (Upton et. al. 2017). Similarly, an IPAA report from 2015 identified over 500,000 jobs linked to oil and natural gas. Not all of these jobs are located on the Texas coast, but the area around Houston, Corpus Christi, and the Golden Triangle (Port Arthur, Beaumont, and Orange TX), are dotted with numerous petrochemical processing and storage facilities. Given their relative immobility, it makes intuitive sense that the jobs and economic development will cluster around these facilities, whether they are ideally located given current environmental risks or not. In interviews with long term residents of the gulf coast who work in these industries, the fact that their livelihood (i.e. jobs, economic growth, etc.) was entwined with an industry that also amplified the risks they face as gulf coast residents (sea level rise, coastal land loss and subsidence, etc.) was not lost on them, it was simply a reality of life on the US gulf coast.

An Image depicting climatological patterns over the United States, with a low pressure zone over Texas and a "wall" of higher pressure to the northwest.

Aug 27, 2017 500mb Height Anomaly. Image Courtesy Tropical Tidbits.

And the “what are they still doing there” question? Evacuation during hurricanes is a fraught issue. For one thing, there is no guarantee you will be safer if you do evacuate: in 2005, Rita was bearing down on Southeast Texas, and the recent high visibility catastrophe of Katrina in New Orleans was fresh in people’s minds. In fact, some evacuees from Katrina were sheltering in the area when Rita struck. The evacuation was massive, despite there only being a limited call for mandatory evacuations (in coastal inundation zones). Millions fled the Houston area, desperate to avoid the fate of Katrina victims they had just witnessed on TV (or, in some cases, in person). The evacuations vastly exceeded the capacity of the roadways, and countless people were trapped in miles of snarled traffic on the interstate and regional highways. People ran out of gas, and were trapped in the summer heat and waiting to move. More people died in the Rita evacuation than in the storm itself. For another, there is no guarantee you will actually have needed to evacuate: in 2008, Gustav was forecast to make landfall in Southeast Texas. Given its intensity and trajectory, and the recent memory and experience of Rita, much of the region made extensive preparations to evacuate ahead of time.  The concern was warranted, but as the storm swung East, its impacts were primarily felt in Louisiana. Less than two weeks later, Hurricane Ike was on a similar path, and yet again, evacuations were called for. Interviewees in Texas indicated that a mix of uncertainty about the eventual path of the storm, combined with the costs of evacuations, led many people to remain in place for Ike after having wasted both time and money evacuating for Gustav two weeks prior. Ike’s trajectory did not falter, and caused significant impacts along the coastal and inland communities of southeast Texas.

Finally: what happens when communities return and start the slow process of recovery? Resilience is frequently deployed rhetorically to describe the rugged character of communities after they rebound from a given disaster – attributions that emerge from both within and outside of these communities. Less discussed is the role that policy and practice (e.g. limited zoning restrictions in Houston despite economic development in flood zones; widespread, built-up energy industry infrastructure, etc.) might have on defining resilience for a community. To assume that rugged (individual and community) character is sufficient to transcend the disruption of community wide damage is simplistic, but the term is sometimes used in ways that suggest that “resilient” communities may be less dependent on outside (read: federal) assistance – again, a justification that originates both within and outside communities. Insurance – both private insurance, and state/federal insurance programs (e.g. Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA) and the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)) – will play a crucial role in supporting recovery and rebuilding, but gaps in coverage, and in particular the time it takes to obtain estimates and receive payment, will constrict the flow of recovery, outside of those that have the capital to start rebuilding before waiting for insurance reimbursements.

It may be simplistic to observe that while disastrous storm impacts are sudden, the long-term context is what set the stage for the event’s impacts. It is similarly simplistic (but also accurate) to observe that if past gulf coast hurricanes are any indication, people will quickly return to start the process of recovery. However, this process will be slow. Texans, regardless of their enthusiasm or resilience, will face considerable obstacles in returning to a sense of normalcy.

Note: Hurricane Carla (1961) followed almost an identical path to Harvey, making landfall on Sept 11, 1961 as a category 4 storm. Unlike Harvey, however, it moved rapidly inland and to the northeast, and was almost to St. Louis by Sept 14. The storm caused considerable wind damage along the coast, and while it resulted in substantial tidal flooding along the coast with storm surge, it produced more “reasonable” precipitation totals, ranging from approximately 9 to 17 inches of precipitation as it passed through coastal Texas.

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