As the floodwaters recede, Houston’s underlying social disasters are surfacing in Harvey’s wake. Harvey is not misfortune, it is environmental crime. The impacted region’s petrochemical facilities and predatory land development are stoking the same weather patterns that have drenched Mumbai and blasted the Caribbean. And the same polluters will now control a potentially equally disastrous “recovery” process.
For Texas’s oil and business corporations, the furious waves and winds were calculated into the cost of doing business. Federal flood-protection standards were deliberately kept weak enough to foster unsustainable construction in disaster-prone areas. For years, federal flood maps, which determine building decisions, have grown wildly out of date, and in many regions don’t even exist, including much of Texas. Meanwhile, Trump has continued Washington’s pattern of coddling corporate polluters with a new executive order just days before Harvey slammed into Texas’s oil-rich coast.
Eventually, the flooding will likely yield to a secondary epidemic of mold growth, leaving poor communities disproportionately exposed to respiratory disease. Superstorm Sandy’s fungal fallout sickened New York’s low-income public-housing residents, who were already suffering from pre-storm mold contamination. Coming home to impoverished, toxic buildings, they were subject to even greater injury than catastrophic flood damage, trapped between inadequate remediation and a citywide lack of affordable housing.
Harvey’s devastation covered the whole coast, but the “fence-line communities,” with concentrated poverty and pollution, are disproportionately threatened by under-regulated waste sites that leach toxic contamination constantly.
Human-made inequality will also undoubtedly shape the second wave of this disaster through the region’s recovery efforts, distributed by ZIP Code. If past hurricane recoveries are any guide, the federal flood management authorities are virtually incapable of preventing unsustainable rebuilding in hazardous areas, due to anemic regulation and corporate-friendly insurance schemes. Meanwhile, the White House has pushed to slash funding for Superfund cleanup and roll back chemical-safety regulation.
Other areas may be forced to rebuild with minimal protections against future climate threats. The post-Katrina reconstruction of New Orleans, for example, suffered from a mass displacement of people of color, and aggressive gentrification and privatization of social services—effectively rebuilding the city on even deeper rifts of racial and economic hierarchy.