Texas’ Hurricane Harvey is surpassing the anticipated fears of scientists, environmentalists and disaster planners alike. The catastrophic hurricane, the most powerful storm to hit Texas in more than 50 years, has so far claimed at least 10 lives and left hundreds stranded.
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According to the National Weather Service, parts of Harris County in Texas have received over 30 inches of rain and will increase as the downpour is expected to continue through Wednesday.
Scientists have pinned the catastrophe on a deadly combination of factors, like warm water in the Gulf of Mexico, lack of wind in the upper atmosphere, which may otherwise have guided the storm away from land.
“The wind and storm surge were terrible enough, what you would expect from a Category 4 landfall, but the unprecedented devastation resulted from the fact that Harvey stalled over the region and is still not leaving,” Stan Cox, research coordinator at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, told teleSUR.
“It continues pulling moisture out of the Gulf and dumping it on land. The rainfall amounts and intensity of flooding distinguish Harvey. The chief damage from Katrina was the levee break. Andrew was a “dry”, fast-moving storm, so wind was the biggest factor. This time it’s flooding.”
The latest research says global warming is one of the major drivers of this trend.
“There seems to be a consensus among climate models that greenhouse warming, while it may not increase the number of tropical cyclones (the generic name for what we call hurricanes in this hemisphere), it will increase their intensity and destructiveness,” Cox said.
“No single event can be said to have been “caused” by greenhouse emissions, but I would be comfortable betting that they had something to do with supercharging Harvey into something we haven’t seen before,” he added.
In a 2016 study on the severity of a tropical cyclone, the authors stated, “Storms are intensifying at a much more rapid pace than they used to 25 years back.”
“They are getting stronger more quickly and also (to a) higher category. The intensity, as well as the rate of intensity, is increasing.”
Hurricanes “extract heat energy from the ocean to convert it to the power of wind, and the warmer the ocean is, the stronger a hurricane can get if all other conditions that it needs to exist are present,” meteorologist and former hurricane hunter Jeff Masters told Think Progress.
Fredrick Magdoff, Professor emeritus of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont, blamed the over development in the flood-prone area for Texas’ unpreparedness for such a cataclysmal disaster and also a major hindrance in managing the disaster.
“The issue is over development, too many buildings, parking lots, and infrastructure, all this construction is ecologically not sustainable. There needs to be sufficient area that can help absorb the rainfall,” Magdoff, the author of “What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism,” told teleSUR.
“The local governments are not doing enough to enforce stringent measures that will help keep the excessive construction at bay.”
A 2016 investigative piece by ProPublica and Texas Tribune about Houston’s flood risk, “Boomtown, Flood Town,” echoed the same thought, “Unchecked development remains a priority in the famously un-zoned city, creating short-term economic gains for some while increasing flood risks for everyone.”
“We’ve done nothing to shore up the coastline, to add resiliency … to do anything,” Phil Bedient, a Rice University professor who co-directs the Storm Surge Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center, told ProPublica.
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Magdoff also said climate change is playing a key role in exacerbating the weather that in turn has affected the frequency and severity of these storms.
“The air is becoming warmer, causing these intense storms. These once in a 100-year or once in 500-year storms are becoming much more frequent.” Magdoff said.
These 100-year and 500-year categories are based on a probability and aren’t historic. Natural disasters are described in such terms on the basis of the probability of such floods occurring, which is extremely rare as it has the odds of 500-to-1 in any given year.
Between August 2015 to August 2016, there were eight such 500-year flood events recorded by the National Weather Service in the U.S. The country also saw six “1,000-year” floods over the course of five years from 2010 to 2014. But in 2015 and 2016, there were at least three every year.
Theoretically, the odds of a 1-in-500 event occurring three times in a row are one in 125 million. Similarly, a “100-year” floodplain is considered to have a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year.
Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, that bases its predictions on such probabilities clearly missed the mark with Hurricane Harvey. A scathing example is a region in West Houston called Memorial City, that wasn’t a part of Houston’s 500-year floodplain but flooded three times in the past decade, in 2009, 2015, and 2016.
Apart from Houston, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, also got hit with a 500-year flood in 2008, followed by a 100-year flood in 2016.
“Unfortunately, low-lying regions, which are fairly flat, like the parking lots, highways, the water gets accumulated as there’s no escape point,” Magdoff also pointe out.
Nearly 7,000 homes were built since 2010 in low-lying areas of the city. Although the Army Corps of Engineers and Harris County partnered to widen the channels and build bridges over the flood-prone Brays Bayou river flowing through Harris County to help reduce the impact of flooding, the city was unable to build new seawall or floodgates due to lack of adequate resources.
Referring to the historic flooding unleashed by Harvey, Cox said, “Our cobbled-together non-system of dealing with disasters – ad hoc emergency declarations, hotly contested, politicized decisions on sending aid, a floundering flood insurance system, economic incentives to rebuild in hazard zones, etc. – is failing.”