No More Time to Hide: Harvey & Global Climate Change

Although the Trump administration will tell you now is not the time to talk about climate change because they are focusing on helping people. However, now is the time to talk about climate change because the future is grim for people in flood zones, and areas that never were labeled flood zones.  And if a flood happens in an areas that normally doesn’t flood, officials will say, well, it’s in a 1 in 1000-year floodplain, and there is less than 1% and 1.2% annual chance of a flood.  The problem is that these numbers disregard how the climate of the earth has changed since the advent of global warming.  The flood zoning is out-of-date, and this works to the advantage of developers and insurance companies.

The mere size of Hurricane Harvey is directly connected to global climate change, and the longer we deny this, the less able we will be in a place to make policy decisions that could lead to less flooding, perhaps the most egregious result of greed busting land development and the construction of neighborhoods in areas that never should have been built on in the first place.

There is no more time to hide from the facts that exist about climate change.  The evidence is all around us that the earth’s environments are changing in dangerous ways including temperature change, increased air pollution, polar ice melting, glacial retreat, sea level rise, species extinction, changes in the migration patterns of animals, effects of water changes and extreme temperatures on plants, extreme fires, & flooding.


Of all of these flooding (and fires) have enormous effects on people, their families, and entire communities.  In an investigation reported in ProPublica, communities in Houston has been repeatedly flooded, but because of the government policy of making flood insurance available, people are encouraged to continue living in these flood prone areas.  In fact, in the ProPublica article, one extreme case, a single property received 18 flood insurance payouts totaling $1.8 million, which is 15 times the market value of the property.  In many cases, homeowners are required to rebuild the house to a higher elevation.  Still, its flooded again.

The flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey was horrific. It is shown in the map below. According to the report I found on the New York Times, about 40% of the buildings that were flooded were in areas that are considered to be “of minimal flood hazard.” Look to the left side on the map, areas near the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, and just to the north of these two points of interest. These reservoirs, built in the 1940s to control the flow of water along two rivers, held during the storm, but engineers had to release water to prevent the earthen banks from breeching. Nearly all of the flooding in this area was outside of the flood zone as shown in red.  Pink areas are flooded buildings within a flood zone. Release of the water from Addicks and Barker contributed to the flooding of huge areas near the dams, which are now subdivisions of homes.

However, when the dams were built, the land around the reservoirs was grassland.  Grassland decreases runoff because much of the water from rain is absorbed directly in the soil.  In fact, the engineers built parkland and recreation areas if ever water had to be released.  But, politicians, &  home construction developers convinced the people who buy homes that development in this areas would be safe.  For goodness sake, there hadn’t been any floods of notice.  So for decades, development led to construction that covered over the grasslands with concrete and homes, increasing runoff, and threatening streams and rivers.

Hurricanes and Texas have been common for centuries, but at the same time the planet was increasingly getting hotter and hotter, resulting in increasing the temperature of ocean waters (the source of energy for hurricanes), increasing the melting of ice, including glaciers, and especially the polar areas.  This resulted in greater of amounts of water for evaporation, and precipitation.

Superstorms of the magnitude of Harvey this year, and Sandy in 2012 will become the norm.  In fact as I write this blog post, Hurricane Irma with winds of around 100 mph is in the Atlantic on a track that will bring it to the Caribbean and the U.S.

We can’t hide.  We need to act and insist that local and state governments work to influence the Federal Government, which we know is officially living in the state of climate change denial, and get it to act to curb global warming.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University