April 7, 2020

The New Normal

By Stephen Tuttle | Sept. 9, 2017

For those who lost loved ones, the pain will likely never end. For the thousands whose homes or businesses were damaged or destroyed, the pain is just beginning. 

Hurricane Harvey was an equal opportunity destroyer. Neither skin color nor language nor bank accounts mattered. When the waters came calling, they called for anyone and everything in their path, almost 11,000 square miles of flooding.

No city in the United States is equipped to deal with feet of rain — literally trillions of gallons — in a few days. Houston is especially vulnerable. Its bayous and canals crisscross neighborhoods and business districts on their way to rivers, and all feed into Galveston Bay. Too much rain, and all of it overflows into the city. The city has experienced heavy flooding half a dozen times just this century.

The result this time was catastrophic.

As always, the disaster brought people together. We saw endless acts of heroism and selflessness. It isn't unique to Houston any more than it was unique to New York after 9/11, or New Jersey after Sandy, or Boston after the marathon bombing. For reasons known only to sociologists and psychologists, we wait for the worst before collectively giving our best. 

The Houston area will need a lot of that kindness, and for a long time. The president's rhetorical excesses notwithstanding, we know from Katrina and Sandy and other massive natural disasters that recovery will not be fast for many people.

We know, for example, with as many as 100,000 homes and businesses damaged or destroyed, there aren't enough contractors or a big enough labor pool to do this quickly. 

We know that many of those impacted will not have flood insurance, or any insurance at all, and they will not be first in line for those doing the rebuilding. Contractors have little choice but to accept bigger jobs that mean more income.

We know people employed by small businesses are most likely to lose income for a longer time or lose their jobs altogether. Small is not good when recovering from a disaster.

We know that renters will wait longer than homeowners to get back into their homes; thousands are now being evicted from uninhabitable apartments. The combination of lost income and a lost residence will drive many elsewhere. And we know smaller communities will be last in line for almost everything. We've already heard some small Houston-area towns will be without power for weeks. 

And Harvey isn't likely to be the last such disaster. We've been told for more than two decades to expect more severe and more frequent storms. Warming ocean waters serve as both incubator and fuel for cyclonic events, including their accompanying flooding rains. 

The Gulf of Mexico was two degrees warmer than average this summer. The Atlantic is also warmer than average. Two degrees doesn't sound like much, but it's enough to turn a typical thunder storm into a tropical depression, a tropical depression into a tropical storm, and a tropical storm into a hurricane. Harvey might be the new normal.

(Hurricane Irma, an angry category 5 storm and feeding off those warm waters as this is being written, might already have made destructive landfall by the time you read this.)  

Hurricane Harvey was just the latest example, a chapter in a lengthening book. 

We're going to have to start making some unpleasant decisions about how many times we're willing, as taxpayers, to rebuild the same at-risk places. Do we continue to build on barrier islands and dunes that could be protection against storm surges? Do we keep draining the wetlands that could be draining flood waters? Rebuild, only to rebuild again and again?

We've spent billions of federal dollars rebuilding parts of flood-prone Houston multiple times just this century. New Orleans, which was built below sea level, is another Katrina waiting to happen. Parts of the southern Florida Gulf Coast now flood during normal high tides. Rising sea levels have forced the relocation of people on the Alaskan coast and on islands south of New Orleans.

The man in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't believe in climate science. 

The symptoms are becoming more pronounced, but this administration continues willfully ignoring the causes, so we'd better at least be prepared for the effects. 

Instead, our national flood insurance program is already in the red, the Republican's initial budget plan actually cut funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the president reversed an Obama-era regulation requiring federal infrastructure projects to better withstand flood events — all of which will likely make things worse. 

They called the Hurricane Harvey floods 1,000-year events. But it isn't likely to be anywhere near 1,000 years before we see another. And then another.   









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