Filed Away Into Oblivion

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All across the Gulf Coast of southeast Texas from Corpus Christi to Beaumont/Port Arthur the devastation from hurricane Harvey has left a trail of destruction, tears and questions. Weary citizens have spent days upon days mucking out houses, washing flood soaked laundry, cleaning the everyday items that were once the fixtures of their households. Neighbors have helped neighbors. Family has embraced family. Strangers have opened their hearts and their wallets. The restoration has begun in earnest even as some areas still lie in the clutches of high water with no sign of when their residents may return.

It doesn’t seem to matter which part of Harvey’s path one might choose to explore. Virtually everywhere that the beastly storm chose to go there are entire neighborhoods or unlucky blocks where the evidence of its heartlessness is horrifyingly present in the endless piles of debris that rise several feet from the ground and on the vacant faces of those affected. Seeing the wreckage is mind numbing and heartbreaking. Witnessing the people who are attempting to deal with the unthinkable is unbearable. While there is a determination to rise from the waters, there is also a kind of pall over the landscape and wonder if the things that we took so for granted will ever be quite the same again.

It is estimated that only twenty percent of those whose homes and property was damaged had purchased flood insurance. Many of the affected areas had never before been inundated and there was little reason to compel homeowners to buy the policies. It will be up to the federal government and FEMA to help the families to rebuild, and the cost will no doubt be staggering. More disturbing will be the loss of a sense of security that even those who were spared are now feeling. We fret and worry over what will eventually become of all of us who endured the tornadoes and days of relentless downpours that poured fifty one inches of rain over our rooftops. The memories of one weather warning after another and all night watches over the water creeping toward our doors are still so fresh and terrifying. The sights and smells of the destruction seem to follow us even as we close our eyes and attempt to shower the grime from our bodies. The fear that we all experienced stalks us now that we attempt to go back to work and our usual routines.

As the sun shines once again in our part of the world, a monster hurricane threatens Florida and the east coast. Others have formed in the ocean. Fires burn in Montana, California and Oregon. It seems as if Mother Nature is unleashing her fury, and we begin to ask ourselves questions and consider what we may have done to be accomplices in the creation of such events. Are there proactive steps that we might take to change the course or the magnitude of climatic events in the future? These are the thoughts that fill our brains and none of the answers are easy or certain.

My husband likes to call himself a belt and suspenders kind of guy. In other words he is a very cautious sort. As such we expend large amounts of our income on various kinds of insurance policies and fraud protection systems. When the federal government first began selling flood insurance he signed up immediately even though we had never experienced water seeping inside any of our homes. We have continued to renew the policy year after year in spite the increasing cost and lack of use. Our thought as native Houstonians has been that we never quite know what strange occurrences my happen, and we want to be ready for the unexpected. I suspect that after Harvey the premium for our policy will go through the roof, but we will continue to purchase the safety net just in case, and I would recommend that everyone else do so as well. So many of those affected by the damage would be sleeping so much better with that little piece of added security in their pockets

The bigger questions involve infrastructure and building practices that may or may not have helped to prevent much of the damage. It has come to light for example that engineers from the Harris County Flood Control District outlined a plan to improve the drainage system of the Addicks and Barker dams all the way back in 1996. They presented their concerns and suggestions to the Army Corps of Engineers and nothing happened. The report was filed away. Today the tragedy that the study predicted in very clear terms has come to pass. The belief is that it might have been prevented at a cost of under ten million dollars rather than the billions it will take to rebuild the neighborhoods that sit under water today.

When we are cautious in the way we do things we sometimes never know if our efforts actually have some sort of effect or not. If wisdom had ruled the day and the money had been found and spent to improve the dams’ drainage capabilities there would be no flooding in the affected areas and we would wonder if we had really needed to expend all of the effort. That is the way of proactive measures. Often the occasion to use them never arises, but when it does we pat ourselves on the back for being so prescient.

We might argue forever about topics like climate change, building practices, drainage systems, and insurance, but our question becomes why we would ever want to take unnecessary chances. It is a fact that hurricane Harvey created an unprecedented event with its fifty one inches of rain. It is true that homes that have been high and dry for decades only flooded because the storm dumped an amount of water that no form of planning might have overcome, but I find myself wondering why we would want to just walk away from this experience without considering important changes that might actually help if and, God forbid, when we have to experience such an event again.

Our ancestors were more often than not a bit more inclined toward precautions than we were. The Addicks and Barker dams were built in the 1940s because of major flooding incidents in the city of Houston in 1929 and 1935. My mother and mother-in-law often spoke of those events and how they impacted the people who had endured them. The dams themselves were eventually located on land far from the center of the city and most of the population. Adjacent tracts were purchased to insure that there would be no habitation in the path of water. Sadly, as the city grew and sprawled across the landscape developers purchased plots next to the city owned land and built suburban neighborhoods without thought of what might happen if those dams were ever overrun with water in the kind of scenarios that experts had foreseen.

Back in the old days people avoided building too near the bayous and creeks. They elevated their homes on pillars. They terraced the lawns and built houses considerably higher than the level of the streets. Most of the neighborhoods and homes built by our parents and grandparents weathered the deluge just as they have done for decades. They were constructed in ways mindful of the presence of the network of bayous and creeks and rivers that crisscross the geography. Perhaps it would behoove us to consider such things just as they once did. There really should be an appropriate way of building for specific parts of the country that takes the possibilities of nature’s whimsy into consideration.

Of course there is the lurking question of the part that climate change plays in wreaking havoc across the globe. I suggest that instead of wasting our time arguing over whether or not it is true, we simply begin to change our ways just in case. What would it hurt to become more considerate of the world in which we live? Why can’t we all become more conscious of the ways that we use and waste the earth’s resources? Simple gestures multiplied millions of times will indeed make at least a small impact, and every little bit will help. We can be more like our parents who only allowed the television to run for so many hours a day. They scurried about the house turning off lights and appliances. They created compost heaps and recycled bottles. They were mostly being frugal, but their habits certainly helped to reduce waste and emissions of carbon dioxide.

I would never want to be accused of being one of those people who smugly suggest that somehow all of us who live in Harvey’s path are somehow responsible for what happened. Ours is a tragedy wrought by a storm that would have inundated any city or town regardless of what protective measure had been taken. Still, I believe in reflecting on tragedies and asking ourselves hard questions about what measures we may take in the future to alleviate at least some of the suffering. It is something that we must do. We have to insist that reports that predict disaster will never again be simply filed away into oblivion. 

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