First Harvey, now Irma
How many times must the American south be flooded before the political class drops its ecological complacency? A few more yet, worries Ira Wiseman
Record-breakers: one after another
Hurricane Irma, the most powerful Atlantic storm ever recorded, has already devastated the Caribbean and is due to hit the US coast some time very soon. Irma was, of course, preceded, just a week or so ago, by Hurricane Harvey. The exact damage wrought in Texas and Louisiana by Hurricane Harvey will not be known for some time. But it was undeniably enormous.
The dry, monetary estimates of the physical upheaval range from $90 to $160 billion. To this must be added the value of 66 American lives so far - in the Trump era, surely at least seven or eight dollars a piece - not to mention the trauma suffered by the tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people displaced, and the hit to the Lonestar State’s priceless swagger. Tropical storms are common enough on the gulf coast, of course, and Harvey is the eighth to merit a name this year. It remains rare, however, that they are quite so catastrophic; and several aspects of the devastation merit comment. As is drearily typical, much of this is down not to the cruelties of a capricious natural order, but the shortsightedness of humankind.
The Harvey story is a classically biblical one, of inundation. It is the wettest tropical storm ever to have struck the mainland United States. The rains were torrential and relentless, and in the end have done far worse than the winds and the tornadoes. Houston is the worst affected urban area, and in part that is merely a matter of it being the largest city in the south, its 2.3 million people making it the fourth largest by population in the entire country.
It has been widely noted, however, that more than the mere size of the place is at issue. Houston’s planning regulations are notoriously laissez-faire. Unlike the strict zoning requirements obtaining in most other US cities, the municipal authorities are content, for the most part, to wave things through. The most obvious consequence of all this is sprawl - the metastasis of low-density housing. (Houston has a quarter of the population of New York, but twice the square-mileage.) “Under the paving stones, the beach,” went the slogan of May 1968; in Houston, under the concrete foundations of the multiplying neighbourhoods, there is the soft soil of a floodplain. When the rains came, before the place was what it is today, the ground would absorb the water. With such a vast, 600-square-mile spread of urban development, there is simply nowhere for the water to go.
To make things more dangerous still, the city is on very flat ground, which (again due to the pattern of development) has over the years become very slightly concave. Houstonians have been living in what amounts to a huge bowl, issuing the Almighty with a standing challenge - in true Texan style - to go ahead and do your worst.
The Houston flooding represents a severe challenge to a Texan body politic which has grown increasingly fraught over the past few decades, as its urban population grows, and especially among those demographics traditionally at odds with American conservatism, come election time. Texas is on the border with Mexico - indeed, was a part of Mexico, until it was annexed as the last great success of southern slaveholder expansionism in the 1840s. Its Hispanic population is huge; and, while the Catholics among it may be happy to vote with Republicans on abortion or homosexuality, it is the Democrats who have the best record of success in coopting voting caucuses along ethno-particularist lines. That in turn leads to increasingly shrill rhetoric on immigration in the American south-west, and the likes of the vile racist cop, Joe Arpaio - recently and notoriously pardoned by Donald Trump. This drives Hispanics closer to the Democrats; and the cycle continues.
The upshot is a state government still dominated by Republicans, and increasingly by Tea Party and Trumpite headbangers. As the urban centres grow, and grow politically to resemble other major cities in the US, so this dominance is increasingly dependent on blatant gerrymandering, of a sort that would have shamed 1950s Ulster - a look at the political map of Texas permits only one alternative explanation: viz, that it is some sort of psephological crop circle left by aliens with inscrutable motives.1 The deal is sealed with flagrant violations of the electoral franchise, dressed up as countermeasures against ‘voter fraud’.
Houston, believe it or not, has a black, liberal Democrat mayor, Sylvester Turner, albeit elected only narrowly; his predecessor, Annise Parker, was a lesbian, and the first openly non-heterosexual mayor in American history. Inevitably, some of the more simple-hearted Protestant fundamentalists in the state have pointed to such creeping liberalism in the city as the cause of the recent unpleasantness, but frankly this opinion is more marginal than it has been for some years. (God, after all, promised not to destroy Sodom if even 10 good men could be found within its walls; are there not 10 Baptists in Houston?) The fact that Texas has just had a special legislative session - not on the small matter of its most populous city being at vast, known and terrible risk of flooding, but instead on whether transgendered people should be denied the use of their toilet of choice - has rather more of a last-days-of-Rome, looming-Armageddon feel to it to this writer.
Speaking of Armageddon, it is hardly responsible to discuss all this without mentioning the threat of anthropogenic climate change, an idea also lacking in popularity among rightwing Texans, and indeed Americans in general, who have seen fit to elect a president who proclaims the whole thing a scam perpetrated on the US by envious competitors, and has pulled out of the weak-tea Paris accords on that basis. Ann Coulter, the rightwing pundit, caught some flack for saying, “I don’t believe Hurricane Harvey is God’s punishment for Houston electing a lesbian mayor. But that is more credible than ‘climate change’.” Of course, it is impossible to say that Harvey was a direct result of climate change; the point is rather that the outcome of global warming is in many cases a matter of more such ‘surprises’, like the exceptionally wet hurricane that has drowned Houston.
Socialists in foxholes
The other major strand of Texas politics - in this case, perhaps we ought to say Texas ideology - is that most ostentatiously rugged of all individualisms, and that too is left dangerously exposed in Houston. True Texans, according to this ideology, are the ones who pull themselves up by their own cowboy bootstraps. The cult of self-reliance translates into exactly the sort of politics we would expect. Texas has no state income tax. Its dominant political doxa is violently resentful of federal authority (with the usual exceptions made when the matter at hand is people’s private sexual lives). Its past governors include George W Bush and Tea Party perennial Rick Perry; its senior senator is the scenery-chewing God-botherer, Ted Cruz - the last man to be sent packing by The Donald on his way to coronation as Republican candidate last year, and who considers public education an egregious instance of government interference in private life.
In the midst of a natural disaster, however, such nostrums fall to pieces. Mass flooding and similar events immediately and always engender ‘socialism’: that is (in this connection), consciously organised distribution on the basis of need. As Hal Draper might put it, the choice is between ‘socialism from above’ - the intervention of the Federal Emergence Management Administration (Fema), widely hailed in the conspiracy theory literature as the agent of the shadowy cabal du jour; and ‘socialism from below’ - the spontaneous material solidarity of the people in the disaster zone, which is far more common than the luridly reported phenomena of looting and general anarchy. The market is not an option - unless, of course, unnecessary mass death and displacement is an option.2
So far as the Feds are concerned, the president is demanding a multi-billion-dollar reconstruction package - perhaps the only economic stimulus that stands a chance in a Congress ever more full of people roughly as mad as Ted Cruz. As for the spontaneous mutual aid end of things, a glorious example comes from The Baffler, an American left-liberal outlet, concerning the local petty bourgeois Tea Party blowhard furniture salesman, Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, who temporarily overcame his hatred of handouts to turn his showrooms over into something like refugee shelters:
Because this is the thing about those hard-charging capitalist cowboys: the tough-guy shtick breaks down every time it’s held to the light, and not because people are particularly compassionate beyond belief, or any saccharine judgement of the like. It’s just that the tight-walleted conservative sentiment relies only on a lack or refusal of the imagination. And, once imagination’s not required, once the consequences are real and close to you, the answers get easy. What do you do? Help. Contribute. Share. Why is that so hard to grasp in the abstract? Why must it be tested in the extremely, life-threateningly tangible to prove essential? Why is it so easy for some to fabricate and fixate on the image of the lazy citizen, the government parasite, but alternatively difficult for them to imagine the Houstonian grandmother standing on her roof, drenched in rain?3
Neither the low-level solidarity of the afflicted nor the emergency plans of Fema are remotely good enough, however, for neither are able to anticipate the disaster; they merely ameliorate its malign effects and help with recovery. Socialism without scare quotes would mean acknowledging that prevention is better than cure - that cities should not be allowed to spread anarchically to the point that they are at extreme flood risk, but should be democratically planned to best ensure the safety of all their constituencies; that humanity should not chug through its hydrocarbon reserves like there is no tomorrow, for tomorrow is coming on fast and the forecast is warm and wet.
2. A timely illustration presents itself: one of the earliest controversies surrounding Uber came when Hurricane Sandy triggered off its demand-based ‘surge pricing’, doubling fares; an appropriate market response to the disruption in the New York metro area, but directly counterproductive from the point of view of everyone making it to the following week in one piece, and a humiliating PR gaffe.