"Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it."
We all remember our 10th grade history teacher trying to engrain this quote into our malleable young minds, while teaching us the importance of the fall of Rome. At the time, it may have seemed like a tired cliché to our beautifully sophomoric brains, but in 2017, in the wake of Hurrican Harvey, it seems as if we may have finally learned our lesson—though, it seems like that every time.
Prior to the arrival of Hurricane Harvey, climatologists and meteorologists warned the Houston area of the destructive potential of a disastrous hurricane. Houston, Texas finds itself in a pretty inopportune area regarding post-rainfall drainage. In fact, to put it into simpler terms, Houston is built on a swamp. Couple this with the fact that the heart of the city lies just miles away from the Gulf of Mexico, and it is easy to come to the conclusion that Houston is in continuous danger of catastrophic flooding.
Despite numerous warnings regarding the danger of waterfront property in the greater Houston area, the city continued issuing building permits to people that yearned to live by the water. City officials had to look no further back in the history books than 2005 to identify a situation that could have provided a blueprint as to how NOT to handle development in risky areas.
Both Houston and New Orleans were built with the intentions of becoming port cities, and as a result, by the end of the 20th century, propelled their respective economies some of the largest among port cities in the nation. This success led to booms in population in both areas, as well as unprecedented urban development. Both cities rank among the top 15 in the country by area (square miles). The demand for expansion led both cities to continue development into riskier and riskier areas. A majority of New Orleans lies anywhere from a few feet above, to a few inches below sea level. Houston on the other hand, maxes out at 80 feet above sea level. What was once considered the strength of both Houston and New Orleans--proximity and ease of access to the sea—has now become its weakness.
The story of Hurricane Katrina can go without explanation. Despite going down as one of the worst national disasters in the history of the United States, it should have been a fantastic learning lesson for Houston.
In a tweet from President Donald Trump, he explained that Houston was experiencing a "one-in-500-year flood", a notion that based on semantics, should be shocking. What this means is that there is a one –in-500 chance of a flood of this magnitude happening each year. But, when looking at the facts of the situation, the notion becomes terrifying. This is the third, "one-in-500-year flood" to happen in Houston in the past three years, meaning that the odds of this happening three times over the course of three years is 1-in-125,000,000. What this means is that three years ago, if you lived in Houston, you had a better chance of becoming a Catholic Saint (1-in-20 million) than being hit with three floods of this magnitude in as many years.
"...you had a better chance of becoming a Catholic Saint (1-in-20 million) than being hit with three floods of this magnitude in as many years".
Despite being concerned with these 1-in-500-year floods, about a week before Hurricane Harvey hit the greater Houston Area, Mr. Trump repealed the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard set in place by Barack Obama that required federal agencies to have to build structures at least above the hypothesized one-in-500-year flood estimates. The standard was set in place in response to historic flooding striking across America in recent years, in accordance to the latest climate science.
In 2015, Texas Senator John Cornyn signed a letter that stated “We continue to express serious concern regarding the vast implications the issuance of a new FFRMS (Federal Flood Risk Management Standard) would have on families and workers in communities along the coasts and inland waterways”. The letter went on to address the cost of implementing the standard as the largest concern. Today, downtown Houston, home to at least 10 federal buildings, can be found under feet of flood water. Expected damage costs have been estimated to be around 10 billion dollars.
This catastrophe is certainly reminiscent of the Japanese Tsunami that stuck in 2011. The reason behind the similarities doesn't lie within the nature of the event, it lies within the ignored forewarning leading to the actual destruction.
Scattered around the coast of Japan, people have found stone pillars—some as high as 10 feet tall—warning future residents to "not build beyond this point". These monuments, dating back to as far as 1611 a.d., warn of the dangers of building a home too close to the shore line due to the ever-present threat of Tsunami in the south-Pacific Ocean. The Tsunami Stones, as they are known, even provided areas like Nokoriya, or "Valley of Survivors", and Namiwake, "Wave’s Edge", that marked the furthest reaches of Japan's historically destructive tsunami of 1611. These areas were said to be safe haven for people looking to build homes that would be safe from the oceans wrath.
Unfortunately, as years went on, these warnings were ignored and development expanded to the coast putting residents in high risk of Tsunami damage. In 2011, destruction hit as 28,000 people that lived along the coast of Japan lost their life after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, triggering a massive Tsunami. The Tsunami Stones received massive amounts of attention directly after the catastrophe only to drift off back into obscurity as people continue to rebuild among the wreckage of the 2011 tsunami.
Today we return to our 10th grade history class, with a chance to pay attention again. We live in a world where we are not only ignoring history—we are also ignoring science. We are ignoring all of the signs that point directly at the fact that our planet is changing. Storms are getting bigger, catastrophes are becoming more frequent, yet our memories are becoming shorter. I thought we had learned from Hurricane Katrina and the unpreparedness that paved the way for destruction—but we didn't. Not even the representative for Louisiana, Ralph Abraham, who has experienced Katrina and the massive flooding that hit just last year stated that costly regulations were the bigger threat to his state than "isolated incidents."
Unfortunately, we must use Harvey as our newest learning experience. We cannot ignore facts. Our climate is changing and the numbers say so. For the first time during this administration, we have an instance where ignoring science has back fired immensely. I don't know about you but, ignoring both history and science, sounds like a recipe for disaster.
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