Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Resilience, peaches, & gasoline

Twelve years ago on Tuesday, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. This past Tuesday, Hurricane Harvey had officially set a record for total rainfall from a single tropical cyclone, with some areas around Houston seeing 48 to 52 inches of rain. In the late evening, the sun peeked out from behind the clouds and the rain finally ceased.

Early Wednesday morning, the storm made landfall in Louisiana, just a year after a “1,000 year rain event” slammed the Baton Rouge area. Many of these communities still haven’t recovered or received adequate funding to rebuild. On Wednesday afternoon, Tropical Storm Harvey caused a tornado and flooding in southern Mississippi. Now downgraded to a tropical depression, Harvey will travel north, eventually weaken, and dissipate.

This storm’s lasting effects are incomprehensible. The images of the water levels in the Houston area — of crested ocean waves on freeways and disappearing neighborhoods — are stupefying. As Matt Pearce put it in his dispatch for the Los Angeles Times: “In the pancake-flat coastal plains around Houston, it’s clear that the water, once it hits the ground, has only one direction to go. Up over the creek beds, up over the levees, up over the roads. Up into your shoes, up into your house, up into your life.” Oil refineries and gas pipelines have shut down; it’s unclear when they’ll be operational again. A pipeline spill led to a chemical leak of hydrogen chloride that took hours to contain.

But, this was a disaster foretold. It was bound to happen this way. As with so many other environmental disasters, public officials knew it would, and they instead chose to ignore the warning signs, the scientific evidence, the shaky policies. Just last March, the Texas Tribune and ProPublica did an investigation about how Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city that is home to the largest oil refining complexes in the country, wasn’t prepared for the next flood that would inevitably hit it. It’s positively eerie to read.

Two decades ago, a comprehensive report revealed how dysfunctional the U.S. flood insurance program is and made the case that coastal cities were not prepared: for instance, 2 percent of the program’s insured properties were receiving 40 percent of its damage claims. The report focused on Houston while calling for reform of the National Flood Insurance Program, which is $25 billion in debt. The program is set to expire at the end of September, and Congress is supposed to reauthorize it. Brock Long, administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, wants to overhaul disaster relief so that states and local communities bear the brunt of the costs. It could be effective, since local leaders may take the effects of climate change more seriously than the federal government. But it’s a long, expensive process.

In the meantime, while lawmakers debate who deserves to pay for what and who has the right to build where, storms like Harvey will happen again. And again, and again. They may slam the Gulf Coast in Tampa and the East Coast in Boston, both cities that are woefully unprepared. Compound flooding, a combination of long-lasting rains and storm surge in cities along the coast and near other rivers and waterways, will take place all over the country. Chronic flooding could inundate 60 North Carolina cities and towns by 2100; more than a dozen coastal cities in the state will experience it within 20 years. Dangerous flooding will likely occur inland, too, in towns near the Kentucky River and throughout the Mississippi Delta. According to the Washington Post, more than 25 million people live in flood zones. Since the Southeast is the fastest urbanizing region in the U.S., that number will only continue to grow, and moving inland doesn’t necessarily mean flood risk decreases. Like in Houston and in New Orleans, low-income and minority communities will often suffer the most from flooding and during recovery efforts.

I was only 15 when Hurricane Katrina hit, and I remember thinking it was a tragic anomaly. I was 22 when Hurricane Sandy hit, just beginning my career in science and environmental journalism, and I recall saying that the future would be filled with storms like it, although “climate change” was still rarely uttered in any meaningful way. This time, the pit of my stomach sinks. That future is lapping at our feet.

So often after disasters, the public rhetoric is about “resilience.” Humans are resilient. Ecosystems are resilient. America is resilient. However, few communities have actually implemented adaptation plans or infrastructure to make us resilient to the effects of climate change. The conversation will surely shift as more debates ensue over where to build sea walls, how to restore wetlands, what new technologies could make buildings flood-proof. But the reality is that we backed ourselves into a corner. The federal government and many state and local lawmakers still refuse to take responsibility or reckon with our choices as a society. By this point, the signs that were there to warn us have long been knocked down. It leaves us with an uncomfortable truth: conceding that many of our beloved places — our homes and communities and beaches and dreamscapes — cannot be saved. And if we ever do accept that, it will only mean moving on to a new, more difficult series of choices.

Stories worth your time

Offshore drilling in the Gulf accounts for 17 percent of America’s crude oil production. The Gulf Coast has 45 percent of its refining capacity. Before the storm hit hardest, The Atlantic took a look at what happens when oil giants shut down offshore oil platforms.

This year, about 85 percent of Georgia’s peach crop failed because of the unseasonably warm winter. InsideClimate News tells the story of one family farm struggling with the effects of climate change and asks: could this year’s ruined crop be a harbinger of what’s to come?

This U.S. News & World Report story from earlier this month delves into the moves by coastal Southern cities to ban offshore drilling: “More than 125 municipalities along the coast have formally opposed drilling or seismic testing, and just one coastal governor in the Southeast still supports it.”

News flying under the radar

Less than 1 percent of North Carolina’s nearly 5 million acres of cropland house solar panels, despite arguments that large-scale solar projects threaten farms. That number isn’t expected to grow enough to impact farmland in the state, either.

Mississippi Power can’t reach an agreement with state officials over the failed Kemper “clean coal” power plant that shut down earlier this summer.

Duke Energy Florida is the latest utility to shut down a nuclear coal plant. But as part of its settlement, Duke says it will invest $6 billion in 700 megawatts of solar power, 50 megawatts of energy storage, 500 electric-vehicle chargers, and power grid modernization in Florida.

The EPA issued emergency waivers allowing states in the Southeast that get gasoline from oil refineries in Texas and Louisiana to ignore certain clean-air requirements for gasoline.

Lastly, a quick, embarrassing note: A half-second after hitting send last week, I realized I made a grammar mistake in the first sentence of the issue: “lied in a grassy field” should have been “lay in a grassy field.” Oops. If you support Southerly with a few bucks a month, I can hire an editor to help me catch dumb things like that. Pledge here!

As always, thanks for reading, supporting, and sharing. See y’all next week!