"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 Hurricane Harvey, it seems as if we may have finally learned our lesson—though, it seems like that every time.
Before Hurricane Harvey's arrival, 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 conclude 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 for how NOT to handle development in risky areas.
Both Houston and New Orleans were built with the intention of becoming port cities. By the end of the 20th century, successful economies propelled both cities into becoming some of the largest of their type in America. 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, plateaus at 80 feet above sea level. What was once considered the strength of Houston and New Orleans--proximity and ease of access to the sea—has become its weakness.
The story of Hurricane Katrina can go without explanation. Despite going down as one of the worst national disasters in the United States history, 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 should be shocking based on semantics. This means that there is a 1–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 storm resulted in 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 in three years is astronomically high. These floods are not supposed to be a common occurrence; therefore, we should not treat them as if they are.
Just a week before Hurricane Harvey hit the greater Houston Area, President Trump repealed the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard set in place by Barack Obama. This standard required federal agencies to build structures at least above the hypothesized one-in-500-year flood estimates. Though the repeal of the standard should not be blamed for the destruction, it sets an inauspicious precedent. The mandate was set in place in response to historic flooding striking across America in recent years, according 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 ten federal buildings, can be found under feet of floodwater. Expected damage costs have been estimated to be around 10 billion dollars.
This catastrophe is undoubtedly 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 Japan's coast, people have found stone pillars—some as high as 10 feet tall—warning future residents to "not build beyond this point". These monuments, dating as far back as 1611 a.d., warn of the dangers of building a home too close to the shoreline due to the ever-present threat of Tsunami in the South-Pacific Ocean. The Tsunami Stones, as they are known, indicated 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 a safe haven for people looking to build homes out of the reach of massive tsunami waves.
As years went on, these warnings were ignored, and development expanded to the coast, putting residents at high risk of Tsunami damage. In 2011, destruction hit as 28,000 people who lived along the coast of Japan lost their lives after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck in the Pacific, 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 amidst 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 missing all of the signs that point directly to the fact that our planet is changing. Storms are getting bigger, catastrophes are becoming more frequent, yet our memories are becoming shorter. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina should have highlighted our government’s unpreparedness and the destruction it ultimately led to—but it didn't.
Unfortunately, we must use Harvey as our newest learning experience. We cannot ignore facts. Our climate is changing, and the numbers say so. Sadly, if we continue down this path of ignorance regarding the mounting evidence of climate change, we may find ourselves in a conundrum where our government remains unprepared for disaster, despite the increased frequency of historically destructive storms.
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