The rain from Harvey is in a class of its own. The storm has unloaded over 50 inches of rain east of Houston, the greatest amount ever recorded in the Lower 48 states from a single storm. And it’s still raining.
John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas state climatologist, said a rain gauge in Mont Belvieu, about 40 miles east of Houston, had registered 51.9 inches of rain through late Tuesday afternoon. This total exceeds the previous record of 48 inches set during tropical cyclone Amelia in Medina, Texas in 1978.
All rainfalls totals from this storm are still preliminary and require review. But, if verified, this amount breaks not only the Texas state rainfall record but also the record for the remaining Lower 48 states.
“This event is unprecedented & all impacts are unknown & beyond anything experienced,” the National Weather Service (NWS) tweeted Sunday along with a projected precipitation map for Hurricane Harvey.
Although many meteorologists have said they had never seen such a storm — or such a tweet from the NWS — before, the fact is that Harvey is exactly the kind of off-the-charts hurricane we can expect to see more often because of climate change.
“Climate change worsened the unprecedented disaster unfolding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey,” as climatologist Michael Mann said in an email to ThinkProgress. “And unrestrained climate change means we will see many more Harveys in the future.”
Like a baseball player on steroids, our climate system is breaking records at an unnatural pace. Global warming is juicing storms — a key reason Harvey is the second 1-in-500-year superstorm in 16 years (and fourth 100-year rainstorm since spring 2017). And like a baseball player on steroids, it’s the wrong question to ask whether any given home run is “caused” by steroids.
Every stage of Harvey — the rapid intensification that makes for a forecasting nightmare, the brutal storm surge, and the unprecedented rainfall — were worsened by global warming. In fact, there’s been so much rain, the National Weather Service had to update their color maps to cover it all.
Hurricanes “extract heat energy from the ocean to convert it to the power of wind, and the warmer the ocean is, the stronger a hurricane can get if all other conditions that it needs to exist are present,” meteorologist and former hurricane hunter Jeff Masters explained last month on Living on Earth. “So, scientists are confident that as we continue to heat up the oceans, we’re going to see more of these high-end perfect storms.”
Let’s look at some of the latest climate science. The first stage of a hurricane is formation and intensification. Harvey spun up from a tropical depression to a Category 4 superstorm in two days as it crossed Gulf of Mexico waters that were 2.7 – 7.2°F warmer than “normal” (the 1961-1990 baseline).
The latest research says global warming is driving this trend. “Storms are intensifying at a much more rapid pace than they used to 25 years back,” explained the author of a 2012 study. “They are getting stronger more quickly and also [to a] higher category. The intensity as well as the rate of intensity is increasing.”
This warming-driven trend toward more rapid intensification is very worrisome. “The vast majority (79 percent) of major storms” are rapid intensification storms,” and “the most intense storms” are those that undergo rapid intensification according to a 2016 study. And rapid intensification makes it much harder to predict and plan for superstorms.
One 2013 paper found that “since 1975 there has been a substantial and observable regional and global increase in the proportion of Category 4–5 hurricanes of 25–30 percent per °C of anthropogenic global warming.” Another 2013 paper concluded that “dramatic changes in the frequency distribution of lifetime maximum intensity (LMI) have occurred in the North Atlantic,” and the stronger hurricanes “have become more intense.” A 2015 study on the impact of sea-surface temperatures on the intensity of hurricanes in the North Atlantic found “intensification increases by 16 percent for every 1°C increase in mean SST.”
While we aren’t seeing more total hurricanes, we are seeing more of the Category 4 or 5 super-hurricanes, the ones that historically have done the most damage and destroyed entire coastal cities. We’re also seeing a sharp rise in the most damaging storm surges, whereby even a Category 1 hurricane (such as Sandy) can cause unprecedented damage.
On our current path of unrestricted carbon pollution, NOAA researchers have determined that parts of the East Coast would see Sandy-level storm surges every year by mid-century.
After landfall, the winds die down, the storm surge recedes and it is rainfall that does the most damage. As climatologist Katharine Hayhoe tweeted last week, “As the world warms, evaporation speeds up. So on avg there’s more water vapour for a storm to sweep up & dump now, compared to 70 years ago.”
In big slow-moving storms like Harvey, the water vapor swept in can be even higher. As climatologist Kevin Trenberth told the Atlantic, “the human contribution can be up to 30 percent or so up to the total rainfall coming out of the storm. It may have been a strong storm, and it may have caused a lot of problems anyway — but [human-caused climate change] amplifies the damage considerably.”
This is the phase of Harvey we’re now in. And while it’s already been the worst storm Houston has ever seen, there is still more rain to come.
Hawaii has logged isolated reports of greater amounts at high elevations from tropical systems, but the footprint from Harvey in Southeast Texas is much larger. It has produced at least three feet of rain over most of the Houston region, affecting more than 5 million people.
“The 3-to-4 day rainfall totals of greater than 40 inches (possible 50 inches in locations surrounding Santa Fe and Dickinson) are simply mind-blowing that has lead to the largest flood in Houston-Galveston history,” the National Weather Service office serving Houston wrote.
From the perspective of the amount of volume unloaded in the United States from a single storm, Harvey has no rival.
Nielsen-Gammon found Harvey’s total rainfall concentrated over a 20,000-square-mile area represents nearly 19 times the daily discharge of the Mississippi River, by far the most of any tropical system ever recorded.
The Space Science and Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison determined that many areas of Southeast Texas have received rain that is expected to come around only once every 1,000 years (or having a 0.1 percent probability of occurrence), assuming a stationary climate.
This is truly an epic storm.
Public health risks will remain long after the water recedes.
Rain continues to fall on the Texas Gulf Coast and Houston, fueling catastrophic flooding that the National Weather Service has described as “unprecedented” and “unknown and beyond anything experienced.”
At least 15 people have died from storm-associated flooding, and days more of forecasted rain means the severe flooding that has inundated hundreds of homesis likely to continue. Houston meteorologist Tim Heller told Grist that the situation was “worse than the worst,” and described “area flooding, regional flooding” that could keep parts of the city underwater for months.
But if past major flood events are any indication, Houston and other towns are merely beginning to contend with the public health impact that comes when homes and businesses are left underwater for days, weeks, or even months — from the immediate risk of inundation and drowning to the much more insidious risks that come from living in the midst of one of the most devastating floods in U.S. history.
“In an industrialized context, in a place like the U.S., we’re mainly concerned with injury and mortality in the short term, and mental health effects in the long term,” Sabrina McCormick, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University, told ThinkProgress.
According to McCormick, several factors influence the specific mix of public health concerns that can arise after a flood in an industrialized area. The primary factor is the speed of inundation; the quicker floodwaters rise, the more likely it is that public health response systems, like hospitals, will become either overwhelmed or inaccessible.
“A more gradual flood is generally just safer, largely because it results in a smaller number of injuries and the response systems can get into gear in a way that can manage the event better than when it is like it is now, when it is extremely fast and extremely intense,” she said. “That kind of event is more dangerous.”
Houston residents who evacuated in floodwater — some wading up to their waist — were met with a mix of sewage, oil, and gasoline. Exposure to raw sewage can lead to gastrointestinal disease, if an evacuee comes into contact with contaminated water and either does not have a chance to wash their hands before eating and drinking, or has open wounds while wading through the water. Sewage can seep into floodwater when homes are inundated and plumbing breaks, or when sewage treatment plants themselves are inundated. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a sewage treatment plant that had lost power during the storm discharged billions of gallons of untreated sewage into Newark Bay.
“Sewage treatment plants are especially vulnerable to flooding and storm surge,” Judith Enck, former EPA regional administrator that coordinated the agency’s response to Sandy, told ThinkProgress.
Post-Hurricane Katrina, there were 22 cases of waterborne infections, five of which resulted in deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control, however, the vast majority of those cases were caused by exposure to bacteria through a wound, not from drinking contaminated water.
As of Tuesday, the Addicks Resevoir — a major reservoir meant to protect downtown Houston from flooding — breached for the first time in history, likely bringing some of that water into contact with contaminated floodwater. Houston officials have asked residents to minimize tap water use, as at least one water treatment plant is underwater due to flooding.
Still, McCormick said that widespread illness due to contaminated water is rare in industrialized countries.
“If the healthcare system and response system is totally overwhelmed, then we may see outcomes that are unusual, which would be something like contamination of food and water from the flood itself,” she said. “But that’s not my first concern.”
Another factor that could determine the extent of Harvey’s public health impact is how long water remains stagnant in homes and businesses. Even after it has receded, stagnant water is hospitable to things like mold and mildew, which can be a serious health hazard both for people returning to the buildings and cleanup crews. The CDC recommends that anything tainted by floodwater — including carpeting, insulation, and drywall — be removed from homes, which leaves low-income communities that might lack the resources to completely replace their homes especially vulnerable to adverse health impacts associated with mold and mildew.
“It depends a little bit on how long this water stands stagnant, but we saw in the case of Katrina long-term damage to homes that included things like black mold that are actually quite dangerous to cleanup crews,” McCormick said. “If we were to see something like that, then there could be longer-term risks associated with the effects of the water.”
Stagnant water can also become a breeding ground for disease-carrying vectors like mosquitoes. Houston has seen six confirmed cases of Zika this summer, though all cases were travel-related. Texas has also seen cases of West Nile regularly since 2002, with 36 confirmed cases so far in 2017. Directly after an extreme flood event, mosquito populations can actually decrease, as waters wipe out existing breeding sites. In the months after a massive flood, however, water leftover from the disaster can create breeding grounds for mosquitoes that cause populations — and mosquito-related illnesses — to spike.
According to a list released earlier this year by Orkin, Houston is the seventh worst city for mosquitoes in the United States. Houston is also weeks away from the end of peak mosquito season, meaning that the insects will likely have plenty of time to breed after the flood waters have receded. As with the storm itself, which was intensified by climate change, mosquito breeding also has a climate component: warmer temperatures allow mosquitoes to survive and reproduce longer into the year, leading in turn to an increase in mosquito-borne illnesses. If temperatures in Houston remain warmer than average in the weeks and months after the floodwaters recede, that could mean more mosquitoes and more mosquito-related illness.
“You can say, generally, that this kind of flooding will have some kind of effect on mosquitoes, both in habitat and related-patterns of mosquito bites,” McCormick said.
Because Houston is a major hub of the United States petrochemical industry — Houston’s Shipping Channel is home to the country’s largest refinery and 30 percent of the country’s refining capacity — the area is especially vulnerable to environmental disasters like an oil spill or chemical discharge that could also have serious public health implications. Residents of La Porte and Shoreacres, communities just to the southeast of downtown Houston, were asked to shelter in place Monday afternoon through Monday evening due to a chemical spill from a ruptured pipeline.
Several fossil fuel companies have made decisions to shut down their refineries in the midst of the flooding and widespread damage in the surrounding areas. These include Shell’s Deer Park refinery in Houston, which is capable of handling 340,000 barrels of oil daily, and Exxon’s Baytown refinery, which can handle up to 560,000 barrels per day. Residents living near the refineries have reported the presence of “unbearable” smells wafting from the petrochemical facilities, possibly because shutting down facilities causes them to release thousands of tons of air pollutants.
Meanwhile, the Texas Council on Environmental Quality has shut off its air quality monitors in an effort to protect them from potential wind or water damage. That means that it’s up to petrochemical companies to report emissions of pollutants from their facilities, leaving communities near these facilities — largely minority and low-income — largely uninformed about potentially dangerous pollutants in their air.
Ultimately, public health experts like McCormick hope that when the flood waters recede from Harvey and the damage is surveyed, coastal communities and vulnerable cities take a look at what could be done to help prevent another disaster of this scale. With climate change fueling more powerful storms, and development paving over natural flood barriers like wetlands, the answer is likely to be found in combination of better resiliency planning and serious greenhouse gas mitigation, two policies the Trump administration is loathe to pursue.
Still, McCormick cautions that enacting these policies and planning strategies now can save lives in the future.
“This is a lesson to be heeded for all of the coastal zones in the southern United States that stand similar risks, that they really need to be paying attention to and preparing for events like this in the future,” she said. “The preparation can mean that a lot of lives are saved, a lot of property damage is averted, and therefore we can protect people from these really problematic mental health outcomes when people’s livelihoods and lives are destroyed and upended.”
NOW IS EXACTLY the time to talk about climate change, and all the other systemic injustices — from racial profiling to economic austerity — that turn disasters like Harvey into human catastrophes.
Turn on the coverage of the Hurricane Harvey and the Houston flooding and you’ll hear lots of talk about how unprecedented this kind of rainfall is. How no one saw it coming, so no one could adequately prepare.
What you will hear very little about is why these kind of unprecedented, record-breaking weather events are happening with such regularity that “record-breaking” has become a meteorological cliche. In other words, you won’t hear much, if any, talk about climate change.
This, we are told, is out of a desire not to “politicize” a still unfolding human tragedy, which is an understandable impulse. But here’s the thing: every time we act as if an unprecedented weather event is hitting us out of the blue, as some sort of Act of God that no one foresaw, reporters are making a highly political decision. It’s a decision to spare feelings and avoid controversy at the expense of telling the truth, however difficult. Because the truth is that these events have long been predicted by climate scientists. Warmer oceans throw up more powerful storms. Higher sea levels mean those storms surge into places they never reached before. Hotter weather leads to extremes of precipitation: long dry periods interrupted by massive snow or rain dumps, rather than the steadier predictable patterns most of us grew up with.
The records being broken year after year — whether for drought, storm surges, wildfires, or just heat — are happening because the planet is markedly warmer than it has been since record-keeping began. Covering events like Harvey while ignoring those facts, failing to provide a platform to climate scientists who can make them plain, all while never mentioning President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accords, fails in the most basic duty of journalism: to provide important facts and relevant context. It leaves the public with the false impression that these are disasters without root causes, which also means that nothing could have been done to prevent them (and that nothing can be done now to prevent them from getting much worse in the future).
It’s also worth noting that the Harvey coverage has been highly political since well before the storm made landfall. There has been endless talk about whether Trump was taking the storm seriously enough, endless speculation about whether this hurricane will be his “Katrina moment” and a great deal of (fair) point-scoring about how many Republicans voted against Sandy relief but have their hands out for Texas now. That’s politics being made out of a disaster — it’s just the kind of partisan politics that is fully inside the comfort zone of conventional media, politics that conveniently skirts the reality that placing the interests of fossil fuel companies ahead of the need for decisive pollution control has been a deeply bipartisan affair.
In an ideal world, we’d all be able to put politics on hold until the immediate emergency has passed. Then, when everyone was safe, we’d have a long, thoughtful, informed public debate about the policy implications of the crisis we had all just witnessed. What should it mean for the kind of infrastructure we build? What should it mean for the kind of energy we rely upon? (A question with jarring implications for the dominant industry in the region being hit hardest: oil and gas). And what does the hyper-vulnerability to the storm of the sick, poor, and elderly tell us about the kind of safety nets we need to weave, given the rocky future we have already locked in?
With thousands displaced from their homes, we might even discuss the undeniable links between climate disruption and migration — from the Sahel to Mexico — and use the opportunity to debate the need for an immigration policy that starts from the premise that the U.S. shares a great deal of responsibility for the key forces driving millions from their homes.
But we don’t live in a world that allows for that kind of serious, measured debate. We live in a world in which the governing powers have shown themselves all too willing to exploit the diversion of a large-scale crisis, and the very fact that so many are focused on life-and-death emergencies, to ram through their most regressive policies, policies that push us further along a road that is rightly understood as a form of “climate apartheid.” We saw it after Hurricane Katrina, when Republicans wasted no time pushing for a fully privatized school system, weakening labor and tax law, increasing oil and gas drilling and refining, and flinging the door open to mercenary companies like Blackwater. Mike Pence was a key architect of that highly cynical project — and we should expect nothing less in Harvey’s wake, now that he and Trump are at the wheel.
We are already seeing Trump using the cover of Hurricane Harvey to push through the hugely controversial pardoning of Joe Arpaio, as well as the further militarization of U.S. police forces. These are particularly ominous moves in the context of news that immigration checkpoints are continuing to operate wherever highways are not flooded (a serious disincentive for migrants to evacuate), as well as in the context of municipal officials tough-talking about maximum penalties for any “looters” (it’s well worth remembering that after Katrina, several African-American residents of New Orleans were shot by police amid this kind of rhetoric.)
In short, the right will waste no time exploiting Harvey, and any other disaster like it, to peddle ruinous false solutions, such as militarized police, more oil and gas infrastructure, and privatized services. Which means there is a moral imperative for informed, caring people to name the real root causes behind this crisis — connecting the dots between climate pollution, systemic racism, underfunding of social services, and overfunding of police. We also need to seize the moment to lay out intersectional solutions, ones that dramatically lower emissions while battling all forms of inequality and injustice (something we have tried to lay out at The Leap and which groups, such as the Climate Justice Alliance, have been advancing for a long time.)
And it has to happen right now – precisely when the enormous human and economic costs of inaction are on full public display. If we fail, if we hesitate out of some misguided idea of what is and is not appropriate during a crisis, it leaves the door wide open for ruthless actors to exploit this disaster for predictable and nefarious ends.
It’s also a hard truth that the window for having these debates is vanishingly small. We won’t be having any kind of public policy debate after this emergency subsides; the media will be back to obsessively covering Trump’s tweets and other palace intrigues. So while it may feel unseemly to be talking about root causes while people are still trapped in their homes, this is realistically the only time there is any sustained media interest whatsoever in talking about climate change. It’s worth recalling that Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord — an event that will reverberate globally for decades to come — received roughly two days of decent coverage. Then it was back to Russia round-the-clock.
A little more than a year ago, Fort McMurray, the town at the heart of the Alberta boom in tar sands oil, nearly burned to the ground. For a time, the world was transfixed by the images of vehicles lined up on a single highway, with flames closing in on either side. At the time, we were told that it was insensitive and victim-blaming to talk about how climate change was exacerbating wildfires like this one. Most taboo was making any connection between our warming world and the industry that powers Fort McMurray and employed the majority of the evacuees, which is a particularly high-carbon form of oil. The time wasn’t right; it was a moment for sympathy, aid, and no hard questions.
But of course by the time it was deemed appropriate to raise those issues, the media spotlight had long since moved on. And today, as Alberta pushes for at least three new oil pipelines to accommodate its plans to greatly increase tar sands production, that horrific fire and the lessons it could have carried almost never come up.
There is a lesson in that for Houston. The window for providing meaningful context and drawing important conclusions is short. We can’t afford to blow it.
Talking honestly about what is fueling this era of serial disasters — even while they’re playing out in real time — isn’t disrespectful to the people on the front lines. In fact, it is the only way to truly honor their losses, and our last hope for preventing a future littered with countless more victims.
Having dropped more than 50 inches of rain in an area east of Houston, Hurricane Harvey was officially declared “the most extreme rain event in U.S. history” on Tuesday.
The National Weather Service sent out notice Tuesday morning that Mary’s Creek at Winding Road in Southeast Houston reported 49.2 inches of rain, but that number had been eclipsed by mid-afternoon, when Nielsen-Gammon recorded the new high mark at 50.4 inches.
“The 3-to-4 day rainfall totals…are simply mind-blowing,” declared a National Weather Service office in Houston.
“All rainfall totals from this storm are still preliminary and require review. But, if verified, this amount breaks not only the Texas state rainfall record but also the record for the remaining Lower 48 states,” observes the Washington Post‘s Jason Samenow. “Hawaii has logged isolated reports of greater amounts at high elevations from tropical systems, but the footprint from Harvey in Southeast Texas is much larger. It has produced at least three feet of rain over most of the Houston region, affecting more than 5 million people.”
The astonishing numbers—which Samenow says puts Hurricane Harvey “in a class of its own”—come as many continue to either evacuate Texas or seek shelter within the state. Some estimates put the number of people who could be left displaced by Harvey at around 30,000. By Tuesday afternoon, the estimated death toll from the storm had reached 15.
As Common Dreams reported on Monday, scientists have argued that extreme weather events like Hurricane Harvey—as well as the monsoon flooding that is currently ravaging Bangladesh, India, and Nepal—represent “the new reality” as the planet warms and sea levels rise.
In an appearance on “CBS This Morning” Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said that the destruction wrought by Hurricane Harvey—and the extreme events that are sure to be worsened by human-caused climate change—makes mutual aid and solidarity as essential as ever.
“If there’s any silver lining in the terrible suffering that’s going on in Houston, it is to remember that we are all one country, and I am sure whether you’re white or black or Latino, people are coming together to help each other all over the country,” Sanders said. “We are one nation and we have got to stop the type of divisions that Trump and others are bringing about trying to divide us up.”
Watch the full interview: