There are two reasons that it is fortunate that the death toll for Harvey is very low, compared to similar size storms at other times and at other places (zero at the time I first wrote this, a few confirmed, maybe ten or so suspected three days after landfall).. One is that all those people didn’t die! (Obviously.) The other is that we can ask honest questions about this event, while the event is still fresh in our minds (and, at the moment, actually happening) with the intent of eventually seeking some clarity, without concern trolls biting at our ankles and telling us that we must wait until the hurt wears off before discussing the thing that hurts.
Harvey was windy and there was a storm surge. Anything that got knocked down in the Cat II or above winds, and anything destroyed by storm surge, was pretty much doomed or near-doomed, and we simply hope and perhaps assume that insurance covers that, and insurance rates would not be affected by such damage given that this insurance was sold in a hurricane zone, and thus properly priced. Right?
But the flooding related damage may require some ‘splaining. Harvey is producing what is being referred to as unprecedented rain, and Harvey is staying in place for an astonishing and unbelievable amount of time, and this is causing some areas to be flooded with many feet of rain because the rain came out of the sky and caused a flood.
However, that is not really what happened. First, there have been rainfall amounts greater than anything we’ve seen with Harvey before. Second, hurricanes and tropical storms are known to stall, in fact, they do so fairly often. Third, beyond the empirical fact that such high rates of rainfall have happened before, science knew all along that a scenario like this was not only possible but given a reasonable amount of time, inevitable, because climate scientists can run models that are very good at informing us about possible futures.
So what, you may say. It is still a disaster and it is no one’s fault that this happened. To that, I say, sure, whatever you want to believe to get you through the day, I’m fine with that. But, notice that flooding requires two things. One is water in, i.e., from the sky or from upstream. The other is an inability for the water to leave. The first factor is an act of the (human-changed) weather. The second factor is often very directly human. Humans can do two things. They can build drainage systems (or fail to do so) that can handle the very rare but very large flood, and they can avoid hardening the landscape into solid form (rooftops and parking lots, etc.) in a way that changes flooding patterns to make floods much more likely. It is my understanding that the latter happened in Houston.
Which brings us to the key question: What caused this area of Texas to get stupid about floods? Did everyone decide a long time ago to ignore science? Did everyone decide to spend their money on candy and gum instead of infrastructure? Did the good people of the Lone Star State and its various counties and cities implement reasonable science based policy, then elect a bunch of officials who took bribes or other emoluments to provide exceptions to those policies?
Or, maybe, we’re talking Canadian Province here. None of it. Maybe Texas did all it could, decreased the likelihood of flooding rather than increasing it, and everything is fine. That’s not what I hear, but maybe what I hear is wrong. That is why these are questions, not answers. I hope that we eventually get the answers.
In the end, will it turn out that Harvey is an example of failure of the assumption that we’ll adapt to climate change?
Added: This conversation is now beginning to happen more broadly, with major news outlets noting that Houston is proud of it’s Libertarian zoning laws.