What we’re reading: Hell and High Water —prescient ProPublica hurricane report

Some people stock up on batteries and bottled water. I prepare for hurricane season by sharpening my social media follows of meteorologists and climate experts. I’m a severe weather junkie.

It goes beyond hurricanes. I look forward to summer in Florida because I’m crazy about storms and lightning—I love to sit out on the porch to feel that first blast of cool air, and hear the thunder unfiltered by walls and windows. I know I shouldn’t—it’s likely the riskiest behavior one can engage in without breaking a law. But I can’t help myself. I’m drawn to storms as if by instinct.

When summer storms pass and the potential for tropical weather develops, it’s no longer a spectator sport. Tropical storms, hurricanes, and even just prolonged rain events have the potential to disrupt life in Florida. But what we’re facing now with storm damage in the industrial and oil refining center of Houston has the potential to disrupt things far beyond state borders.

An article called “Hell and High Water,” presented in March 2016 by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune provides a critical context to understand hurricane Harvey’s impact.

Since the devastation left by Rita (2005, 120 dead) and Ike (2008, 195 dead), analysts have been studying models of killer storms imagined to hit the coast of Texas. Like Florida, Texas has neglected to implement simple development practices to mitigate flooding and brace for big storms, and this had concerned experts for years.

Eastern Texas is home to some of the largest oil refineries and petrochemical plants in the United States. Disruption at these facilities could create fuel scarcity, leading to a spike in consumer costs. The article mentions $7 a gallon gasoline. I hope it doesn’t get that bad. But the point is, as Houston suffers, so might we.

Another economic nightmare scenario is that disruptions in the supply chain of petrochemicals could halt manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, fertilizer, and plastics—again causing scarcity and price gouging across many industries.

Economic concerns loom large over Harvey’s aftermath, but so do environmental worst-case-scenarios. As the Houston Shipping Channel is home to so many petroleum producing facilities, breeches in their infrastructure would contaminate the bayou which feeds into the Gulf of Mexico. Reports are already surfacing of “strong gas- and chemical-like smells coming from the many refineries and chemical plants nearby,” according to Mother Jones. Astonishingly, the residents of the “fence-line communities” that form a human shield around the chemical plants are currently forbidden to evacuate.

As this slow-motion nightmare unfolds take some time to dig into this amazing work by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to pressure our lawmakers here in Florida to take heed, because who knows when the next big storm will hit us.

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See also this week’s edition of PNN. Rick Spisak and I discuss Harvey and this article at the top of the hour.

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One comment

  1. “Astonishingly, the residents of the “fence-line communities” that form a human shield around the chemical plants are currently forbidden to evacuate.- ” Please verify. Didn’t know that anyone who could get out was forbidden to do so.

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