In Photos: Hurricane Harvey Hits Houston’s Most Vulnerable
by Ryan Schleeter
September 1, 2017
As the magnitude of Hurricane Harvey’s impact comes into full focus, we can no longer pretend that climate change is not a social justice issue.
The rains are beginning to subside, but the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey continues to claim lives. The death toll has risen to 44 — up from just five on Tuesday — and first responders continue to rescue people trapped by floodwaters. The Texas department of public safety reported yesterday that 32,000 people have been forced into shelters, while nearly 50,000 homes have sustained moderate to severe flood damage.
Make no mistake, climate change made this storm worse. Harvey is a vivid and horrifying reminder of the costs of climate denial and inaction — but it’s also a testament to the ways in which climate change and structural inequality intersect.
Texas has suffered from chemical disasters before, so a category four hurricane barrelling down on Houston’s thousands of petrochemical facilities would inevitably lead to dangerous spills. Due to poor zoning laws, many of Houston’s petrochemical facilities are near schools, nursing homes, and residential communities. And these fenceline communities are primarily made up of Black and Latinx families living at or below the poverty line — those with the fewest resources to evacuate.
Now, refineries and processing plants owned by companies Shell, Exxon, Valero, and Chevron are leaking toxic substances into the floodwaters, polluting the air, water, and soil in nearby communities. Most dramatically, an Arkema plant northeast of Houston had two explosive releases after cooling systems failed.
As of Thursday, 74 incidents of excess air pollution have been reported, and public health officials have warned those who come in contact with the floodwaters of the risk of cholera and typhoid.
Industrial pollution is just one of the ways Harvey has exposed the structural racism and inequality that makes climate change so dangerous for marginalized communities.
In Houston, 45 percent of households earning $10,000 or less are Black, while 80 percent of those earning $200,000 or more are white. More than one-quarter of Black and Latinx residents live below the poverty line.
That means that people of color in Houston had limited means to evacuate, lived in areas more prone to flooding and petrochemical pollution, and have limited access to resources like backup housing or flood insurance.
The politics of climate denial don’t just mean our planet will get warmer — it means communities of color will increasingly pay the price with their health and safety if we don’t reverse course soon.
The actions we take now as a country must take climate justice into account, both to avoid the next Harvey and help those who will be dealing with its impacts for years to come. That can only come through a just transition away from fossil fuels towards clean energy.
As Climate Justice Alliance Executive Director Angela Adrar said:
“The struggle ahead in Texas, the Gulf, and across the nation is beyond lowering greenhouse emissions. It is a fight for justice, for dignity, for a future for our children that won’t be washed away in the next storm.”