Even as the floodwaters continued to rise in East Texas, it was clear that Hurricane Harvey would force a new reckoning over major energy and climate policy questions.
The immediate priorities—rescue operations, disaster assistance, flood insurance, and the like—will be followed by broader questions involving the vulnerability of infrastructure, the energy industry and communities to extreme weather, and the need to balance mitigation of the pollution that causes climate change with adaptation to global warming’s inescapable impacts.
In this region, some of these issues have been pushed to the side as the Gulf Coast served as handmaiden to the North American oil and gas boom. Now, the oil and gas industry’s prime processing and export center is partially under water.
Also running through the debate is the question whether this storm, beyond even the experiences of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, will lead to broader acceptance of the scientific consensus surrounding climate change, a crisis that offers no convenient escape route.
Harvey’s rainfall was on track to break national records, the Texas state climatologist said. By midday Tuesday, parts of the Houston area were reporting more than 49 inches of rain had fallen, and the storm wasn’t finished. The National Weather Service said another 10 to 20 inches was expected over parts of the upper Texas coast and into Louisiana. Thousands of people had to be rescued from the flooding.
Trump’s Budget Ignored the Risks of a Disaster Like Harvey
The widespread damage from Hurricane Harvey, and months of recovery ahead, compels Congress to rethink its priorities as it faces a deadline in just a month to pass a new federal budget and raise the debt limit.
Among the urgent issues: approving emergency relief for Harvey that surely will run into billions of dollars; deciding whether to strengthen the federal flood insurance program’s dwindling finances; and considering the deep budget cuts the Trump Administration has proposed for several agencies playing a prominent role in hurricane-related operations.
At a news conference on Monday, President Trump promised swift Congressional action but gave no details. “I think that you’re going to see very rapid action from Congress, certainly from the president,” he said. “You’re going to get your funding.”
But Congress at the same time is grappling with a package of White House spending priorities that seem out of step in a post-Harvey era.
Under Trump’s budget, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), home of the National Weather Service, would face a 16 percent overall cut, with a heavy ax falling on programs like advanced modeling to make weather and storm forecasts more accurate and reliable, a project to upgrade flood prediction, and a tornado warning program for the Southeast. The White House plan is to have the agency’s climate research arm—the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research—bear the largest percentage cut, 32 percent.
Trump also proposed to cut $667 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s state and local grant funding, which aids disaster preparedness and emergency response, and to squeeze the budget of the U.S. Coast Guard, which is coordinating water rescues in East Texas from its Houston Command Center.
The storm could impel Congress to bolster, rather than slash, federal funding for disaster preparedness and emergency response. In addition, Congress undoubtedly will face a debate over federal funding to help the nation’s fourth largest city recover. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, Congress ultimately passed a $51 billion relief package to help the Northeast states that were affected, but only after conservative House Republicans held the relief package hostage for three months as they waged a larger battle over federal spending.
One of the leaders of the effort to derail Superstorm Sandy funding was former South Carolina Congressman Mick Mulvaney—who now heads the White House budget office for Trump. Almost all of the Texas Republican Congressional delegation, except for Rep. John Culberson of Houston, voted against the Sandy recovery bill.
Will Congress Save the Flood Insurance Program?
The National Flood Insurance Program, the primary flood insurance for American homeowners, expires at the end of September. It is already in debt by nearly $25 billion after payouts following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and severe flooding last year, and it likely will take on yet more debt as the Gulf Coast rebuilds from Harvey.
Lawmakers are negotiating legislative proposals to extend the program. Among the sticking points are whether—and by how much—to raise insurance premiums, which help pay for the program. (Increasing the rates has been hugely unpopular with coastal lawmakers and their constituents.) A House committee passed a reauthorization bill in July, and a Senate committee has introduced legislation intended to update flood-mapping procedures and encourage private insurers to re-enter the market.
On Monday, leaders in Congress began urging lawmakers to extend the program. The Trump administration’s budget proposal, meanwhile, calls for cutting $190 million from FEMA’s Flood Hazard Mapping and Risk Analysis Program.
Some environmental and free-market advocates have long criticized the insurance program, saying it encourages building in flood-prone and environmentally sensitive areas—including wetlands, which play a major role in absorbing floodwaters—and that it rewards excessive claims on properties that are damaged repeatedly by flooding. According to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, FEMA has insured 30,000 of these “severe repetitive loss” properties. In an extreme example, one of those properties has had $1 million in claims, despite being worth about $72,000.
While the insurance industry says it’s too early to estimate the full extent of the damage from Harvey, an official with the Insurance Information Institute told Reuters the costs could outpace the damage from Katrina — which racked up $15 billion in National Flood Insurance Program claims and caused as much as $150 billion in total damage.
The National Flood Insurance Program, as its name implies, only covers flooding and handles about 5 million policies. According to Bloomberg Intelligence, the program’s value in the region hit by Harvey exceeds $105 billion. Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America, estimates that only 10 percent of homeowners affected by Harvey have insurance. According to Pew Research, American taxpayers have spent $260 billion since 1980 repairing flood-related damage.
“All these people taken out in boats, they have a second problem: They have no insurance,” Hunter told the Associated Press.
Heart of the U.S. Oil Industry Takes Another Hit
Hurricane Harvey struck right at the heart of the nation’s oil and gas infrastructure, long known to be vulnerable.
The Texas Gulf Coast is home to nearly one-third of U.S. refining capacity and is the epicenter of a web of pipelines that drink in crude from as far away as Canada and from around the Gulf of Mexico, where 20 percent of U.S. oil is produced. Consumers far from the wind and rain will feel the storm’s impact at the gas pump in the coming weeks, the futures markets indicate. Gas price gouging complaints and federal investigations are a post-hurricane ritual; so are the findings that soaring prices are the inevitable result of supply disruptions for a nation that depends on oil. Ironically, even as consumers get hit with higher prices, crude oil prices are expected to fall with so many refineries closed and unable to buy new supplies.
In preparation for the hurricane, the oil and gas industry evacuated more than 100 production platforms, shutting down 20 percent of the Gulf’s oil production and 25 percent of its natural gas production. Exxon, Shell and other oil companies also shut down sprawling refineries, several of which are at the edge of the rising water in the 52-mile Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest port areas in the world.
Still unknown is the full impact of the flooding and torrential rain on more than 800 petrochemical and other industrial facilities and more than 3,400 above-ground storage tanks that line the ship channel. Exxon reported that its Baytown refinery, the nation’s second largest, and its Beaumont petrochemical refinery had both been damaged, causing the release of pollutants. Chevron Phillips Chemical informed the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that it expects to exceed permitted limits for several hazardous pollutants including benzene, a known carcinogen, during shutdown procedures. Meanwhile, the agency temporarily shut down all of its air monitoring devices to avoid wind and water damage during the storm.
During the floods that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the rupture of just one oil tank sent oil into more than 1,700 homes. And after the last major hurricane to hit the Texas Gulf Coast, Hurricane Ike in 2008, experts at Houston’s Rice University warned that the existing dikes and levees on the channel had been barely adequate and refineries were vulnerable in future hurricanes. Phil Bedient, co-director of the center for storm disaster studies that produced that research, last year told ProPublica that no steps had been taken to address the vulnerabilities.
“We’ve done nothing to shore up the coastline, to add resiliency … to do anything,” he said.
State regulators were urging citizens to call a 24-hour hotline with any reports of spills. In one incident, reported by the Houston Chronicle, a lightning strike in a storage tank farm sparked a fire that led to five barrels of crude oil and 20 barrels of wastewater spilling near a 25,000-acre coastal wetlands preserve. In another, an unknown amount of gasoline spilled into a containment dike when the large volume of rainwater caused a tank to tilt at the Kinder Morgan terminal in Pasadena.
Previous big storms have drawn policymakers’ attention to the risks created by the nation’s dependence on an oil and gas hub in the middle of a hurricane corridor. (In fact, the Houston Ship Channel originally was dredged in the early 1900s as a less vulnerable alternative oil transport hub than the barrier island of Galveston.) Some experts who have studied the risks believe that the unprecedented size of Hurricane Harvey’s impacts, and climate change’s role in stoking the storm’s intensity, will force a recovery effort that looks beyond rebuilding and fortifying the oil and gas infrastructure.
“Maybe Harvey is the event that will have the silver lining that gets the industry and politicians thinking as one that changes have to be made,” said Jim Blackburn, a professor of environmental engineering at Rice University.
Yes, Climate Change Exacerbated This Mess
As the inundation of Houston and other parts of the Texas Coast reached cataclysmic, probably unprecedented levels, it was clear that climate change played a role in worsening the storm. (There are other factors, too—notably decades of building in harm’s way.)
Sea level rise, warmer waters, and increased water loading in the atmosphere are all classic signals of climate change, and all have been present in the Gulf.
The storm arrived on a shoreline where sea level has been rising, in significant part because of manmade climate change, scientists say. The waters of the Gulf of Mexico have also been unusually warm all year, hitting records even in the winter and spring. A warming atmosphere also holds more moisture, leading to the kind of extreme heavy rainfall that quickly inundated neighborhoods across parts of East Texas. On top of all that, the storm stalled over the Houston area for days, which exacerbated its impact.
John Nielsen-Gammon, a professor at Texas A&M and the Texas state climatologist, has made a close study of the state’s rainfall patterns in extreme storms. Heavy rainfall days, he said, have increased in the state by about 30 percent in the past century. In absolute terms, that translates into 5 percent more rain. His analysis strongly suggests this storm is creating record rainfall for any location in the United States.
Houston rainfall, he has found, has “increased dramatically” even as the whole region’s rains have increased more moderately. But the local spike in Houston may simply be a matter of normal, random variability from place to place.
The warmer-than-normal water of the Gulf of Mexico, he said, was providing “a little extra kick” to the storm’s intensity.
Andrew Dessler, a water vapor specialist at Texas A&M, noted that the heavy rainfall is “not just because the atmosphere holds more water,” but also because of a feature of this storm that left it stalled for days in more or less a single location.
Michael Mann, another leading climate scientist, said the storm’s stalling was a “more tenuous, but possibly relevant” point in understanding climate change’s influence.
“Very persistent, nearly ‘stationary’ summer weather patterns of this sort, where weather anomalies (both high pressure dry hot regions and low-pressure stormy/rainy regions) stay locked in place for many days at a time, appears to be favored by human-caused climate change,” Mann wrote on his Facebook page. He and his colleagues have published a peer reviewed paper on the question.
Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech, was one of several scientists who have been discussing the climate implications of the storm on social media and in the news this week. “The science is very certain that we are seeing more rain associated with hurricanes in a warmer world,” she said.
ICN reporters Sabrina Shankman and David Hasemyer also contributed to this report.
Top photo: Dean Mize holds two children as he and Jason Legnon use an airboat to rescue people as their homes flood in Houston. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images