The numbers are awesome. In a matter of hours, Hurricane Harvey dumped nine trillion gallons of rainfall on Houston and southeast Texas: at one stage, 24 inches of rain fell in 24 hours. Like all American cities, Houston is prepared for hurricanes and floods — but Harvey was of a different magnitude. ‘We have not seen an event like this,’ the chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, William ‘Brock’ Long declared. It led rapidly to unprecedented flooding in one of the world’s richest cities.
The photos from Houston have been heartbreaking. Pensioners have been pictured sitting half-submerged in retirement homes, awaiting rescue. Some 30,000 may be forced into shelters, and officials are braced for almost half a million requiring federal assistance. We have seen parents walking knee-deep in water with their children in their arms, and belongings balanced in bags on their heads. Families wait on the rooftops of their homes, stranded by the flood.
Amid all this, another picture emerges: of the resilience of the city and its people, of the calm effectiveness of the emergency services and the orderliness of communities responding to an extreme set of circum-stances. The volunteers who took their boats to rescue those who had been stranded. There are people like Arthur Buchanan, who runs the C&D hardware store on 11th Street, who cycled to work through the floods. ‘We only close five days out of the year,’ he told reporters, who were amazed to find his shop open, ‘and this ain’t one of them.’ That’s Texans for you.
As early as 1937, local officials declared Houston to be a city ‘at the mercy of the relentless water’. Storms have battered the city several times over recent years: Hurricane Allison in 2001 and Rita in 2005 each had a significant death toll. Yet its population keeps growing, and the risk of hurricanes are factored into everyday life. As the storm approached, locals were telling journalists that they had filled the bath with water, had prepared plenty of food and were ready to stay put for a few days and sit the storm out.
Americans are less afraid of the weather than they used to be, and with reason. The pictures of Houston’s motorways turned into rivers look shocking, until you realise that this is their function. Houston has 2,500 miles of managed waterways, a network of drainage channels and sewers. They fill up when a hurricane strikes, but the idea is that the roads provide overrun and act as massive drains — saving neighbourhoods that might otherwise be underwater. More roads could, and should, have been upgraded in this way. Houston’s first ‘chief resilience officer’ said earlier this year that he needed about $3 billion to upgrade, but the city’s overall defences saved countless lives.
This is the story of human development: when a nation grows more prosperous, it is less at the mercy of the elements. When Superstorm Sandy struck New York five years ago, it took 74 lives — but if a similar storm had struck cities in the third world, the death toll could have run into the thousands. An MIT study of natural disasters between 1980 and 2002 found that America suffered an average of 17 deaths per windstorm, compared to almost 2,000 in Bangladesh. The average flood cost six lives in the US, but a couple of hundred in East Asia. It isn’t that the storms are more severe or more frequent — just that America has the money to cope better.
Outsmarting the weather is part of the basic story of human progress. Indur Goklany, a science analyst at the US Department of the Interior, once looked at all deaths from 8,500 droughts, wildfires, storms and floods over the last century. He found that in the 1920s there were nearly half a million deaths annually from extreme weather events. Although since 1900 the world’s population has more than tripled, global deaths from extreme weather have fallen by 93 per cent. (The number of deaths from flooding has fallen by 99 per cent.)
And why? Not because the weather is any milder, but because developed countries can afford to protect people from it. Globally, mankind turned the corner after 1970, the year that deaths from storms, including hurricanes and typhoons, peaked.
Had Hurricane Harvey struck ten years ago, it might have been enlisted into the political battle about global warming. But the tone of debate is less hysterical now; only a few voices say that this is a taste of what we can all expect in the future. It’s not true to say that Harvey is ferocious by historical standards: some estimates rate its strength at 14th out of all the hurricanes that have made US landfall since 1851.
As our understanding of the science evolves, a new rationalism is supplanting the old climate hysteria. We might not be sure how much meaningful difference we can make to the trajectory of climate change, but we know that we can adapt to it — and that we can help the third world do the same. That’s why, as the Swedish author Johan Norberg has argued, it’s counterproductive to demand drastic and far-reaching efforts to limit carbon dioxide emissions. The test for climate policies is that they should not impede the ability of poor nations to create more wealth and to bring power and shelter to those who need it. To force countries to adopt expensive energy policies risks keeping the world’s poor down.
When hurricanes, floods and other disasters are predicted for countries like Bangladesh due to global warming, an important factor is often left out of the equation. The models which assume that sea levels will have risen and extreme weather events intensified by, say, 2080 might also assume that, by then, Bangladesh will be as rich as the Netherlands is today. If so, what would its flood defences look like? How far would the likely impact of storms be reduced? Might the best form of climate defence be the pursuit of policies that are likely to create and spread wealth?
Most people who die from disease or extreme weather today are, in fact, dying from poverty. The best defences against the world’s biggest killers are provided by sanitation, medicine and civil engineering, but they are often available only to people who can afford them.
The World Health Organisation estimates that 4.3 million people annually die prematurely from illnesses that can be attributed to household pollution caused by the use of primitive solid fuels for cooking. Just over a million die each year from diarrhoea, which with proper sanitation is generally avoidable. These kinds of numbers put into perspective the 35,000 annual deaths due to extreme weather.
We will soon be hearing estimates about the financial cost of Hurricane Harvey, and the figure will doubtless be eye-watering. When a storm of this size hits such a large city — the fourth-largest in America — the financial cost will always be extraordinary. But the courage, neighbourliness and generosity that Texans have demonstrated in recent days are no less so. Nature’s fury may be awesome, but mankind’s resilience is greater still. That ought to be the real lesson from Houston.