Politicize Hurricane Harvey

An interview with
Emily Atkin

There's no avoiding politics when talking about Hurricane Harvey and its tragic aftermath.

Texas National Guard soldiers conduct rescue operations in flooded areas around Houston, Texas 27 August, 2017. Lt. Zachary West / Flickr

Hurricane Harvey has devastated southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana, with floodwaters still dominating the landscape, thousands of residents stranded, and a future of disaster capitalism seeking to rebuild the city according to the logic of capital. Houston was left to drown, and the region is now vulnerable to a number of environmental disasters, with petrochemical and Superfund sites contaminating the area, posing unknown health effects to the population.

Jacobin’s Daniel Denvir sat down with Emily Atkin, a staff writer at the New Republic, to discuss why Hurricane Harvey is already political thanks to climate change and the potential for petrochemical disaster in Houston. This interview was for the Dig, a podcast on Jacobin Radio.


DD

The disaster in Houston is an environmental crisis because global warming makes these storms more frequent and more intense. What specifically can we say about the role played by global warming and the resulting warmer seas and higher sea levels in the case of Harvey?

EA

We can say a lot. There are two really simple things that are uncontroversial and widely accepted in climate science. The first is that we have a warmer atmosphere. Our climate is different, it has changed. It is about 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than it would’ve been without human emissions. A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, so when rainfalls happen — rainfalls that were already going to occur without climate change — there is more rain than before because the atmosphere can hold more moisture. So we can say that rainfall is worse, that heavier rainfall is going to happen because of climate change.

The second thing we can confidently say is that sea level rise exists, and the degree of sea level rise we’re seeing is caused by humans, by carbon emissions. When storm surge happens, it’s worse because there is a higher sea. Now there’s also some other speculations — and this will come out in the coming weeks and months — about the role of the Gulf of Mexico, and whether or not it was warmer than it would’ve been in the past, and if that played a role in bringing tropical storms over Texas. That’s another conversation. But those two things: sea level rise and the atmosphere and rainfall, we can say with confidence that those are contributing factors.

DD

Another important point about Houston that you’ve reported on is that the city is already an environmentally devastated place, which has exacerbated the damage done by Harvey. You reported that at least twenty-five plants have either shut down or experienced production issues due to Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented severe weather and flooding. That has caused them to release an enormous amount of toxic pollutants that pose a threat to human health.

What’s more, you write, is that the communities closest to those sites in Houston tend to be low income and minority thanks to the fact that we live in an unequal, segregated society and because of a lack of zoning in sprawling Houston. What have you found in terms of Harvey’s impact on the petrochemical industry in Houston and what dangers are people facing right now?

EA

Well, right now it’s a danger. When you say that low-income minority communities live right next to these facilities in Houston, it’s important to double down on that and make sure people know how close these people live to those facilities. The reason that I started looking into this early on in the storm is that I went to Houston to visit some of these communities in 2014. And they’re always the first ones I think about whenever anything happens at the refinery in Houston because they literally live next door  . . . it’s as if your next door neighbor is the refinery.

DD

The term is a “fenceline” community, right?

EA

Yes, and it’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever seen in America. It’s called fenceline because there’s the fence of your home, and then there’s the refinery and the chemical plants.

I met a woman who lives in a house that’s sandwiched between two huge simmering tanks of molasses-like chemical. So to the question that you asked, what dangers do they face? My reporting was about the chemical plant shutdowns, which most people don’t know are huge emission events. If a chemical plant or a refinery have to shut down or stop production, they release a lot of chemicals into the atmosphere. Whether or not that’s carbon monoxide, which takes a lot for that to be deadly in an outdoor environment, or carcinogens. But when all of that is happening at the same time and the plants are close to the fence-line communities, that poses a health risk.

Now, what I point out in the article you’re citing is that most of the shutdowns happened during the hurricane, which means there’s a lot of rain, there’s a lot of wind, there’s a lot of clouds. The pollutants that those plants were releasing were probably not going to harm those people’s health more than their health was already being harmed by living next to it. What we’re worried about now is the fact that they all have to restart and they’ll probably all restart at the same time. And restarting is just as big of an emission event as shutting down. With all of them restarting at the same time with the sun out — with the rain not falling, with the no clouds — then we’re going to have a potential problem.

DD

What are the dangers that people living in these fenceline communities face during typical times, when there aren’t massive hurricanes?

EA

This has been an issue for years that very few people pay attention to: these communities that live in fenceline areas have much higher mortality rates than the rest of Houston and, in some cases, than the rest of the country.

It’s hard to say scientifically whether or not that’s because they’re breathing in toxic chemicals all the time but it seems like common sense. After all, these communities live right by refineries and chemical plants that emit harmful carcinogens and other general NOx, which forms smog, and particulate matter. We know that breathing in particulates can trigger asthma attacks, and can trigger cardiovascular events in the elderly and children. And there are a lot of children that live in those areas.

When I was in the area in 2014, and I was with the environmental justice group down there, T.e.j.a.s., on what they call their toxic tour. They took me to a school, to a playground where all these kids playing outside. The kids have no idea what’s going on. They’re running around playing soccer. But you can see an enormous flare that’s right there: it’s the equivalent of one or two blocks away. It’s a weird apocalyptic scene that is normal for these communities in the east end of Houston. It was unbelievable.

DD

So there are layers of factors that compound the local ecological crisis. There is a petrochemical industry concentrated in poor neighborhoods in Houston that poses a direct threat to those people’s health. It also plays a role in producing the greenhouse gases that are intensifying and accelerating climate change, which intensifies storms like Harvey, which then hit those same communities and exacerbate the direct pollution that these communities are facing from petrochemical factories. What’s your assessment of the mainstream media’s job so far in putting this storm — this disaster — in its environmental, ecological context? There’s been a trepidation about politicizing the disaster.

EA

I don’t subscribe to the idea that you can’t politicize a disaster. I wrote about this a couple of days ago: it is appropriate to politicize a storm when public officials have made decisions that worsened the storm’s impact; when public officials have done things or ignored things that resulted in more deaths happening now. But I don’t blame the mainstream media, specifically cable news, for focusing on the human impacts right now, and not talking about climate change or the policies that got us here, because I do agree that the immediate threats to human health and life are what we should focus on.

Today, the Arkema Chemical Plant explosion is happening, and that’s all over cable news. Now, there have been two little explosions. They had to evacuate the surrounding area, which is about 4,000 people. That’s providing a lot of drama and footage, and that’s important. But I’ve seen nothing on cable news about the air pollution impacts, which will potentially harm the most vulnerable communities. I would hope that in this critical time when we’re supposed to be talking about threats to human life and human health, somebody will touch on this because it’s another element piling on to all the other risks. But I think they’ve done a good job with covering flood water pollution and the lack of clean drinking water.

DD

What about the context of climate change?

EA

Nobody’s talking about that. I wish that it were natural for newscasters to talk about climate change and how it impacts weather events. But most political reporters, or weather reporters, aren’t well-versed in it and don’t feel comfortable talking about it. They feel as if mentioning it will cause them to receive hate mail. But these are the facts, and I wish they were making the connection right now. After the discussion of the storm moves away from the immediate threats to human life, I do hope that we start hearing more from the mainstream media about how climate change made this storm worse, and how the lack of adaptation policies to climate change, as well as climate denial from local and national officials, made this storm worse.

DD

It seems like covering a murder and not looking into who pulled the trigger. It’s not politicizing the murder to look into who pulled the trigger; it’s the facts of the case.

EA

Exactly. All of this is inherently political, and politicizing is not a bad thing. The decisions made about climate change were political, and they impact human lives. “Who pulled the trigger” on this is political because it was politicians. Environmental justice is political, as minorities are the ones that are going to bear the brunt of this storm.

DD

You recently wrote that the Washington Post found the only bad way to politicize Hurricane Harvey. What would that be?

EA

Right, it’s only acceptable to politicize something to hold people accountable for human lives lost. But the Washington Post published an article that asked, “How many votes could Hurricane Harvey cost Trump in Texas?” That is not something anybody needs to be thinking about right now. It doesn’t serve any legitimate purpose. The research they were drawing on — about how natural disasters impact presidential elections— is important, but now isn’t the time to cover that angle. Asking, for example, how Harvey is going to hurt Ted Cruz in 2018, is a bad way to politicize a storm.

DD

It is fair game to comment upon Trump’s visit to Texas, which was truly bizarre. He turned it into an impromptu campaign rally.

EA

It was almost product placement for the Trump re-election campaign. He didn’t meet with any victims. That’s unprecedented. I don’t know for sure — this is one of the first natural disasters I’ve covered — but I cover a lot of environmental disasters and this is incredible. Sure, it was comical in a way, and predictably weird, but also sad.