As Tropical Storm Harvey continues to dump record levels of rain over Texas and Louisiana, the United States is facing its biggest natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina.
The scenes of devastation in Houston, the country’s fourth largest city, have been so reminiscent of New Orleans in 2005, that many have questioned if U.S. cities are doing enough to prepare for natural disasters, which will likely increase in frequency as climate change worsens.
Houston, home to 6.6 million people, is a famously ’un-zoned’ city, where tarmac and concrete have covered many areas that once provided natural flood relief. Models have predicted its vulnerability to extreme weather for years, yet to house its growing population, over 7,000 residential buildings have been constructed on flood plains since 2010.
And like Katrina, the effects are already hitting some communities harder than others. Manchester, an East Side neighbourhood with a 90 per cent Hispanic population, was hit by almost 3 metres of rainfall, leaving 30,000 in need of shelter.
Texas Southern University sociologist Robert Bullard told the Huffington Post that poorer and non-white neighbourhoods, without the money to pay for protective dikes, have become “sacrifice zones”:
“It’s very predictable as to which areas are going to get hit the hardest, because of how money gets allocated in terms of flood protection and flood control. East side neighborhoods are the least protected,” said Bullard.
Leakage from refineries and chemical processing plants, usually located in more deprived areas, provide additional health risk to nearby residents.
Aid agency Direct Relief has created interactive maps of the city to show areas with higher concentrations of disabled people, those of low socio-economic status and non-English speakers – all of which could be more vulnerable to the effects of flooding, or find it more difficult to receive assistance.
The legacy of neglect in urban planning has not gone unnoticed - the editorial board of the Washington Post was scathing in its attack on the poor decisions that over many years left the city vulnerable to devastating floods:
"Houston is an example of what happens when public officials ignore experts and refuse to take natural risks seriously," wrote the Post's View column on Tuesday.
"As the country’s fourth-largest city expanded, replacing prairie with impermeable surfaces such as pavement and concrete, the land was rendered less and less capable of absorbing floodwater. Without proper adaptive measures, this made an already flood-prone place more vulnerable."
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