Curtain Raiser

The ‘Act of God’ Card, Colltalers

Hurricane Harvey has been a nightmare, and that’s an understatement. With still increasing casualties, record amounts of rainfall, immediate material destruction, and expected long-term economic costs and disruption, there aren’t many ways to overstate its impact and devastation.
It was also somehow predictable, and much of its tragic aftermath could’ve been at least minimized, had a few perfectly rational decisions been made in time. Worse, it’s already possible to foresee what it’s likely to follow it, even before another one just like it hits us again.
The first thing that jumps out of what’s been the first natural disaster faced by the Trump administration, is its staggering level of denial about the evidence of what’s happening. No, Harvey was not caused by climate change; but the unusual length of time it took to cross Texas is.
The southern part of the state has been heating up faster than other U.S. regions, already breaking record high temperatures monthly, just as it’s happening in the whole planet. Warmer air can hold more moisture, that is, rainfall and floods. And that, in turn, heavily taxes any city’s drainage systems. In the case of the U.S.’s fourth-largest, Houston, such factors conspired to cause the current perfect storm conditions.
Such increased hot air is caused in great part by the warming of sea waters, enough to melt millennium-old glaciers all over the world. Water levels along Texas’ coast, for instance, have been rising by almost two inches per decade, according to EPA data (when it used to do its job).
Arctic sea ice has declined steadily in the past 30 years, and it has set another record low for the third consecutive year, said the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center. Just last week, a Russian tanker was able to sail across the pole without an ice breaker for the first time ever.
Let’s not get into the geopolitical underside of that crossing right now, which in itself, should be cause for utmost concern. What seems truly alarming is the potentially catastrophic implications of having a commercial oil route across one of the most pristine regions of the world.
Going back to Texas, two other bad man-made decisions contributed to the tragedy: one, Houston’s lack of zoning

restrictions. That boosted urban development through flooding-prone regions. After all, the city was founded in 1836 on the natural basin formed by two bayous.
The consequences of the other wrong decision – lack of regulations – were painfully clear last Thursday, when an Arkema chemical plant exploded, and forced an evacuation. More than adding insult to injury, the explosion could’ve been prevented had crucial safety rules, whose implementation the Trump EPA decided to delay just 24 hours before, had been in place. Fortunately, this time there were no fatalities.
But four years ago, 15 people did perish when a fertilizer plant exploded in West, injuring 200, and destroying hundreds of homes. The industry was forced to adopt safety measures. But when it got a sympathetic ear in the White House, it managed to avoid the needed implementation.
Incidentally, Houston sits on the area, from Corpus Christi to Lake Charles, LA, that represents nearly half of U.S.’s oil and gas refining capacity. It’s also laden with horizontal drilling and fracking. While Harvey-induced flooding has forced some facilities to shut down, with higher oil prices expected, there’s been little talk about the extensive environmental damage it’ll add to an already polluted stretch of land.
Just like when Hurricane Katrina exposed the Bush administration for its appalling lack of preparation and callousness dealing with human misfortune, instead of professionalism and solutions, officials and politicians have offered promises and prayers. Mexico and Canada were actually faster responding to the hurricane, than the president and federal authorities, a fact that’s been all but under reported by the media.
In another nod to Katrina-era mistakes, Texas Secretary of State Roland Pablos had initially refused Quebec Minister Christine St-Pierre’s offer of blankets, beds, and other emergency items, asking for prayers, instead. But as stupid as this sounds, it’s still not as cruel as millionaire pastor Joel Osteen, who while also offering his prayers via Tweeter, actually closed down his megachurch to victims, as soon as the storm hit.
Meanwhile, just as Mexican officials didn’t wait for an official reply, and shipped much needed supplies to flood victims, Homeland Security has awarded contracts to four companies to build prototypes for the border wall with Mexico, one of Trump campaign’s signature promises.
Amid all the commotion of seeing people being rescued from flooded homes, the president also let it out that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program may be phased out this week, of all weeks. Even with later corrections to the rumor, that in fact, only some of the estimated 80 thousand that could be deported if DACA is cancelled, in fact will, to allow such fears to freely propagate in a time like this is beyond cruel.
It compares badly with both Mexican and Canadian officials, and bodes poorly to a chief of state who thanked victims of the worst disaster so far of his term, for attending his rally, as if it were a campaign stop. His wife choice of stilettos in a flood zone didn’t help matters either.
Such zeal from the powerful to offer religious comfort, rather than material relief or, even better, policies that place human life first, rather than corporate interests, also signals a familiar excuse, invoked by insurance companies when natural disasters strike: the ‘act of god’ card.
The list of people who lost everything, or almost, but get no compensation for hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, or any other reason people pay for insurance, grows longer every year. It’s an unfair fight, pitting well-heeled teams of corporate lawyers against near destitute consumers, with predictable results. Thus, beware of politicians who invoke god and prayers, for they’re actually sending a code message to their sponsors.
Finally, just as when there’s a gun massacre and some rush to stamp down talk about gun regulation, there have been attempts to halt all discussions about climate change. For now, they say. It’s a well-know diverting tactic, to neutralize the evidence and prevent thinking.
We can’t let that happen any longer. It’s in our cultural DNA to prioritize what’s immediate, and forget what’s no longer urgent. So the more we do right away, while the irons are hot and the pain fresh, the more we’ll educate ourselves about risks, and build strategies that last.
Natural disasters are a fact of life, and given present conditions, they’ll be more powerful and frequent. By planning and building, not border walls, but effective infrastructure, we can do a lot to minimize their impact. We also need educated, less compromised, elected officials. And the time to do it is exactly now, when a sample of what’s coming up is at full display. Then, anyone may pray as much as they see fit.
Perhaps to ruin the American Labor holiday, North Korea, the only country that seems to take the U.S. president seriously, detonated its most powerful nuclear device yet, and it shook more than the testing grounds. Again, praying is fine but the escalation between these two damaged egos requires more. For the sake of the future, we must get them to sit and talk. It’s September, let’s come up with some ideas how. Cheers WC

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