50,000 Houston Homes Might Not Have Flooded in Hurricane Harvey, If Not for Climate Change

50,000 Houston Homes Might Not Have Flooded in Hurricane Harvey, If Not for Climate Change

Five years ago this month, category 4 Hurricane Harvey hovered over Louisiana and Texas, stalling for more than four days, killing at least 70 people, and causing over $US125 ($174) billion in estimated damages.

A study published this week in Nature Connections found that, had it not been for climate change, almost half of the residences that flooded in Harris County, Texas, which encompasses Houston and was badly impacted by the storm, would not have been inundated during the hurricane. The study also found that the destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey was not felt equally across the area.

Researchers at Louisiana State University analysed already published climate change attribution studies, which use computer models to see how the climate crisis is affecting naturally occurring weather events. They found that about 50,000 homes in the Houston area likely would not have been damaged had climate change not contributed to conditions that made Hurricane Harvey a more powerful storm. Rainfall for the hurricane, which was the largest rainfall event in U.S. history, was up to 38% higher than it would have been without climate change, they found.

The team also looked at both household income and race, finding that the social effects during and after the hurricane were noticeably worse for Latino communities. Latino households made up 48% of homes that flooded due to climate change, while White households made up 33% of flooded homes.

Flooded homes in Port Arthur, Texas, September 1, 2017 (Photo: EMILY KASK/AFP, Getty Images)
Flooded homes in Port Arthur, Texas, September 1, 2017 (Photo: EMILY KASK/AFP, Getty Images)

Kevin Smiley, the study’s lead author and a sociology professor at Louisiana State University, said this occurred because many low income communities of colour in Houston were developed along waterways near petrochemical companies. He said this could further widen inequality over time.

“The main way people often build wealth in the middle class is through their home. When your home floods, it’s very hard to recover from that flooding,” he told Earther. “The cascading implications go well beyond just that floodwaters in your home, because these things can really bear on larger social issues, like racial economic inequalities.”

Smiley speculated that the long-term aftermath of events like Hurricane Harvey may eventually include gentrification, which could further displace already vulnerable communities. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the damage predominantly displaced Black families, many of whom had lived in the city for generations. Those neighbourhoods were more likely to be gentrified, making it harder for those people to come back to their old communities. Native communities in the Gulf along Louisiana’s coast felt neglected in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida last year, claiming that the damage they suffered didn’t receive the same attention or aid. When the storm later pummelled New York City, many of the deaths were immigrants who were trapped in their flooded basement apartments, NBC reported.

Smiley wants this study to inspire more analysis of the real-time impacts of extreme weather on long-term stability for communities of colour and other vulnerable areas in the U.S. “[This] framework could theoretically be applied to other extreme weather events, could be applied to other cities,” he said. “I think social scientists are starting to get after some really hard questions about understanding how people are going to cope and adapt in these changing environments.”

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