No, the still-unfolding catastrophe in Texas could not have been prevented. But vital investigative reporting over the past year and a half shows how it might have been more manageable if government officials had taken heed. More important, the journalists’ findings lay out a path forward that should be carefully studied once the waters begin to subside.
The reporting is contained in a series called “Hell and High Water,” which was produced by three nonprofit news organizations: ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, and “Reveal,” a public radio program from the Center for Investigative Reporting. The journalism is impressively deep and features a number of interactive graphics that allow users to test various storm scenarios. In summary, though, the story is a simple one:
- Officials have done almost nothing in the nine years since the last big Texas hurricane, Ike, to protect the state’s fragile eastern shore.
- Massive development has been allowed to proceed unimpeded, as vast tracts of land have been paved over, increasing runoff in areas that once could have absorbed much of the rain.
- Climate change is making all of it that much worse, with warming waters in the Gulf of Mexico producing more rain and higher sea levels increasing the vulnerability of coastal areas.
“The Texas coast powers the nation,” state land commissioner George P. Bush (son of Jeb and Columba) told the journalists. “Its vulnerability should be considered a national-security issue.”
The challenge, not surprisingly, is a broken political culture that values money over lives and that includes more than a few political figures who regard climate change — not to mention basic science and engineering — as “fake news.” Take, for instance, Mike Talbot, who until recently was head of the Harris County Flood Control District, which includes Houston. Talbot derided scientists and conservationists, calling them “anti-development” and adding: “They have an agenda … their agenda to protect the environment overrides common sense.” The article adds ominously: “His successor shares his views.”
There are two major pieces in the series. The first, published in March 2016, examines what would have happened if Hurricane Ike had directly hit Houston in 2008 rather than veering off course at the last minute, causing less damage than had been projected. (Not that Ike wasn’t devastating. Seventy-four people were killed, and damage was estimated at $30 billion.)
For the past nine years, scientists and officials have talked about plans to protect the region from such a disaster. But talk is cheap, and action still appears to be years away. The most ambitious of those plans is the “Ike Dike,” based on a project in the Netherlands aimed at protecting inland areas from a 10,000-year storm. But it’s clear that there is little political will in Texas for such an undertaking, which could cost $8 billion or more — a pittance compared to Hurricane Harvey’s eventual price tag.
The other major article, published last December, takes a look at the increase in flooding in recent years, a direct consequence of climate change and the loss of land to absorb increasing amounts of rainfall. Incredibly, Harris County’s freshwater wetlands diminished by 30 percent between 1992 and 2010. The result is that concepts like 100-year storms and 500-year storms have been rendered meaningless.
Unfortunately, the remedies suggested — tougher regulations on development, preservation of green spaces, and removing some 140,000 homes that are in the 100-year floodplain — seem marginal in the face of the challenges facing the region. Yet they probably go further than the political establishment is willing to embrace, although it’s possible that the devastation of Harvey has created a new reality.
“Hell and High Water” represents public-interest journalism at its best, but it also tells us much about the limits of journalism. Investigative reporting does not normally end with the crooked president flying off in a helicopter or the pedophile-priest-coddling cardinal fleeing to Rome. After all, such denouements are unusual enough that they make movies out of them. Most great journalism shines a light and explains. It is up to members of the public whether they will choose to be outraged enough to demand action.
Right now, the focus in Texas is on saving people’s lives, as it should be. But in a few weeks, or a few months, the public’s attention will turn to softening the effects of such catastrophes in the future. “Hell and High Water” will still be there, supplemented, no doubt, by additional reporting on Harvey and its aftermath. In it readers will learn how their leaders let them down — and how they can make sure it doesn’t happen again.