What happens to Houston after the media coverage storm subsides, when the country has moved on from the reality that is the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey? Will the people of Houston, who will be affected by this devastation financially and emotionally for years to come, soon become just yesterday’s headline? I would hope not. But recent history shows we should be concerned.
Hurricane Harvey dumped 33 trillion gallons of water (nearly double the volume of the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed)—roughly 275 trillion pounds of water, onto Houston and surrounding areas. Some media outlets called Hurricane Harvey an “equal opportunity” disaster, meaning it negatively affected both the rich and the poor. Equal opportunity—but is it? Time will tell. What will happen when the less financially secure, mostly minority communities try to rebuild? Will they still receive equal opportunities to recover? Will the air pollution and contaminants from hazardous facilities have a disproportionate long-term effect on the communities of color living in closer proximity to toxic sites?
I’m skeptical because I know the history. Last year I did a report looking at the disproportionate impacts of chemical risk and toxic chemical exposure in four Houston neighborhoods: Harrisburg/Manchester and Galena Park in east Houston, along the highly industrialized ship channel, and Bellaire and West Oaks/Eldridge in more affluent west Houston. The study found that 90 percent of the population in Harrisburg/Manchester and almost 40 percent of the population of Galena Park lives within one mile of an RMP facility, compared to less than 10 and less than 15 percent of Bellaire and West Oaks/Eldridge residents. And far more accidents have occurred at the facilities in and around the east Houston neighborhoods.
As for the health impacts: Residents of the Harrisburg/Manchester community have a 24-30% higher cancer risk and those of Galena Park have a 30-36% higher risk, when compared to Bellaire and West Oaks/Eldridge, respectively. The potential for residents to suffer from respiratory illnesses in Harrisburg/ Manchester and Galena Park was 24% and 43% higher than in Bellaire and West Oaks/Eldridge, respectively. It also bears noting that 97% and 86% of the respective east Houston communities’ residents are people of color, and the communities have up to ten times more poverty than the two in west Houston. Communities like Manchester have long not gotten their piece of the pie, they need to get their piece of Harvey recovery resources.
And already we are seeing evidence that Harvey’s impacts might not be so equal.
To quote my colleague, Juan Declet-Barreto, “The communities that have been living around those facilities have been saying for years that the regulatory frameworks to protect people from the negative aspects of petrochemical industry are not adequate.” The unprecedented rainfall and subsequent flooding was contaminated with waste from nearby toxic (Superfund) sites, leaving people exposed to a cocktail of harmful pollutants. The havoc wrought unto Houston by Harvey’s winds was intensified by the leaking of more than 1 million pounds of toxic pollutants from refineries and chemical facilities, including known carcinogens benzene and 1,3-butadiene and respiratory irritants hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and xylene. Hurricane survivors spoke of harsh fumes burning their throats and eyes, making it difficult to breathe under already difficult circumstances.
We knew better
While we certainly cannot stop hurricanes from hurtling in uninvited, we can mitigate the severity of their consequences. For instance, the explosions and fires at the Arkema facility could have been prevented with safer alternatives, and workers and communities could have had more information and coordination with emergency responders. However, just this past January, amendments to strengthen the Risk Management Program (RMP), the oversight program designed to set safeguards on chemical facilities to protect public health and safety, were delayed until February 19, 2019. My colleagues and I delivered comments at the public hearing EPA held in April on the rule to delay amendments to the RMP (read here). If certain communities are being hit harder and their cries for help have yet to be heard, is it fair to say this was an equal opportunity disaster?
It isn’t just Manchester that is likely to experience disparate impacts from a hurricane. Extreme weather events will continue; warming sea surface temperatures are a key ingredient in the storm recipe. Floodwaters have not completely cleared, but media coverage is already being diverted to the next big storm. In the week since Harvey descended onto Houston and surrounding areas, three more hurricanes have formed: Hurricanes Irma, Jose and Katia. Harvey’s five day-long deluge had all but ended before Caribbean islands were bracing themselves for Hurricane Irma, which struck the island of Barbuda hard on Wednesday. Over 90% of structures on the small, bucolic island—home to 1800 people—are said to have sustained major damage, according to the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne.
Irma is currently tearing through the Caribbean, leaving many in Puerto Rico without power, and possibly hitting Florida this weekend. Puerto Rico is, like Houston, laden with RMP facilities that can spew toxic fumes into the air and with Superfund sites that could potentially flood and contaminate drinking water.
For the last week, coverage detailing every aspect and angle of the situation in Houston has inundated news outlets, putting the spotlight on and revealing the issues that are usually swept under the rug and ignored. I expect similar coverage for Irma. We mustn’t let this attention die down. We must demand a just recovery from Barbuda to the Buffalo Bayou.