Downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm, Harvey continues to rain rivers down on Houston and its surroundings, inundating homes and businesses and tearing apart the lives of tens of thousands of people. It is hard not to be moved by the pictures and videos of police officers and ordinary citizens in boats and inflatable rafts rescuing people from roofs and partly submerged cars, volunteering at shelters and handing out food and water to the hungry. And while the local, state and federal response appears to be going about as well as could have been expected, Harvey has already left a devastating mark on the nation’s fourth-largest city and will surely etch itself in the pantheon of great natural disasters alongside storms like Katrina and Andrew.
Grueling days lie ahead. The storm has dropped more than 30 inches of rain in some areas, with more expected, and even when the waters recede, many lives will not return to their normal rhythms for months or years, if ever, as displaced families make their way back home, take stock and begin arduous cleanups. Homes, businesses and other structures will be beyond repair, forcing residents and government officials to make difficult decisions about whether to rebuild and how. The oil and gas industry concentrated on the Texas coast could be disrupted for weeks or longer, sending ripples across energy markets and the economy.
There are lessons to be learned, as there always are after disasters like this. Some of those lessons — like how unchecked urban sprawl and paving over of wetlands and prairies have increased the risk posed by floods in Houston and other cities — were evident long before Harvey and ought to become more urgent in the storm’s wake. Experts will also point out, as they have before, that cities ought to abandon traditional flood-control approaches that were never very good and are wholly inadequate for dealing with the kinds of intense storms that have become more frequent in recent years. Instead, they need to adopt smarter strategies that provide more space for floodwaters to seep into the ground and drain away slowly without leaving behind a trail of destruction.
There may also be a message here for President Trump. Although it’s expecting a lot of someone who calls…