Innovation Ecosystem

What are the lessons for RI in wake of the Houston devastation?

Will state leaders consider making new investments in resilient infrastructure?

Photo by Meliisa Mahan Phillip, Houston Chronicle, courtesy of Scott Kingsley Facebook page.

Rescue boats work along Tidwell at the east Sam Houston Tollway helping to evacuate people, in northeast Houston, on Monday morning, Aug. 28

By Richard Asinof
Posted 9/4/17
The realities of climate change are hard to ignore after the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey. The larger question is whether the old mentality after a natural disaster will persist – to rebuild what was destroyed in the exact same fashion. And, how can Rhode Island re-evaluate and change its strategic focus to shepherd the resources needed for resilience?
How will the threat from natural disasters and storm damages such as what was visited upon Houston change priorities in the R.I. General Assembly? What candidates will successfully forge a political platform speaking up for strategic environmental investments? Will potential candidates for statewide office in 2018 be asked about climate change and state preparedness? Which news media outlet will plan to hold a summit focused on environmental resilience?
It was more than a hypothetical question for many fleeing the rising waters in Houston: what would you carry with you? The scenes of water rescues are the kinds of images that conjure up a kind of nightmare most never hope to encounter: the loss of possessions and memories that we treasure about our lives, and the loss of entire neighborhoods, schools and communities.
We rarely take the time to reflect on what is important in our possessions – they often take on the description of what George Carlin once called “stuff.” We are ill prepared to walk away from our past lives and reinvent ourselves, no matter how young or old we are. That kind of emotional flexibility and nimbleness requires a depth of human spirit that will not be found on television or the Internet. Perhaps, in the aftermath of Harvey, there will be a greater recognition of what is most important in our lives.

PROVIDENCE – The devastation of Houston and the surrounding region as a result of Hurricane Harvey and the deluge that brought more than 50 inches of rain are symptomatic of what awaits us in the world of rising ocean levels, rising water temperatures and raging storms that are, despite the deniers, tied to climate change caused by human activity.

The heroic nature of neighbors helping neighbors not withstanding, the devastation will be long lasting, measured not in months but years, in the needed efforts to rebuild homes, highways, businesses in the Houston region. The clean up will require billions if not trillions of taxpayer dollars, highlighting the importance of the federal and state governments and the roles that they play.

Beneath the murk of the receding waters is a toxic stew of public health threats from pollution: from exploding chemicals [though, thanks to the Texas legislature, the public has no right to know what those toxics are], from 13 of 41 flooded Superfund sites in Texas, and from the overflow of contaminants from the oil and gas industry and refineries. Not to mention raw sewage and the mold and pungent rot that will be left in the wake of flooding.

Houston was particularly prone to such devastation as a result of the decades of infrastructure decisions that supported the destruction of natural wetlands and the building of concrete bayous, the dependence upon the automobile as the major source of transportation and the build out of major highways, and the willingness to support the needs of the oil and chemical industry – the refineries, the ports and the drilling industries.

Should Houston invest the resources from public and private sources in rebuilding and replicating what had existed before? Or, will there at least be discussion of what kinds of greener infrastructure choices could be made?

The view from Providence
Cities up and down the East Coast of the U.S. and the Gulf of Mexico now face similar kinds of decisions about future priorities in the wake of Houston.

As Frank Carini, editor of ecoRI News, asked during an interview last week with ConvergenceRI, what would happen if there were four feet of water flooding the streets of downtown Providence? It may not be such an abstract question, given that the potential for the latest storm, Hurricane Irma, to develop into a Category Four storm and slam into the East Coast next week.

What are the decisions that elected officials and state policy makers, public health officials and community leaders need to address, to prepare Providence and Rhode Island for such a catastrophic storm?

And, how can community and environmental advocates get to participate in the conversation and decision-making?

Questions before the deluge
Question: What potential infrastructure decisions that have been made should be revisited – from the current plans to rebuild the Route 6-10 connector and the creation of more surface parking in Providence to the building of a high-rise next to the Providence River?

Question: Does the state need to create a immediate “rainy day fund” dedicated to future resiliency efforts and infrastructure investments through a tax on millionaires, similar to the levy enacted in California?

Question: What are the current existing plans to deal with a major storm and flood of Narragansett Bay? Can those plans be made transparent and accessible as a potential starting point for discussion of future infrastructure investments?

Question: What kinds of funding and resources will be required to support the public health infrastructure in the event of major storm and flood in Rhode Island? Further, what kinds of expert research laboratories now exist in the state to analyze the potential from toxic chemical contamination?

Question: What kinds of investments in ready-to-use solar kits can be made to assist those who lose both electricity and water in a major storm?

Recent dialogue on Facebook
Here is part of a recent conversation on Facebook that seemed to address what has often been missing from the majority of news coverage:

First participant: I know it is a rant, but does anyone understand how vulnerable we have become to flooding because of all the parking lots around downtown? Where is water to go if there are no ways to get to ground?

Second participant: Unfortunately the mentality after a “natural disaster” is to rebuild what was destroyed. Past vulnerabilities become future vulnerabilities. Houston is automobile-driven [literally and figuratively] urban sprawl in a flood plain.

I heard either the mayor or the county judge [highest county-level elected official] say there are now 500,000 destroyed automobiles in the area, and ask: “How are people going to get to work?”

The urban design is totally unresilient. But the roads are going to be repaved, the houses will be rebuilt, and the poor will continue to live next to industrial plants.

First participant: What are the lessons for Providence? Should we take another look at the 6-10 Connector, Rhode Island Hospital parking lot expansion, and open space in I-195 redevelopment area?

Second participant: As for the 6-10 Connector, I’d like to see economic analyses of what might be gained by demolishing it entirely. Analyses that factor in public health, education, and other outcomes.

… It’s easy to see that the highway system is based on the original design principle from the early 1960s of running highways right through the hearts of cities. Rebuilding an outdated and harmful design is stupid.

Does not really matter what is good for us, it only matters what is good for road builders and the pols they own.

[Third participant in the conversation thread]: This is far too long of a discussion for Facebook.

Music and lyrics
Although it enjoyed some renewed popularity in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the flooding of New Orleans, Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” with its plaintive Southern voice, still seems to be an evocative soundtrack for the current devastation in Houston, with its thousands of displaced and homeless residents:

What has happened down here is the winds have changed
Clouds roll in from the north and it start to rain
Rained real hard and rained for a real long time
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

The river rose all day, the river rose all night

Some people got lost in the flood
Some people got away alright
The river have busted through, clear down to Plaque mines
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

Louisiana, they’re trying to wash us away


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