By Brian Harrison, Ramy Khalil and Patrick Ayers
As Hurricane Irma batters the Caribbean and United States we publish this article from Houston by Socialist Alternative, the voice in the United States of the Committee for a Workers International, to which the Socialist Party is affiliated.
Hurricane Harvey is a historic tragedy affecting millions of people. Socialist Alternative wishes to express our deepest solidarity to all those who have lost loved ones or homes, and will face hardship for weeks to come.
Houston, the fourth-largest city in the U.S. with a metro population of over six million, has been devastated by record-shattering rainfalls, the largest rainstorm in U.S. history, according to Democracy Now. As we write this, at least 47 people have been confirmed dead, and many more are feared drowned in their submerged cars and homes. At least 100,000 homes have been destroyed according to Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert. Tens of thousands have sought temporary shelters in convention centers and much less certain shelter in the medium term.
Half a million cars are thought to be a total loss. School districts have delayed the start of classes by weeks and some schools will not open at all. Only 20% of people in the area have flood insurance and even that program is severely underfunded and will need to be renewed by Congress in September.
Hurricane Harvey and its flooding was a natural disaster made far worse by capitalism. Two 80 year-old reservoirs, chronically under-maintained by penny-pinching governments, are leaking tremendous amounts of water, flooding many homes that would otherwise have been spared by the rain. Chemical plants, under-prepared by profit-driven corporations, are leaking dangerous chemicals into the water, sparking explosions and fires. In the town of Crosby, floods knocked out power to a peroxide plant, causing the plant to explode, and the CEO has refused so far to provide much information. Residents near other oil refineries and chemical plants have reported an unnatural odor. A toxicologist for the Environmental Defense Fund “expects a million pounds of toxic chemicals will be released around Houston just as a result of the storm and floods. Many of them are carcinogenic” (NPR, 8/30/17).
Inadequate Government Response
When the waters rose and trapped people in their homes, it became clear that government and non-profit organizations’ rescue efforts were woefully inadequate. The entire Texas National Guard was not called out until several days after the disaster began. Authorities even failed to provide enough cots and bedding for evacuees, relying instead on the generosity of ordinary Houstonians less impacted by the storm.
Thousands of ordinary working people spontaneously leapt into action to pull their neighbors from the flood waters. The massive outpouring of solidarity by ordinary people helping one another has been truly impressive. Indeed, the need for urgent rescues so overwhelmed the political establishment that Harris County’s top elected official appealed to boaters to not even register their efforts and instead to just go out and rescue people without any state coordination. Even The New York Times reported that “airboats, Jet Skis, motorized fishing boats have rushed to the aid of people trapped in their homes, steered by welders, roofers, mechanics and fishermen wearing shorts, headlamps and ponchos. The working class, in large part, is being rescued by the working class.”
As the true scale of the crisis becomes clear, the mood for urgent action is likely to grow. The first concern will be making sure that the people of the Gulf Coast – all people, especially the most vulnerable – get the help they need to survive and rebuild. It is the working class, people of color, and the elderly – who often don’t have the immediate means to evacuate or rebuild their lives – who are suffering the most.
All survivors deserve dignity and adequate support to make it through the next days and months. The memory of Katrina, the Superdome, the racist military occupation of New Orleans, and FEMA camps is seared into the consciousness of our nation. We cannot allow another unfair relief and reconstruction effort like Katrina.
Over $100 billion was spent on Katrina in federal disaster relief, and it was not enough. People were still living in FEMA trailers ten years later, and over $40 billion in lawsuit money was paid out to 55,000 people from Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi because the trailers were found to be toxic.
We should have no faith that Trump, the Republicans, the Democrats, or corporate America will provide for the full needs of working people, people of color, and all those affected by this tragedy. Undoubtedly, Congress will likely pass some kind of relief package, but working people will need to put mass pressure on the government to demand that everybody affected gets the full help they need.
We must demand every dollar needed to help working people return to normal life as quickly as possible. We also need to demand a massive public works program paid for by taxes on the rich to rebuild the dams, reservoirs, roads, bridges and other important parts of the region’s infrastructure wrecked in the storm – and to ensure everything is built to withstand future intense storms.
Time and time again, when disasters strike around the world, it has been working people who have opened up their wallets and their homes while the richest 1% hoards their massive wealth. Worse, history also shows that there are plenty of people in the 1% who exploit crises for their own gain. Reports indicate that real estate developers and investors are already looking at Hurricane Harvey’s destruction as a huge opportunity to make millions off the reconstruction in the aftermath.
In addition, our corporate-dominated government has a history of grotesque bureaucratic failures in the face of emergency situations. For these reasons, all those who are being affected by this storm need a real voice in how aid is allocated. We need to set up democratic committees, with real decision-making power and resources, to ensure that aid is allocated where it is needed. History shows that the active grassroots mobilization of working people and mass protests are the most important ways to ensure that full amount of aid needed is delivered.
How Could This Have Been Avoided?
A discussion has also begun about how such disasters can be prevented in the future.
Clearly, not enough was done to prepare for a hurricane despite the stark warnings of climate scientists. The lack of regulations on pollution and carbon emissions, demanded by fossil fuel and automobile companies, is the driving force behind the breakdown of our climate. Although climate change did not necessarily cause this specific hurricane, it created warmer oceans and a warmer planet leading to more water vapor in the air, and more intense rainfall. So climate change does cause more powerful hurricanes.
The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have completely opposed addressing the breakdown in the climate. Trump pulled the U.S out of the Paris climate agreement and erased any mention of climate change from many government websites. Just days before the hurricane struck, Trump repealed regulations on construction projects designed to help the cities deal with flooding caused by climate change.
The main obstacle is Big Oil who blocks any meaningful discussion or action on the breakdown of the climate. Oil products are the largest export from Houston and the environmental fallout from the damage to oil and chemical refineries in the area could be catastrophic.
We can expect corporate bosses to resist any attempts to make them pay for the crisis they created, whether through taxes, fines, or regulations. Enough is enough. We need to put an end to their short-sighted, selfish practices. The key to rooting out their power to block meaningful action would be to take the fossil fuel industry into public ownership so that their resources can be redirected to clean up the environment and transition the economy to renewable energy, with just compensation, new union jobs, and retraining for energy workers.
Another key factor was the way establishment politicians in Houston from both the Republican and Democratic parties enabled and encouraged a massive amount of unregulated economic development in recent decades. Houston’s total lack of zoning and its developer-friendly policies allowed huge parts of prairie lands to be paved over with concrete, leaving nowhere for rain to go but inside people’s homes.
Dr. Phil Bedient, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Rice University, explained that many developments were built without enough open land or detention areas to take in floodwaters. “It’s been known for years how to do to it; it just costs the developers money to do it that way” (NY Times).
In 2015, the Houston Chronicle examined a sampling of permits issued to developers, and found that more than half the developers had failed to follow through on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers directives intended to mitigate the destruction of wetlands (NY Times).
Dr. Robert Bullard explained to Democracy Now: “Well, Houston is actually – was a catastrophe waiting to happen, given the fact you have unrestrained capitalism, no zoning, laissez-faire regulations when it comes to control of the very industries that have created lots of problems when it comes to greenhouse gases and other industrial pollution. The impact that basically has been ignored for many years. And so the fact that – it is a disaster, but it is a very predictable disaster.”
Ultimately we must face up to the reality that capitalism, as a system based on privately owned corporations competing for profits, places severe limits on our ability to deal with the breakdown of the climate and unplanned urban sprawl.
The alternative to the chaos caused by capitalism and the greed of billionaires is socialism – democratic planning to replace the profit-driven anarchy of the market system. We need to build the socialist and workers movement around the central demand of taking the top 500 corporations into public ownership under the democratic management by working people. This would lay the basis for establishing a rational, democratically planned society based on meeting the needs of people and the planet, not profits.