Harvey’s (Mostly Unspoken) Legacy

As much as Hurricane Harvey captivated both the attention of the nation and the “media oxygen” last week I expect it to largely fade from “watercooler conversation” and decline in news coverage by the time you read this article. The debt ceiling, avoiding a government shutdown, the repercussions of Trump’s DACA decision and possibly Hurricane Irma will all overshadow Harvey recovery aid. The negative impact on hundreds of thousands of lives is very real and will make for some news clips; however the greatest danger will remain largely uninvestigated by our government and uncovered by our news media. Let’s explore.

In the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s I lived in a flood prone area of Cheektowaga, New York. Somehow my parents’ house escaped having water in the basement but many of my neighbors weren’t so lucky. On rare occasion one of my less fortunate neighbors might have had a bit of water reach the first floor and a lot of finished basements were ruined. I distinctly remember boats coming down the street (which in a child’s mind was very cool.) All that said we suffered nothing when compared to the people of Texas’ Gulf Coast!

Homes will get repaired, cars will be replaced, and people will buy new clothes and pets. I know that is an oversimplification and I am glad I am not among the victims of Harvey but another real tragedy is lurking beyond the surface and will largely go ignored. It will also claim victims and will probably never be linked back to Harvey. Insurers and federal aid will help make people somewhat whole from their material losses but the true culprits of this “second wave” will probably be shielded by the Trump administration.

While Houston and many other municipalities were still rescuing people, the Arkema Plant in Crosby, Texas was the site of numerous explosions resulting in thick smoke and fire. The plant’s management refused to publically release the types and volume of chemicals stored there all the time assured the public it was no more dangerous than breathing the smoke of a campfire. Color me skeptical.

The EPA has reported that they aerially surveyed 41 Superfund sites in the region and determined that at least 13 of them were flooded and/or damaged by the storm. I have close to zero confidence in Scott Pruitt’s EPA either doing sufficient follow-up or protecting the public from chemical seepage into the waterways and water supply.

Septic overflows are endemic especially in rural areas. Those contaminants will be getting into the water supply as well as on people’s skin and possessions.

Flood waters are inherently dangerous. They contain bacteria and animals (I’m not talking about a cute swimming dog). After they leave homes and other possessions they are often quickly replaced by harmful mold.

While some of the “hitchhikers” in the flood waters will result in swift and usually curable disease my concern is the health problems they will cause that often take years to manifest themselves. Health care professionals will often be perplexed as to how to treat them and will almost never be able to trace them back to their root cause. This combined with corporate stonewalling will lead to a health care problem that individuals and society at large (read: taxpayers) will bear the financial cost of. The offending corporations and agencies will hide behind feigned ignorance, evasive talk and, if necessary, high priced legal counsel. (While ironically complaining about the taxes they have to pay.)

If Texans are looking for federal government help they are out of luck. Pruitt is a prime example of a Trump appointee whose mission is to destroy the agency he is heading. If Texans are looking to Austin they are up the same polluted creek without a paddle. In 2013 there was an ammonium nitrate explosion in West, Texas resulting in 15 deaths. In 2015 the Republican dominated Texas legislature passed a law to “address” the issue. It exempts businesses from having to publically disclose what chemicals they stored at their facilities and in what volume. I do not have a medical degree but I suspect that a physician has a better chance of successfully treating a rare affliction if they know the agent that caused it. According to Texas Republicans your kid dying is not nearly as important as a business being able to protect the secrecy of its inventory.

A storm like Harvey would be tragic regardless of the administration in power. With Donald Trump in the White House and Scott Pruitt running the EPA it is truly a worst case scenario.

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