Capitalist vultures circle hurricane disasters

As the flooding of Houston was just beginning in late August, as cyclone Harvey dumped more than 50 trillion litres of water on south-east Texas, the US National Weather Service tweeted “this event is unprecedented & all impacts are unknown & beyond anything experienced”. The media were quick to echo this – presenting the severity of the flooding as completely unexpected and impossible to have predicted and planned a response to.

Barely a week later, another three hurricanes had formed across the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, including the category 5 monster Irma, which pummelled the Caribbean and Cuba, before weakening slightly and hitting Florida.

These events may well be unprecedented and “beyond anything experienced”. But they could have been predicted. They are the result of the headlong rush towards runaway global warming, and of the unfettered urban development that has resulted in cities such as Houston being turned into giant concrete funnels for toxic floodwaters.

Predictable too has been the very capitalist response to the hurricane crisis: the investors rushing to profit from rebuilding efforts; unabashed price gouging; communities left exposed to a poisonous cocktail of pollution; and the hypocritical show of support from politicians who have systemically run down US emergency services – leaving them ill equipped to deal with disasters of this scale.

What help arrived for the victims of these hurricanes came from the basic humanity shown by ordinary people – the workers and volunteers who put their lives at risk in rescue efforts, and those who staffed the shelters in which tens of thousands sought refuge.

But this kind of basic humanity is anathema to the operation of a system built around private profit. As the immediate crisis passes and people start to rebuild their lives, the danger is that these events will be turned into opportunities for the kind of “disaster capitalism” inflicted on New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Harvey: an unnatural disaster

The devastation wrought by Harvey is mind-boggling. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, more than 185,000 homes were damaged in the flood, and 9,000 were completely destroyed. The death toll is 70 and rising. It’s likely the total cost of recovery will be more than US$100 billion.

The storm, with maximum winds reaching 209 kilometres per hour, was the most powerful to hit the US mainland in more than a decade. But perhaps more significant was that having made landfall near Corpus Christi in Texas on 25 August, it hung around for days, dumping record-smashing quantities of rain.

A weather station in south-east Houston recorded just under 1,300mm (1.3m) during the storm. The average rainfall for an entire year in Sydney is around 1,200mm. In Melbourne it’s 650mm. According to Chris Milliner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Earth’s crust in the Houston area had been pushed down by about 2cm by the weight of the floodwater.

Climate scientists have been warning for decades that a warming climate will bring an increase in the intensity of extreme weather events such as hurricanes.

Water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico as Harvey grew and strengthened in the week before it hit the coast were up to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the long term average (water temperatures around where Hurricane Irma formed in the Atlantic were also above average, if not by as much as in the Gulf).

For each 0.5 degree of warming, scientists estimate, there is a corresponding 3 percent increase in moisture in the atmosphere. So when Harvey hit, there was significantly more atmospheric moisture from which it could draw its strength than there would have been under normal conditions.

Sea levels along the Texas coast have also been rising. They are more than 15cm higher than they were a few decades ago, so the storm surge caused by the hurricane was higher than it otherwise would have been. This contributed to the severity of the flooding in Houston.

Finally, instead of moving inland and rapidly weakening, as is usually the case with hurricanes in that area, Harvey stalled and then moved slowly east, back along the coast towards Louisiana. This has been linked by some scientists to a weakening of prevailing wind patterns associated with climate change.

It would be wrong to say Hurricane Harvey was “caused” by global warming. But its intensity and the massive rainfall totals it brought almost certainly were. A city such as Houston could and should have been prepared for something like this. That it wasn’t says more about the priorities of big business and governments than it does about the extremity of the event itself.

The urban geography of Houston also contributed to the severity of the flooding. The city is the centre of the US oil and gas industry, and a kind of “wild west” for deregulated capitalism.

It’s unsurprising that in the course of the city’s rapid growth in recent decades, not much thought was given to urban amenity or sustainability. A 2016 joint investigation by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune found “local officials have largely snubbed stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater”.

The investigation noted that this “has led to an excess of floodwater during storms that chokes the city’s vast bayou network, drainage systems, and two huge federally owned reservoirs, endangering many nearby homes”.

The danger posed by floodwaters was exacerbated by the proximity of much of Houston’s housing to its almost 500 industrial sites. The city ordinarily suffers from among the highest levels of air pollution in the US. It hasn’t met national air quality standards since 1970, when the Clean Air Act was passed.

In the days following the hurricane, conditions worsened dramatically. Analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity noted, “Staggering amounts of benzene, 1,3-butadiene, hexane, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, toluene and xylene … were emitted during Harvey-related flooding by several dozen petroleum industry facilities operated by Chevron Phillips, Exxon Mobil, Shell and other companies”. These chemicals are known to cause serious health problems, including cancer.

Residents close to industrial areas have reported strong smells and difficulty breathing. For many of the worst off among Houston’s population, this is nothing new. Jessica Hultze, a retired woman living in one of Houston’s poorer suburbs, told the Guardian: “This has been bad but it’s not going to get better, it’ll only get worse … [W]e will die with this poisonous air”.

Perhaps the greatest danger, however, lies in the chemical contamination of the floodwaters. In addition to the petrochemical plants, Houston is home to numerous toxic waste sites slated for clean-up under the US government’s Superfund program. These sites are polluted with highly dangerous chemicals such as lead, arsenic, PCBs and benzene, and many of them were submerged in the flood.

Houston city officials have told residents to avoid any contact with the floodwaters. A spokesman for the Houston Health Department said, “There’s no need to test it … It’s contaminated. There’s millions of contaminants”.

‘View storm as investors’

Houston was a disaster waiting to happen. But the greater crime, perhaps, isn’t to be found in the human factors that contributed to the scale of the flood, but in the base inhumanity shown by many of those in positions of power in response to it.

Where most of us see a population in urgent need of help to rebuild their lives, the ideologues of free market capitalism see dollar signs. For example, an article published in Forbes on 5 September argues: “We must view this storm as investors”.

The author, Christopher Versace, recommends looking out for companies that will profit from the massive rebuilding effort. “The most obvious choice”, he says, “would be Home Depot, which has numerous stores located in and around the Houston area”. He goes on to promise, “We’ll continue to monitor the situation to gauge the degree of destruction to be had from Irma”.

Landlords are reportedly continuing to demand rent from people who have lost everything in the flood. In one case, documented by the Guardian, an unemployed woman who rented a house in Houston with 10 other members of her family was taken to court and evicted by her landlord in the days immediately following the hurricane.

If the response to Hurricane Katrina is anything to go by, those made homeless by the flood, most of whom were uninsured, face an uphill battle to return. Housing authorities in New Orleans used the disaster as an excuse to demolish most of the city’s public housing. Residents who attempted to return in the aftermath of the hurricane found themselves locked out of their own homes.

More than a decade later, only a fraction of the housing has been rebuilt. The population of New Orleans remains 90,000 lower than it was before the hurricane. The city’s Black population was particularly hard hit. Nearly 200,000 were forced to flee, and only around half of them have returned.

Another example is price gouging. In the midst of the flood catastrophe in Houston, businesses jacked up the price of a case of bottled water to as much as $99, with a single bottle selling for as much as $8.50. Petrol was being sold by one store for $20 a gallon. In the week before the storm, the average price was $2.12.

Texas authorities made a show of cracking down on this – threatening businesses with significant fines. To the more orthodox capitalist economists, however, the whole thing was very much in order.

In another Forbes article, titled “Hurricane Harvey is when we need price gouging, not laws against it”, economist Tim Worstall argued that price gougers should be thanked for “the good work they’re doing”. With regard to bottled water in particular, he wrote: “We want people to use less of the scarce resource, we want people to supply more of the scarce resource, allowing the price to rise is the one known way of achieving both those goals”.

This kind of argument might get a good run among the undergraduate business and economics student spawn of the rich, but when applied to the situation facing the victims of Hurricane Harvey, it’s nothing short of grotesque.

What it amounts to is saying only the wealthier sections of the population, those who can afford to pay massively inflated prices, deserve to be helped. The idea that increasing prices will result in capitalists rushing to supply the market in a disaster zone, thus balancing supply and demand, is laughable. How are they supposed to transport large quantities of bottled water or other goods into an area devastated by flooding?

The obvious answer to the shortages of water and other necessities in Houston would have been for the US state to mobilise its ample resources to get help to everyone who needed it. In a more rational and just society, none of those impacted by the hurricane would be forced to go without.

Capitalism, however, is neither rational nor just. In a system centred on the freedom of the super-rich to line their pockets, whatever the circumstances, the idea of the state stepping in to help those in need is heresy.

Over the past few decades the capacity of the US state to respond to disasters like this has been systemically run down. In the case of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was shown to be completely incapable of doing its job. The situation has only worsened since.

In the first crucial hours and days of the flood crisis in Houston, a total of just 8,500 federal workers were mobilised to support local emergency services. As the hurricane hit, FEMA head Brock Long even put out a call for volunteers to come to Houston to add to those numbers. The spectacle of the richest country on earth attempting to “crowd source” its rescue and recovery effort is as powerful a symbol of what’s wrong with society today as you’re likely to see.

Twenty-four thousand National Guards were subsequently mobilised. But it was just a fraction of what would be possible if the US government went all out to help.

As Branko Marcetic points out in an article for Jacobin magazine, “The United States currently has 1.3 million military personnel around the world, as well as another 800,000 in reserves”. Not to mention the US military budget, which is more than $600 billion annually. Just $13.9 billion is allocated to FEMA.

Is it too much to ask that, instead of putting out a call for volunteers, the US government should divert resources to help with the crisis? Unfortunately, given the priorities of those in power, the answer is yes.

Politicians and big business might make a lot of noise about their determination to get people “back on their feet”, but they’ll never sacrifice their ability to dominate the world militarily for the needs of ordinary people facing a crisis at home.

Donald Trump is representative of the broader trend. He has, of course, attempted to gain political mileage out of the hurricane crisis. He visited Texas twice in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and has promised to donate $1 million of his own money to the recovery effort.

At the same time, however, he is pushing Republicans in Congress to pass a budget that includes a $876 million funding cut to, you guessed it, FEMA. The plan is to use this money for Trump’s main vanity project – the construction of a border wall with Mexico.

An argument for socialism

Capitalism is completely ill equipped to provide for the basic needs of society in ordinary times, never mind when dealing with a disaster.

At the same time as Hurricane Harvey was wreaking havoc on Texas, and Irma was laying its trail of destruction through the Caribbean, another crisis was unfolding across South Asia. The region has been hit with one of the most severe monsoon seasons in the past 30 years. 1,400 have been killed in the floods; millions of livelihoods are threatened.

Extreme weather events like these are occurring at six times the rate they were in 1980, according to an analysis by insurer Munich Re. If the current warming trend continues, we can expect this to increase even further in the years and decades ahead.

The danger posed by this situation doesn’t lie just in the direct impact of the events themselves, but in the way they are used by those in power to further their extreme economic agenda at the cost of workers and the poor. As Naomi Klein put it in an article for the Intercept:

“The right will waste no time exploiting Harvey … to peddle ruinous false solutions, such as militarised police, more oil and gas infrastructure, and privatised services. Which means there is a moral imperative for informed, caring people to name the real root cause behind this crisis – connecting the dots between climate pollution, systemic racism, underfunding of social services, and overfunding of police.”

In addition to connecting the dots, we need to offer an alternative. The alternative is socialism – a system built on human need, not private profit, in which our collective resources could be fully mobilised not only to respond to disasters like this, but to build a society on the basis of genuine democracy, equality and sustainability.