Despite knowing for at least two days that a major storm packing torrential rains would hit land Aug. 25 in the Houston area, local, state and federal government officials did next to nothing to either organize a disciplined evacuation or get food and other necessities to people if told to “shelter in place.” Millions were left to just fend for themselves.
Government officials gave conflicting “advice” to residents of Houston, the fourth largest city in the country, with some 2.3 million residents, or others in the region. Evacuate, don’t evacuate. Call 911, don’t call — unless you’re in “immediate danger.” With lines overloaded, thousands of people couldn’t get through.
This refusal of officials to plan or take responsibility for a serious response and the ruling class’s disdain for working people were captured in the photo of senior citizens at the La Vita Bella assisted living home in Dickinson, with water up to their waists, waiting for help.
Officials told the home’s owner the night before not to evacuate, WTVR news reported, because the area had not flooded in the past. At 9 a.m. Aug. 26, the owner sent her daughter the photo. The daughter’s husband then tweeted it with the message, “Need help asap emergency services.”
Some four hours later, the National Guard rescued 15 people there by helicopter. Rockport, Texas, where the Category 4 hurricane first made landfall, suffered extensive damage, mostly from the high winds. About 40 percent of the 24,500 people who live there and in Aransas County didn’t respond to a mandatory evacuation order.
Many remember their experiences in 2005, when an unprepared and unorganized mandatory evacuation order that left everyone on their own to flee in face of Hurricane Rita led to a giant traffic jam and more deaths there than from the storm.
The more than 10,000 who left have not been told when they can return. Referring to those who stayed and whose homes are damaged, county official C.H. Mills Jr. told the Texas Tribune, “We can’t take care of them.”
Christina Tucker, 30, a Rockford waitress, went to a school that had been converted into a shelter Aug. 25 as the storm battered the town. But nobody was in charge. Tucker organized with others to create a sign-in sheet, assign cots and prepare meals. It wasn’t until the next day, with 129 people checked in, that government medical workers and other officials showed up.
Working people left on their ownWorking people from Houston and around the region and others took into their own hands organizing to rescue people using whatever they had at hand — water skis, kayaks, canoes and motor boats — in the face of government inaction.
In Port Arthur, “more than 100 local guys got in their boats and monster trucks and went out looking for people to help,” Stephanie Lee, a retail store manager there, said by phone. “The government had nothing to do with it.”
“One of my wife’s relatives spent 12 hours floating on an air mattress waiting for help,” Randy Warren, 66, a Houston retail worker, told the Militant by phone. After weathering the first part of the storm, Warren had to abandon his house because county officials were getting ready to release water from the overfilled Addicks Reservoir. “It could be weeks before we can come back,” he said.
Flooding was no surpriseThis is Houston’s third so-called 500-year flood in three years. But the way the “experts” define flooding has little to do with how frequently a flood can be expected to hit or how bad.
In reality the designation is used to avoid stricter building regulations that lower profits for capitalist developers. It also lowers insurance liability for areas outside “high-risk” flood zones. Buildings there must be constructed 12 inches above 100-year flood levels. That rule doesn’t apply in the less restrictive zones.
By claiming that the larger storms are unusual or once in a lifetime, government officials can wash their hands of responsibility for not taking stronger measures. Those measures are no mystery.
Houston’s drainage systems were built in the early 1900s and only meant to withstand a “10-year” flood. City officials are now working to widen the channels — a little — to handle a “25-year-flood.” For the capitalists, further lowering the risk to lives of city residents would not be “cost effective.”
The ruling capitalist families weigh the costs of adequate protection against the odds — and costs — of catastrophe, and choose what eats into their profits the least.
A construction boom over the last two decades has wiped out 38,000 acres of wetlands that act like sponges for excess water. The only reason to not develop and maintain wetlands is profits for capitalist developers.
No wonder that Business Insider headlined an article, “Houston Was a Ticking Time-Bomb for a Devastating Hurricane like Harvey.”
As of Aug. 28 nearly 300,000 people were still without electricity. The Houston convention center is overfull with people who lost their housing, and city officials are working to open new locations.
As of Aug. 31, government officials say at least 38 are dead. But many homes and vehicles are still under water and many people are missing.
Rockport officials say that 30 to 40 of those who called at the peak of the storm are still unaccounted for because crews “didn’t make it to everybody they wanted to get to.”
CBS News estimates that as many as 200,000 homes have been damaged by high winds or flooding. As of Aug. 31 more than 10,000 people had taken refuge at the George R, Brown Convention Center, double its capacity.
Many arrived there to find no cots available to sleep on. “Houston wasn’t prepared. The government wasn’t prepared. The mayor wasn’t prepared,” Michelle Lavan told CBS News from inside the center Aug. 29. What did she and her family sleep on? “Deflated air mattresses. Cardboard boxes,” she said.
The Bowers Civic Center in Port Arthur was set as the city’s emergency shelter. Virtually every single one of the 20,000 homes in the city is flooded. But the center itself flooded Aug. 29, leaving refugees huddled in the bleachers.
And many people are still trapped in their homes, unable to make it out.
“I spoke to Maria, a friend of mine who lives on the southwest side of Houston,” Amanda Ulman told the Militant Aug. 29. “There is a shelter just a couple of blocks away, but they can’t get there because the water is too high. They’re hoping the water doesn’t rise any more.”
Example of revolutionary CubaThe disorganization, lack of planning and elevating of profits above human lives by U.S. officials and businesses stands in stark contrast to the way the workers and farmers government of Cuba faces hurricanes.
Every year mass organizations in revolutionary Cuba practice what to do in the face of major storms. Last year as soon as it was known that Hurricane Matthew was heading toward the island, Cuban President Raúl Castro toured Guantánamo province. He participated in a meeting of the Provincial Civil Defense Council, which oversees disaster preparedness. Castro and the council set up a camp nearby to lead the effort to protect the population and minimize economic losses.
Brigades of electrical workers and soldiers headed to the region before the hurricane hit so they could begin repairs as soon as the storm was over. Medicine and food was sent to shelters before the storm landed. More than 1 million residents were evacuated.
This was possible because Cuban working people made a revolution in 1959, ousting the Washington-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, and taking their destiny into their own hands.