Five Years Later, Harvey Remains a Call to Action

By José Medina

There is an ABC News report from Aug. 26, 2017, that you can still watch on YouTube. It opens with an anchor calling it a “historic and scary Saturday morning.”

The terror of that Saturday morning came in the form of Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall as a Category 4 storm near Corpus Christi. By the time ABC News went on air, the storm had done plenty of damage even as it had weakened to a Category 1.

But some of the worst damage was yet to come as the hurricane meandered along and days later made a second landfall near Houston. And then, the storm – already moving slowly – virtually stopped and dumped record amounts of rain on the Houston area.

The toll from Harvey would be staggering. Powerful winds and an estimated 60 inches of rain took more than 100 lives, inflicted more than $125 billion in property damage, and displaced thousands of people.

Texans will never forget this storm. Five years later, Harvey is a reminder of how powerful hurricanes can impact the lives of millions.

It is also a call to action.

Harvey was a terrible and tangible example of why we must take climate action. While no single storm can be entirely attributed to the climate crisis, we know enough about our changing climate to say that powerful and destructive storms like Harvey are becoming more likely and intense. Each storm is a reminder of the imperative of climate action. Each storm should strengthen our resolve to use more renewable and cleaner energy sources to power our world, embrace energy efficiency, and more.

Harvey is also a call to hold polluters accountable. Harvey’s terrible legacy is that it was not only a natural disaster but also a damaging pollution event. By hitting an area like Houston, which is home to many petrochemical facilities, the storm triggered the release of millions of pounds of pollution into the air and water. We must demand that petrochemical facilities be ready to withstand violent weather events. Vulnerable equipment at industrial facilities can worsen an already dangerous situation by releasing harmful chemicals when a strong storm hits.

It is also a call to fight for environmental justice. Low-income communities of color, which we know as “environmental justice communities,” are often disproportionately impacted by natural disasters and pollution, as was the case during Harvey.

In the weeks and months since Harvey, Public Citizen has heard that call to action. In the last few years, our Harvey response has included:

  • Demanding carbon polluters pay their fair share: Public Citizen has called on Texas lawmakers to require climate polluters to pay their fair share for the Harvey recovery efforts. Carbon polluters contribute to the climate crisis. It’s only fitting that they pay their fair share for climate-fueled disasters. These efforts included a billboard campaign in Houston.
  • Shining a light on the extent of the damage: Public Citizen joined with its partners Air Alliance Houston and Environmental Defense Fund to conduct an analysis of pollution released during Harvey. The results showed that an estimated 4.6 million pounds of air emissions that exceeded state limits were released from facilities in the area.
  • Identifying solutions: This year, Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, released a report identifying a significant vulnerability at petrochemical facilities. That vulnerability is with storage tanks that could fail during severe rainfall events. Why the tanks failed and how to fix them are detailed in Under Water & Unaware.
  • Reinstating regulations to protect the public: Following Harvey, Gov. Greg Abbott suspended 46 public health and environmental regulations for approximately seven months. Public Citizen and its partners successfully pushed for the reinstatement of the protections.
  • Fighting the “Storm of Silence”: Public Citizen analyzed the media’s coverage of Harvey. Among the findings: Outlets fell far short of connecting climate change and extreme weather events.

Houston has been lucky since Harvey, with no storms approaching its record-shattering scale. Although Public Citizen and other advocates have worked toward climate mitigation on the Texas Gulf Coast for the last five years, not enough progress has been made. Without real action toward climate change mitigation and adaptation, we’ll just be waiting for the next “historic and scary” news broadcast.