The world’s richest superpower has failed to protect residents of its fourth biggest city from a predictable disaster.
Catastrophic floods hit Houston, Texas, on Sunday after the remnants Hurricane Harvey hit the city, with heavy rain set to continue into the week.
With swathes of the city under water, evacuees crowded into the George R. Brown Convention Center—previously used to host refugees from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Authorities report 316,000 households without electricity, and 130,000 meals a day were being provided by humanitarian charity the Red Cross on Monday of this week. At least 18 deaths had been reported by Wednesday morning, although many more may have died.
Jason Spencer, spokesman for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, told the local press, “We fully expect that as the water recedes that there would be some grim discoveries.”
Ify Echetebu spoke to CNN from the upper floor of a house where she was trapped with ten others as floodwaters crept up the stairs.
Emergency services had told her not to expect a rescue for at least a day.“We’re nervous to stay here, but we are sleeping in shifts,” she said. “Now we’re having to deal with sewage in the water, river water, bayou water, water moccasins, snakes, ‘gators.”
The region’s public hospital had to be evacuated after flooding disrupted its power supply.
Residents in wheelchairs were only saved from one nursing home after it had flooded up to their necks.
The US Federal Emergency Management Agency warned the recovery could take years
As the storm took the city unprepared, officials gave contradictory advice. Texas state governor Greg Abbott urged people to flee, but mayor Sylvester Turner told people to stay home.
He said the “crazy” logistics of evacuating a population of 2.3 million people would create a “nightmare”. Dozens died on gridlocked roads after an evacuation order ahead of Hurricane Rita in 2005.
But the intervening decade should have been used to prepare better next time.
Now survivors in the convention centre and other shelters fear a repeat of the squalor, scarcity and chaos imposed on people who fled Katrina to New Orleans stadium.
Houston is built on a swamp and known as the “Bayou City” for the rivers and creeks that riddle it.
It’s notorious as a place at high risk of flooding, something climate change was already expected to worsen.
It’s also a diverse, multicultural city where—as with Katrina—many of those facing the worst neglect are poor black and Latino people.
Instead of preparing, the people who run the US have abandoned its poor to the storm.
Trump could face fury after the storm
President Donald Trump was set to travel to Texas on Tuesday of this week. The disaster will be a key test for his presidency.
Trump could come under scrutiny for making Kirstjen Nielsen his deputy chief of staff in a recent reshuffle.
Nielsen was previously senior director for preparedness and response at the White House Security Council when Katrina hit. She was a key figure singled out by two congressional reports the following year, accusing her of being warned and failing to act. Now she has been elevated to the top of the Trump White House.
Trump has already set about repeating the mistakes that made Katrina so devastating, cutting funding for the bodies and infrastructure that attempt to prepare for floods.
But even mainly white areas such as Rockport, where Trump decisively won last year’s presidential vote, could explode with anger if he is seen to let them down.
The coastal town was among the first hit by Harvey when it made landfall as a hurricane before being downgraded to a storm.
Authorities ignored warnings
City authorities have given private developers a green light to increase the danger of flooding.
Residents Against Flooding, a group set up after previous floods has repeatedly “begged and pleaded” with city authorities to “treat man-made flooding as urgent.”
“Too many real-estate developments do not detain storm water run-off from their new construction, and instead allow it to flow downstream into other neighborhoods, into people’s homes,” it wrote after floods earlier this year.
“City government is allowing this to happen,” it said, pointing out that developers use loopholes to get around the law.
The city is also a centre of the oil industry, with huge refineries and chemical plants dangerously prone to flooding.
Jim Blackburn of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University warned that the consequences could be “apocalyptic”.