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September 5, 2017 > Editorial: Lessons from Harvey

Editorial: Lessons from Harvey

As news reports continue about the awful repercussions of Hurricane Harvey, a common theme is evident. Although no one can prevent or modify the awesome and destructive power of a large natural disaster such as this, something that can be done is civic planning, taking natural terrain and building permit actions into account. Along with disaster relief preparation (first responders, emergency supplies and infrastructure repair), a different type of groundwork is required. Unfortunately, the cost savings involved to avoid incompatible development and dangerous neighborhoods are not readily and immediately apparent. Instead, they are viewed as heavy burdens on economic prosperity, evoking opposition from powerful interests.

In the Gulf States of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, Hurricanes are not uncommon. Weighing growth and economic forces for petroleum, chemical and superfund sites against the risk of disastrous events has often tilted in favor of growth and cost savings. Chemical plants and manufacturing facilities share neighborhoods with residential and recreational sites. The regional economic boom of Houston and its surrounding communities is now a colossal bust. It is heartbreaking for all of us to watch and for those directly involved, devastating. We need to pull together to assist those in need, but also take stock of how such events can easily become our own story.

Harvey, Katrina, Sandy and other natural or manmade disasters before it, are screaming for our attention. Today, the uncertain path of Hurricane Irma poses a grave potential threat on the heels of Harvey. Will people and their governments begin to listen? Mother Nature and her progeny, Climate, are global and will not be ignored. There are few, if any places on Earth that can afford to turn a deaf ear toward such warnings. Rising oceans and severe weather are just a few of the tests that face us and future generations. Our area, famous for earthquakes, waits its turn. Although the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 is beyond most or our lifetimes, many of us were directly involved with the effects of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake and its aftermath. For some, myself included, other major quakes Ð Northridge, Kern County, Napa, Eureka, etc. - are indelible. We too have heard from Mother Nature many times and although a bit less tone deaf in California by incorporating strict building codes and zoning restrictions, are tempting fate by crowding more and more people close to fault lines and creating Master Plans that are constantly modified for convenience. We are waiting our turn for tragedy. This, all in the name of economics to satisfy technologic growth.

The lessons of Harvey are not a denial of human needs and economies, rather the simple rule that we share our patch of this third rock from the Sun. Although the dominant species now, we have not always been nor is it assured that humankind will persevere in the distant future. Uncontrolled growth and incompatibility with surrounding use and terrain can threaten just as much as natural disasters. Train derailments, chemical spills and human error are always possibilities. When zoning and ordinances are developed, they should have a purpose beyond simple economics. As Harvey illustrates, not only does our economic survival depend on this, so do the lives of ourselves and our families. What and where are we building? How do we accommodate the high demand for housing? As a mass of people accumulates, is this compatible with our surroundings? If Harvey visits under a different guise, will we be able to say that our infrastructure was as prepared as possible or that safety and practicality was sacrificed in the name of expediency and greed?

What to do? The best defense is preparedness through information and training. Local fire departments offer brief classes in personal and group emergency planning. Ask your city about Personal Emergency Preparedness (PEP) classes and Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training. Along with personal responsibility, attention to community and civic planning is of paramount importance. What does your civic (city, county, utility) General Plan and Specific Plans include? What provisions have been made for growth, infrastructure and control of these issues including emergency services? How are flood zones, liquefaction zones, fault lines and other environmental factors handled?

As our attention inevitably wanders from the aftermath of Harvey, his lessons should remain front and center. Just as people directly affected by his wrath will have months and years of recovery and rebuilding ahead, our focus must remain on how we prepare personally and as a community toward future challenges. Support for safe and realistic zoning and building codes will not prevent natural disasters but they will minimize their impact and maximize safety for all of us.

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