The Disasters We Refuse to Imagine

As the death toll climbs past 30, Houston is bracing for the next phase of Hurricane Harvey’s devastating 50 inches of record rain: Two major flood control reservoirs in the metro area began spilling over Tuesday for the first time in their history, endangering the lives of those in the normally dry floodways. And with the storm making a second landfall, the rain keeps coming.

“We never thought this area would flood,” one shivering resident told the Washington Post.

How can that be? For years, experts have warned that a catastrophic flood would hit Houston. Harvey is unusually severe, but its dire forecast was clear. But even with two lethal floods in the last two years, Harris County was unprepared.

Low-lying Houston’s growth and aggressive embrace of sprawl heightened its vulnerability to a storm like Harvey. Yet to live next to a dam and never fathom a breach is not a uniquely Texan brand of magical thinking.

Virtually everyone has a hard time imagining enormous natural disasters—even when all signs point to the “Big One.” To respond urgently to an outsize risk before it has morphed into real-life threat is what’s odd. It requires hurdling over the dismaying normalcies of human psychology.

“Perceiving risk is all about how scary or not do the facts feel,” David Ropeik, a risk-perception expert, told me in July 2015. “A risk in the future feels a lot less scary than a risk that’s presented right now.”

The emphasis is on “feel.” When people assess risk in the face of objectively high stakes, we lean on our guts more than our brains. When the risk exists at some undefined point in the future—as opposed to, say, in a tiger springing to attack from five feet away—it’s hard to connect emotionally. So until the floodwaters are racing down their street, it’s hard to get people to act.

Hence, perhaps, the lack of a cohesive, coordinated evacuation plan in advance of Harvey. Ditto the backed-up storm drains, the dust-collecting plans for $15 billion coastal barrier, and Houston’s famously unchecked sprawl remaining unchecked.

One would think that Houston’s long history with devastating floods would invigorate action. Just two months before Ropeik and I spoke, eight people had died in Harris County when a storm dumped 11 inches of rain on sections of Houston in ten hours. Indeed, Harvey is the third “500-year flood” since 2015. That means Houston has experienced a level of flooding that’s supposed to have a 1 in 500 chance of happening any year, every year. “You’d think regionally they’d have a better plan in place,” Wesley Highfield, a professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M University at Galveston who specializes in flood resilience, told me earlier this week. You’d think.

But to borrow a phrase from Kathryn Schulz, humans are “temporal parochialists.” We have a hard time imagining what lies beyond the borders of our present. We’re bad with numbers, too, perhaps especially with probabilities, like the 100- and 500-year metrics that FEMA uses to measure flood risk. Those aren’t helpful to a population (including policymakers) predisposed to writing off abstract hazards. As other journalists have pointed out, a “500-year flood” sounds like a flood that’s supposed to happen once every half a millennium. If a catastrophic flood happened last year (as, indeed, it did), many people might think that they’ll be safe this year. But that’s not right: Probability isn’t a predictable pattern. The dice reset every roll. Psychologists call the belief that an unlikely event won’t happen again the “gambler’s fallacy.”

Also, Houston’s odds of a Big One are getting higher than FEMA estimates. In a masterpiece of prescient reporting, the Texas Tribune and ProPublica outlined last year how Houston has erected new subdivisions of homes, malls, offices, and apartment buildings in flood-prone areas, both accommodating and driving explosive population growth in recent decades. The asphalt and concrete has rendered an expanding swath of Houston impermeable to the storms the area has always known. And as storms become more frequent and more severe thanks to climate change, “once in a lifetime floods” are now a regular occurrence.

“Every year we put more people and critical assets in harm’s way,” Sam Brody, a Texas A&M University at Galveston professor who specializes in natural hazard mitigation, told the Guardian just two months ago. “We keep rolling the dice and the stakes become higher.”

The problem does not lie solely in human psychology, though. Look at the Dutch’s evolved response to rising sea levels. With absorptive infrastructures like canals and greenways, they are allowing water into their cities, rather than attempting to block it with concrete levees and dams that emanate a false sense of security. See how Japan responded to the Fukushima disaster by doubling down national efforts to secure the islands for quakes and tsunamis. Why can’t the U.S. be like them?

Well, policymakers could start by acknowledging that climate change is real, as do the national governments of Japan, the Netherlands, and, well, most every other country in the world. Houston’s oil industry may recognize this, but not Texas Governor Greg Abbott, or mainstream congressional Republicans, or President Trump. “If you have lawmakers who refuse to acknowledge it is occurring, how do you implement policy to mitigate its effects?” wonders Meghan McPherson, an emergency preparedness expert and the assistant director of Adelphi University’s Center for Health Innovation.

McPherson got her start in emergency management after 9/11, inspired by first responders in New York. She has observed changes, locally and nationally, to the way emergencies are handled and mitigated as a result of the attacks—and as a result of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. There have been some improvements, some lessons learned. Hundreds of billions of dollars poured into “homeland security” have made the country safer from certain types of orchestrated terrorist attacks. Parts of New Orleans are tucked behind stronger levees. And infrastructure upgrades are “hardening” greater New York City.

But with our short attention spans, low civic engagement, and limited sense of time, we haven’t gotten nearly enough done—in Houston or elsewhere—to prepare for the Bigger Ones that are coming. Look at New Orleans: As Harvey descends on the city on the 12-year anniversary of Katrina, its flood pumps are broken.

It also doesn’t help that the U.S. is big, spread out, and increasingly fragmented. Our temporal parochialism is exacerbated by political and geographical parochialism. The legislative process is slow by design. And on the local level, every worry competes for the same scant tax dollars (and in Houston, what scant tax dollars are levied, to begin with). Should leaders direct money to special-needs students, long denied adequate educations, with faces and names and families you know? Or to a distant wall of water that might never arrive?

At the federal level, it can be the same zero-sum game. In fact, since FEMA is now under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security, programs that prepare the country for floods—by far the most common and deadliest kind of domestic hazard—directly compete with counterterrorism programs. Trump’s proposed budget cuts to the National Flood Insurance Program would shift wads of cash to border patrol, notes McPherson.

In truth, terror attacks are smaller, far more distant threats than rainfall. But psychology shows we are more likely to mobilize to mitigate them—partly because of the strength of Islamophobic fears, and partly because people really hate risks that are purposely imposed upon us by outside forces. The risks that accompany choices we’ve made—like the choice to live in a flood zone—we take less seriously.

How do we work around our irrationalities? One grim hope: As the number of Americans who have first-hand experience with climate-related catastrophe grows, the necessary political support for smarter decision-making could, too. Policymakers may push to reform a financing system that pits special-needs students against billions of dollars of flood damage. The current discussion about budget priorities may, in the wake of Harvey, finally reflect the gravest threat facing the nation.

Or not.

“Hope springs eternal,” says McPherson. “The 15 years of emergency management in me says there will a lot of discussion about what we’ll do differently after Harvey. But when the Klieg lights shut off, and we move to next threat”—whether it’s North Korea, or ISIS, or Trump himself—“these things may fall to the wayside.”