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It is too soon to know the extent of the damage done by Hurricane Harvey. Estimates are that over a million people have been displaced. As I write this, 49 are feared dead — a number that will continue to climb. The governor of Texas estimated that his state will need “far in excess” of $125 billion in federal funding to help rebuild. Harvey broke the U.S. record for rainfall from a single storm. Houston, the fourth largest city in America, was hit with 50 inches of rain.
But Texas is not alone. Hong Kong just got hit with the third typhoon in three weeks. South Asia suffered historic rainfall and flooding in August. Twelve hundred were killed in India and Bangladesh. Mumbai, India’s financial capital, saw its streets turn to rivers. Sierra Leone saw 500 die and thousands displaced from record mudslides in Freetown. In Nigeria, floods displaced 100,000. In Pakistan, Karachi was flooded.
It will get worse. The glaciers are melting. The warmer waters are rising. Warmer waters feed stronger storms. Add to that a lack of basic infrastructure and widespread overbuilding in flood plains and the result is repeated disasters.
In Genesis, the Bible teaches that God came to Noah and warned him about the coming floods. He told Noah to build an ark — sophisticated infrastructure — to ensure that man and selected animals and birds could survive. There was no nonsense about each being on his or her own. Strong swimmers went down with the weak. Rich mansions on the hill were flooded with the poor huts in the valley. It took infrastructure, planning and preparedness to survive the flood.
Oddly, in this country, it is those on the right — often those who most loudly profess their religious beliefs — who choose to ignore this counsel. For years, Republicans have denied even the existence of catastrophic climate change. Donald Trump dismissed it as a “Chinese hoax.” As head of Exxon, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson knew better: Exxon scientists documented global warming over 40 years ago, but the company suppressed that information. Leading Republican billionaires the Koch bothers — whose fortune is tied to fossil fuels — enforce the Republican ignorance about global warming.
More recently, some Republicans have admitted that the world is warming, but they deny that humans have anything to do with it. Having accepted that it is happening, they argue that it is too expensive to try to stop by turning to renewable energy. They also resist investing in the infrastructure or doing the planning needed to strengthen protections against the effects of global warming. And, of course, Texas legislators led by Sen. Ted Cruz opposed federal aid to recover from massive disaster — when Sandy hit New Jersey. Now that Harvey has hit Texas, they suddenly realize the importance of federal assistance.
Across the country, people of conscience are rushing to aid the victims of Harvey. A flotilla of volunteer boats helped rescue people. Churches and humanitarians have offered aid, clothes, baby food, medicines. Doctors have rushed to provide care. Americans are at their best in responding generously in times of crisis.
Yet, while Trump has offered to contribute a million dollars for humanitarian relief after Harvey, it is probably too much to expect that the Trump administration will learn anything from this disaster. Trump won’t reverse course and push to strengthen, not gut, the Paris global warming agreement. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry will continue to push for more use of oil and coal. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt will continue to roll back environmental regulation and weaken efforts to stop building on flood plains. Trump’s budgets will continue to ignore the need for real investment in rebuilding our infrastructure, making our systems more resilient, strengthening ourselves against the coming storms. Instead we will end up paying far more in lives, in destruction and in money to recover after one disaster after another.
Surely, the next generation of leaders will shed the old ideological idiocies. They will learn the lesson taught by Noah. Perhaps they will demand that this country lead a global effort to address global warming and launch a national effort to rebuild our country.
What Harvey and Katrina and Sandy and floods and mudslides across the world suggest, however, is that we don’t have the time to wait for a new generation of leaders possessed of common sense. In Genesis, Noah had less than a year to build the ark — and less than seven days to gather his family and various species of animals and birds and plants into the ark before the great flood. Noah put aside his normal routine and acted immediately and with urgency. We would be well advised to heed that lesson.