2017-09-13 / Opinion

The Ark of the Government


Jackie Sartoris Jackie Sartoris Our trip to Houston coincided with the first of three massive storms, the last being Hurricane Harvey. The streets were already flooded as we drove east, so we turned off the news and focused our second grader on car games and chapter books, and the strange new things on the flat Texas landscape. Pumpjacks were creepy, longhorns awesome, cattle egrets silly. Between storms we swam anyway, the hotel owner laughing at us out in the cold pool. It rained most of the time, the worst of it on the drive to get out, rain and hail pounding so hard we could not see a breakdown lane. We sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” the steering wheel tight in my husband’s grip. That last day ended with the first sunset we’d seen all week — and a rainbow. Almost Biblical. Fittingly, we misplaced our son’s waterlogged sandals, the closest we could come to shaking the dust off his feet. His review: the best trip ever.

But we grownups recall navigating around Galveston’s flooded historic district, the barrier beach road down to one lane, the wind spitting bay water over the car. We read about the drowned mom, the missing kids. We noticed that there was no place for the rain to go around heavily-built up Houston or east down to the massive petroleum and chemical plants we drove through. It s all flat, or at sea level, nowhere to drain. Houston and its environs are mostly built on wetlands.

The 2016 flood and Hurricane Harvey’s damage highlights the hubris of Houston’s come-one, come-all, anti-regulatory standards. Houston proudly refuses zoning of any kind. Over the past 25 years, 70 percent of the wetlands around just one river watershed in northeast Houston were filled by development. More than a million new residents are in harms way. Many are now left with nothing, while developers walked away pocketing their ill-gained profits. Texas officials at the local, state and national levels followed the developers’ lead, fighting wetlands protection and the designation of floodplains for decades. None of this was unforeseen.

Ironically, given the swagger of don’t mess with Texas, the bulk of the cost for Harvey and the other floods is unlikely to be paid for by Texans, but by the rest of us. Texas s anti-government politicians rely on the government they claim to hate to bail them out. Must be the secret sauce for that Texas bravado.

Our next trip featured Florida. We drove from west to east and back, visiting state and national parks, stopping in the Keys long enough to introduce our son to snorkeling and ring toss at a beachfront bar filled with families. We eyed the remarkable pace of development everywhere, palm groves felled, hard wetland soils trenched and drained, new gated retirement communities on the west coast as far as the eye could see. We took my son and aunt to see burrowing owls on Marco Island, a threatened species, squeezed onto leftover bits of land smaller than a house lot. Surrounded by upscale homes and tourists, they blinked in perpetual surprise at their fate, watching us watch them.

Even with the devastation of Irma, Florida dodged the full measure of expected catastrophic flooding for the moment. But Florida is draining and filling more wetlands than any other state, chafing under even very limited federal regulatory requirements. As in Texas, development on barrier beaches and former sand dunes has grown enormously over the past two decades, with the state doubling in population since 1980. Again, developers reap the profits, property owners are left with their life savings tied to properties that will eventually be damaged or destroyed. Who will pay for the inevitable collision of arrogantly sited development, weather, and climate change? Homeowners will. We will. Our kids will. Not the developers or the politicians depending on their campaign contributions.

There is no excuse for the wasted resources, risk to lives, and destruction of the earth’s natural systems in Houston and Florida. These states send the most conservative representatives to Washington, who collectively push against disaster relief for other states, against environmental laws, and deny climate change is even real. These officials enable harm to regular Texans and Floridians, who don t realize that rules and common sense have been ignored to line the pockets of the wealthy few, in whose pockets are the politicians. And then the rest of us pay.

My thoughts and my donations are with the regular folks in Texas and Florida. But my expectations for accountability is with those we elect. I’ll be pushing my representatives to ensure that new development in floodplains and along barrier beaches can t qualify for federal resources when the inevitable happens again. We can t play the chump to help subsidize dangerous, costly development. We shouldn't have to. Let the developers and their politicians pay.

Jackie Sartoris is a former Brunswick Town Councilor and former Senior Planner

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