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Former Inquirer editor in Houston: Global warming caused Harvey's devastating floods | Opinion

No zoning code, infrastructure improvements, or flood-control regulations could have done anything to deal with this much water.

Signe cartoon SIGN30e Houston
Signe cartoon SIGN30e HoustonRead moreSigne Wilkinson / Staff

I've covered the news in Houston for 3½ years and have already seen two devastating floods and now what is being described as a one-in-800-year flood brought on by Hurricane Harvey.

That suggests to me that something is happening here that's way bigger than the largely made-up tiff between Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, about whether Houston should have been evacuated before Harvey dumped trillions of gallons of rain on the nation's fourth-largest city.

There's no denying Texas is politically polarized, with all its major cities liberal and Democratic, and the rest of the state, and all its statewide elected officials, conservative and Republican. So there's no end of discord and rancor if one wants to find reasons for blame and finger-pointing.

Houston, meanwhile, can be its own worst enemy when it comes to flood control. A big part of its freewheeling, entrepreneurial identity is its lack of zoning, which has produced more than 600 square miles of subdivisions, strip malls, and concrete prairie. It's not a stretch to wonder whether this vast expanse of what was once coastal plain was really the best place to build a major city.

But anyone who has lived through four straight days of torrential rain that have brought more than 50 inches in some areas knows perfectly well that no zoning code, infrastructure improvements, or flood-control regulations could have done anything to deal with this much water inundating a major metropolitan area this quickly.

And it is an unbelievable amount of water. Not wanting to risk my car Sunday morning, I started toward our newsroom on foot and found myself waist-deep two blocks from my home.

On Monday, I ventured a mile north to Buffalo Bayou, a bucolic urban park remade thanks to $25 million from a leading local philanthropist who once worked for Enron. The park was gone, its meandering bayou now a roiling, fast-moving river that had engulfed parkways on both sides, flooded a television station, and badly damaged much of the city's theater district.

On a stretch of Kirby Drive in River Oaks, Houston's toniest neighborhood, the water was chest-deep, lapping up onto mansion lawns.

Sometimes, even in our political and governmental bureaucracies, people say exactly what they mean. Not known for hyperbole, the National Weather Service tweeted after the first devastating day of rainfall, during which some parts of Houston got more than 25 inches: "All impacts are unknown & beyond anything experienced."

"It's catastrophic, unprecedented, epic," said Patrick Blood, a National Weather Service meteorologist, "whatever adjective you want to use."

Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, went even further: "This is a storm the United States has not seen yet."

What they're talking about, whether they know it or not, or care to acknowledge it or not, is global warming. The planet is getting warmer, ocean temperatures are rising, the polar ice caps are melting, and all of the incontrovertible science of climate change is that more extreme-weather events are an inevitable consequence.

Tom Friedman in his new book calls climate change a "black elephant" — a combination of the unforeseen "black swan" event with its enormous consequences, and the "elephant in the room" that no one acknowledges.

There's really no other way to make sense of what's happening in Houston. The black elephant is here in America, just as it's in Africa and the Middle East and Antarctica, whether we want to accept it or not.

Just acknowledging that will help Houston recover once the rain finally stops, making the political blame game even more futile than it has already become in American politics.

For now, Abbott and Turner are working tirelessly and cooperatively to help the thousands and thousands of people trapped by the worst floods in Houston's history.

And whenever it's over, Houston should use Harvey to jump-start its transition from the country's epicenter for oil and gas to a world capital of alternative energies. If the city can turn this devastating tragedy into an existential moment of reinvention after the storm, then a decade from now, we may even argue that it was worth it.

As for the nation, Americans need to understand what leading scientists have concluded, even if many of our political leaders pretend it's not true: We've just about blown through the Holocene epoch, when Earth emerged from the last ice age and became more comfortable for human life. Some climatologists have started to call our current age the Anthropocene, in which conditions on the planet have been dramatically altered by man. We have to take responsibility for what we've done, and take charge of our future.

It's clearly too late to stop the Category 4 hurricane that led to the millennial flooding in Houston. But it may not be too late to save the planet if we heed Harvey's hard lesson here in Texas, a proud state that doesn't like to be messed with. It could be the perfect place to start.

Vernon Loeb is managing editor of the Houston Chronicle. He was a reporter at the Inquirer from 1978 to 1994, serving as City Hall bureau chief and a foreign correspondent. From 2007 to 2011, he was the Inquirer's deputy managing editor.