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                                Houston's Harsh Lessons For Ontario


By Terri Chu

My toddler is in the full thrall of the terrible twos. She likes to push boundaries to see what she can get away with. If the consequences are not huge (like maybe some scrapes and bruises), I will often not intervene and let her injure herself. I figure it’s a good lesson in what happens when you don’t listen to mommy, and she learns the hard way not to do it again.  Sadly, toddlers are a lot smarter than many politicians.

Scientists have been warning about Houston’s flood risks for decades. This is in fact Houston’s third “500 year” flood in three years.

A picture showed up on my social media feed of a home flooded to almost the second floor. The caption told a sad story of this home having just been brought back into working order from a flood just over a year ago.

Rather than eliciting sympathy, my initial thought was “and it was rebuilt in the same spot?”

This flood is a government-made tragedy that happens again and again, mostly because of how money is allocated after a natural disaster.  Every president gets in front of a microphone with the hubris of Louis XIV, loudly proclaiming, “We will rebuild”. While it’s great for a president’s approval rating, it’s disastrous for the future residents who will be living it again… and again. Someday we might figure out that when it comes to man vs. nature, the latter always wins.  Even the Sun King saw cloudy days.

Much ink has been spilt over how scientists can’t “prove” that climate change caused Harvey (hurricanes have existed since the beginning of time), but more than likely it has made things worse. Houston could flood again next year and the deniers will sooner believe it’s because gays are in the military than because we’ve had a century and a half of fossil fuel exploitation. 

A report published by the National Wildlife Federation as far back as 1998 found that 2% of claimants accounted for 40% of payouts. While this might seem ridiculous, it’s simply because homes in flood-prone areas are rebuilt time and time again without being forced to relocate or being built to a higher standard.  Experts think the numbers are even more skewed now. 

Einstein said it best when he defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results”.  I think Einstein was charitable in labelling one insane rather than downright inept.

What is it going to take to have smarter city planning and disaster management that focuses on future mitigation as opposed to “putting it back the way it was”?  The brainlessness is mind blowing. As scientists watch from the sidelines, getting ignored at every turn about the stupidity of paving over water-sucking grasslands, natural drainage features, and building on top of flood plains, politicians act shocked, like nobody saw this coming.  There’s little doubt we will see politicians bloviating about how Houston will “rebuild” once the floodwater recedes too. The entire concept of bowing to nature doesn’t get past our collective ego. 

Well, scientists are pretty tired of the shtick.  If you were too dumb to see this coming, perhaps you don’t belong in elected office.  If you are unwilling to do what it takes to mitigate future risk, you definitely don’t belong in office.  As scientists (and those willing to read their reports) smack their heads against their desk at the doubling down of idiocy, politicians are out there turning devastation into mini campaign rallies. 

Scientists are done with stupid. Every disaster we keep hoping this is the one where they will get taken seriously.  I’ve been around the sun enough times though now finally to know better.  They won’t.

To bring this closer to home, will Ontario politicians do any better? 

Montreal and Ontario just had massive flooding this year. Sea levels have risen and the concrete jungle has expanded.  Not having enough natural grassland and drainage systems increases risks of flooding (as was the case with Houston’s sprawl).  Ontario hasn’t updated its flood risk maps in a generation.  Pretending to be prepared is laughable.

After the devastating floods earlier this year, we too talked about rebuilding.  Are we willing to put in place rules that force resiliency considerations into the rebuild? If an area is flood prone, are we willing to pay for relocation, rather than rebuild in the same spot again (and again and again)?

In the aftermath of our own crisis, it would seem crass to impose such rules. Watching the devastation that not having such rules wreaked on Houston, however, it would seem downright dumb to not. 

Now is the time to re-evaluate how our own climate change adaptation strategies should evolve.  Houston should be giving our politicians a lot to think about. The reality is that climate change is already here. Dealing with climate change is expensive. We can either pay that cost upfront, or we can do what our American friends are doing – pay it year after year after year in spates of denial. 

Watching this Shakespearean tragedy unfold isn’t just a time to lend a helping hand. It’s a time to learn from it. 

If a toddler can figure out doing something hurts and they shouldn’t do it again, surely our politicians can figure it out too. 



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