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Dr. Robert Bullard: Houston’s “Unrestrained Capitalism” Made Harvey “Catastrophe Waiting to Happen”

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The death toll continues to rise as massive amounts of rain from Hurricane Harvey flood Houston and other parts of Texas and Louisiana. The Houston police and Coast Guard have rescued over 6,000 people from their homes, but many remain stranded. Meteorologists forecast another foot of rain could fall on the region in the coming days. While the National Hurricane Center is now calling Harvey the biggest rainstorm on record, scientists have been predicting for years that climate change would result in massive storms like Harvey. We speak with Dr. Robert Bullard, known as the “father of environmental justice.” He is currently a distinguished professor at Texas Southern University. Dr. Bullard speaks to us from his home in Houston, which he needs to evacuate later this morning due to the rising Brazos River.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The death toll is rising as massive amounts of rain from Hurricane Harvey continue to flood Houston and other parts of Texas and Louisiana. The Houston police and Coast Guard have rescued over 6,000 people from their homes, but many remain stranded. Meteorologists forecast another foot of rain could fall on the region in the coming days. Harvey, which is now a tropical storm, is heading back to the Gulf of Mexico and is expected to make landfall again on Wednesday.

AMY GOODMAN: So much rain has already fallen that the National Weather Service has had to add two new colors to its maps to indicate rainfall levels. Parts of Texas are expected to top 50 inches of rain. And the rivers keep rising. Southwest of Houston, in Richmond, the Brazos River reached flood stage overnight at 45 feet, and the National Weather Service forecasts it will peak at 59 feet on Friday and remain over 50 feet through Sunday. Houston’s KHOU described the epic amount of rainfall.

KHOU REPORTER: I want to show you what a meteorologist has done. There it is. The meteorologist calculates, by the end of Wednesday, Harvey will have saturated all of Southeast Texas with enough water to fill all the NFL and college stadiums, all those stadiums, more than a hundred times. Think about that. More than a hundred times. So, so far, the meteorologist saying 15 trillion gallons of rain has fallen on a large area, and another 5 trillion or 6 trillion gallons forecast by the end of Wednesday.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The official death toll is 14, but authorities warn it could rise dramatically once the floodwaters recede. Six people from one family died after their van was swept away by floodwaters. Emergency shelters are approaching capacity.

CORPUS CHRISTI RESIDENT: Already crowded. But all they said, that we’re getting 800 more people. And it’s like, what? Where are they going to put us all? You know, what about us, from Corpus? What are we going to do? And FEMA is here right now, but the line is enormous. Yesterday, we were in line for three hours and couldn’t even see FEMA. So, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Buses just keep rolling in. And we need everybody’s help.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Concern is also growing over the environmental impact of the storm. The Houston area is home to more than a dozen oil refineries. The group Air Alliance Houston is warning the shutdown of the petrochemical plants will send more than 1 million pounds of harmful pollution into the air. Residents of Houston’s industrial communities are already reporting unbearable chemical-like smells coming from the many plants nearby. According to Bryan Parras, an activist at the environmental justice group t.e.j.a.s., quote, “Fenceline communities can’t leave or evacuate, so they are literally getting gassed by these chemicals.” The communities closest to these sites in Houston are disproportionately low-income and minority.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, a massive fuel storage tank at Kinder Morgan’s Pasadena terminal began spilling after being toppled in the storm. The tank held 6.3 million gallons of gasoline, but it’s unclear how much of that leaked. And in the city of La Porte, residents were asked to go to the nearest shelter, close doors and windows, after a chemical spill was reported last night.

AMY GOODMAN: While the National Hurricane Center is now calling Harvey the biggest rainstorm on record, it’s not come as a complete surprise. Scientists have been predicting for years climate change could result in massive storms like Harvey. Climate scientist Michael Mann wrote this: quote, “Harvey was almost certainly more intense than it would have been in the absence of human-caused warming, which means stronger winds, more wind damage and a larger storm surge.”

We go now to Houston to speak with Robert Bullard, known as the “father of environmental justice,” currently a distinguished professor at Texas Southern University. He’s the former director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. We’re reaching Dr. Bullard from his home in Houston, which he needs to evacuate later this morning due to the rising Brazos River.

Professor Bullard, thanks so much for being with us. Can you talk about the situation you’re in and so many people in Houston are in right now? Describe the scene for us, and then how you relate it to your life’s work, to the issue of climate change and environmental justice.

ROBERT BULLARD: Well, good morning, and thanks for having me. Harvey and the aftermath, the flooding of Houston and the surrounding areas, it’s of biblical proportion. This is a nightmare. And the images that you see on television, and you hear the—you hear the voices of people who have been just totally destroyed. And this is a situation where I think it’s telling us that we have to change. We have to change the way we do business and the way that we, as humans, interact with our environment.

And this is basically the situation where this storm, this flooding of this city, tells us that there’s no place that’s immune from devastation. I worked, you know, in New Orleans in the flooding after Katrina. You know, New Orleans was only 500,000 people. Houston is 2.3 million people. And then you look at the surrounding areas. You’re talking 5.5 or almost 6 million people. And so you talk about this devastation. It is of historic proportion.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dr. Bullard, to what degree do you think unchecked development by Houston’s officials over the past several decades has created an even worse possibility for calamity when a natural disaster like this hits?

ROBERT BULLARD: Well, Houston is actually—was a catastrophe waiting to happen, given the fact you have unrestrained capitalism, no zoning, laissez-faire regulations when it comes to control of the very industries that have created lots of problems, when it comes to greenhouse gases and other industrial pollution, the impact that basically has been ignored for many years. And so, the fact that this is—you know, it is a disaster, but it’s a very predictable disaster.

And those communities that historically have borne the burden of environmental pollution and contamination from these many industries at the same time are the very communities that are bearing disproportionately the burden of this flooding. And so you get this pre-existing condition of inequality before the storm and this inequality in terms of how people are able to address this disaster because of vulnerability. And I think what we have to do is look at some lessons—well, not learn from Katrina in terms of the rebuilding, redevelopment and recovery.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And there’s been quite a bit of second-guessing of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s decision not to call for an evacuation of the city. I’m wondering your take on that, especially given what happened with Hurricane—was it Rita?—a couple of years ago, when there was an evacuation effort made, but more people ended up dying, about a hundred people, in the gridlock that occurred as people tried to leave a city as large as Houston.

ROBERT BULLARD: Well, it’s easy to second-guess, but the fact is that trying to evacuate, you know, 2.3 million people on these highways is almost a task that’s impossible. And so, you know, I don’t think there was anything that you can say, “Well, why is it that the mayor and the county judge decided to go this way?” You know, when you look at the problems of logistics and trying to move this many people on these highways getting out of the city, that probably was not a good choice to make.

And so I think the decision to have people shelter in place—and no one could predict, you know, what happened afterward. And so, I think the best that we can do now, instead of pointing fingers, is pointing to solutions and pointing to ways that we can address the many problems and challenges that we face today. And having to evacuate and leave your home and go out there and not know what’s ahead of you, and that you have your life—and I’m blessed—that when you see those images, you can see that this is pain.

And I think all governmental officials and governmental agencies and voluntary associations and civic groups and faith groups, we have to come together and make sure that we do what’s right, and not what’s politically expedient, but do what’s right and make sure that we build, you know, a just and healthy and sustainable city when we rebuild and when we recover. It has to be just.

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