There is no cease-fire in class war and Hurricane Harvey is the example not the exception to this rule. The poor suffer and natural disasters make them suffer more. It is easy to aim our anger toward cheap metaphors like “mother nature’s wrath,” but it is much more crucial and beneficial to take aim at the real conditions and systems that put marginalized communities at risk. Natural disasters inflame the structural conditions that keep people poor, they were there before Harvey formed in the Atlantic and they will stay until we address them. While we can allow ourselves to be touched by the actions and solidarity of those in Houston, we cannot rest. The enemies of liberation and equality continued their assaults while Harvey hit and are continuing in the aftermath. One only has to recall the cruel decision by the Trump administration to keep Border Control checks up open during the hurricane, striking fear into undocumented people seeking shelter from the storm. This wicked choice confirms not only the indifference of the State to the suffering of people but its desire to take an active role in its continuation. Unfortunately, the State and corporations have many tools at their disposal to their interests.
The health risks unleashed by Hurricane Harvey caused alarm for activists long before Harvey. In fact, many warnings have been released regarding the increased cancer rates in communities in and around Houston resulting from the petrochemical industry. Environmental activist groups like Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) have been loudly highlighting the risks of the petrochemical industry in the area. The organization cites mismanagement by the chemical industry on their website as the reason that “Houston ranks 1st in the nation for Mercury, Formaldehyde, Benzene, and 1-3 Butadiene and a host of other toxic chemicals in the air.” They should not have been ignored then. They cannot be ignored now as more noxious chemicals are seeping into the Gulf Coastal Plain.
There is no shortage of documentation about the unique consequences of the petrochemical industry in Houston. Before Hurricane Harvey struck The Nation writer Wen Stephenson ran a host of stories documenting the conditions in West Port Arthur and The Intercept reporter Sharon Lerner recently highlighted the conditions in the area in the weeks leading up to Harvey. In this depressed area residents often hear explosions from the nearby plant and instinctively move indoors to avoid fumes that can “burn your throat and sting your eyes.” It is the kind of area that those with the means to leave get out as soon as they can. But the assaults on this predominantly black neighborhood don’t stop with discomfort from explosions. The area has a disproportionally high cancer rate coupled with a spike of respiratory issues. The poor already face extensive health risks and the added damage of the petrochemical industry means people are dying as a direct effect of industry. But unlike exploited factory workers these residents don’t even get the dignity of paychecks from the industry that is killing them. It was bad before an environmental disaster like Harvey hits, which has already destabilized and wrecked unimaginable damage on the city; now the residents face the added threat of unchecked contamination.
West Port Arthur and Beaumont, Texas are not the only area in Houston where the poor face health risks from industrial centers. Superfund sites are strewn across the map in Houston accurately landing in poorer neighborhoods. The reasons for this are too obvious to investigate, but if this is a cold fact of production in Houston we must demand better protections for residents and for contaminated areas and chemical plants to be better prepared for natural disasters.
The negligence at the Arkema chemical plant is only now becoming fully understood. The plant is located in a floodplain and the grounds were engorged with water during Harvey and the power supply for the plant was rendered inoperable. Chemicals began to explode due to the lack of refrigeration and the decision was made by the company to do controlled burns of their materials. While this may have mitigated the risk of continued explosions it did little to defend the health of those living in the surrounding areas. Residents around the plant were instructed to evacuate the area for six days and now have been advised to drink bottled water and wear protective clothing. A lawsuit by first-responders has exposed the continued negligence by the company both before and after the event. Initially, the suit alleges that the company misleads first-responders by implying that the chemicals were not toxic, twenty-one emergency workers needed treatment for their exposure to fumes at the plant.
Regulation of chemical and oil companies is unacceptably lax even under the Obama Administration. With the corporate coup of our regulatory agencies by the Trump Administration, it is unlikely that this will get even better. The risks of negligence are disproportionately carried by the poor and marginalized who are unable to pressure these companies to take responsibility. Why were backup generators not raised above floodwaters in an area that is prone to flooding? This negligence is a large and prevalent example of cavalier attitude that corporate institutions toward the community. The indifference of companies that house dangerous chemicals to the communities they put at risk magnify the danger.
We must worry about the effectiveness of the cleanup in Houston. There have been incredible showings of solidarity from residents, including the Houston DSA and other organizations. But the kindness of community cannot replace the responsibility of the government to its citizens who already face the callousness of major corporations. Already there are signs to worry. Recently, the NYT released a report finding high levels of E. Coli in water throughout Houston. Water that people have been wading through to inspect their homes and retrieve their belongings. While the government “[has] expressed concern about toxic floodwaters, but have not made public the results of sampling they may have done.” Instead, giving common orders to people to avoid stormwater and to boil any tap water before consuming. Of course, common advice will give you common results. The people of Houston deserve more than dispassionate efforts from the government given the specific threats of industry in Houston.
With the corporate coup of the supposedly civilian government, we have a collection of dangers facing residents of Houston, especially the poor as they rebuild their lives. From an EPA head that continues to work deny climate change, to a president who vowed to cut the EPA to “little tidbits,” to big oil’s favorite idiot Rick Perry running the agency charged with policing energy. I have little faith in this group to lift the people out of hardship. With the real health effects citizens of Houston have already been facing exacerbated by the effects of climate change this irresponsibility is nothing more than a continued assault on communities in America’ most diverse city.
Along with the exacerbation of climate change and the suppression of information regarding the contamination of the area, we also have the continued threat of racial assaults from the administration. We cannot forget or forgive Trump’s pardoning of that ghoul Joe Arpaio as Harvey barreled through the Gulf. This was an intentional act as Trump “assumed the ratings would be far higher than they were normally.” We cannot forgive or forget the cruel and callous decision to intimidate immigrants throughout the storm. These cruel decisions are another episode in the ongoing class war; we cannot be caught flat-footed because this will not subside until the Right and its reactionary rabble are soundly defeated.
As we think of Houston in their recovery, we must remember that even natural disasters do not bring armistice into politics. The forces that seek to harm the poor, P.O.C., the environment, and the Latinx community will not rest for a storm and neither can we. These events are cannot be considered to be natural occurrences but continued onslaughts of the reactionary and the rich against the people.