Houston Flood Victims Face Another Threat: Toxic Air Pollution
People are facing risks beyond flooding.
In the weeks and months ahead, the full wreckage of Hurricane Harvey will be sifted through and people will assess the physical, emotional, and economic damage wrought by one of the most powerful storms in US history.
In the meantime, people are facing risks beyond flooding.
People living in the east-end of Houston are reporting experiencing clouds of noxious fumes, thought to be coming from the city’s many oil refineries, one resident told the New Republic.
Bryan Parras, who works for the environmental justice group TEJAS and lives in the east end, told the New Republic that there was a strong chemical smell in the air and residents were experiencing “headaches, sore throat, scratchy throat, and itchy eyes.” Numerous other residents on Twitter said they also smelled fumes.
There is a thick smell of oil in the air downtown #Houston— Rhonda Ragsdale (@profragsdale) August 27, 2017
@DisasterPIO There is a widespread gas smell in Houston's East End. Any info?— RFH (@rfh02) August 27, 2017
Might seem like an afterthought but #Harvey is impacting air quality, too. Exxon, others shuttering refineries, releasing lots of pollution.— Kiah Collier (@KiahCollier) August 27, 2017
Since the Hurricane began, 74 incidents of extreme air pollution have been reported, totalling more than 1 million pounds of emissions.
Texas, and the broader Gulf Coast, are home to more than a third of the country’s oil processing, according to The New York Times, and oil is big business for the state. The Times produced an article nearly a year ago exploring what would happen if a category 4 hurricane hit Houston; the effects were not good.
Harvey was a Category 3 storm, but many of the oil processing facilities in Houston were still shut down during the hurricane, despite the known risk that this can lead to heavy pollution, according to the Environmental Integrity Project.
“Sudden shutdowns can release large plumes of sulfur dioxide or toxic chemicals in just a few hours, exposing downwind communities to peak levels of pollution that are much more likely to trigger asthma attacks and other respiratory systems,” EIP’s report noted.
Residents fear that amid the disorder of hurricane relief efforts, little will be done to curb the air pollution affecting parts of Houston, which happen to be predominantly low-income areas with minority populations, City Lab reports.
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Hurricanes and extreme storms generally cause both air and water pollution, as sewage systems and industrial plants become damaged. The damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, for example, was worsened by the release of contaminants throughout parts of New Orleans.
This wouldn’t be the first time that poor communities of color are disproportionately affected by pollution, either.
The Intercept recently reported on how ExxonMobil continues to severely pollute a predominantly black community in Texas even after they lost a civil rights case 17 years ago.
Globally, more than 6.5 million people die each year from air pollution, much of which comes from the fossil fuel industry.
With nearly 52 inches of rain dumped on the Houston area, Hurricane Harvey surpassed the rainfall total of any other event in recorded US history.
At least 31 people have died throughout the storm, 32,000 people are living in shelters, 8,500 rescues have been made, five million meals have been passed out by FEMA — and that’s just an overview of the damage.
As Houston rebuilds after the Harvey, making infrastructure more resilient in the face of flooding can’t be the only focus. Guarding against air pollution must also be a priority.