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Environment

Houston Flood Victims Face Another Threat: Toxic Air Pollution

A man helps a woman in floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Houston, Texas. The remnants of Hurricane Harvey sent devastating floods pouring into Houston Sunday as rising water chased thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground.
David J. Phillip/AP

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.

The pollution was further confirmed when ExxonMobil announced that two of its oil refineries were damaged in the hurricane and have released 12,000 pounds of hazardous vapors.

Since the Hurricane began, 74 incidents of extreme air pollution have been reported, totalling more than 1 million pounds of emissions.

Read More: 11 Ways You Can Help Victims of Hurricane Harvey Right Now

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.

Read More: Here Are 18 Photos of the Devastating, Deadly Flooding in South Asia

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.

Read More: Beyoncé Makes Donation to Help Hurricane Harvey Victims

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.