We were sitting around a cluttered table in his Bay City, Tex., office over a plate of barbecue, this old Jewish rice farmer and I, and before either of us knew it, we had chewed our way down to the shank of the afternoon talking about Texas, and the Talmud, and the weather.
“I’m sure they told you that if you asked me the time, I’d tell you how to build a watch,” the old man said, chuckling.
Indeed they had. And in those very words. That was, in fact, the very reason I had gone to see him that day in early 2016, as the state’s coastal rice-growing region was still shaking off the aftereffects of a prolonged and vicious drought. Haskell Simon, I had been told, is a man who has, in nine decades in Texas, developed a deep appreciation for the complex interplay between nature and the world we create.
He did not disappoint me. For hours, he held forth on how the devastating yearslong drought, as bad as it was, had been made all the worse by a perfect storm of bad luck, bad planning and rampant population growth.
And so, as Hurricane Harvey bore down on southeastern Texas, Haskell Simon was the first person I thought of. It’s not just that I feared for his safety, though I did. It’s that I knew that he could lend me the perspective I needed.
And again, he did not disappoint me.
“We’re all right,” he told me. “We dodged a bullet. We’re blessed.”
Millions of others, he noted sadly, were not so lucky.
When at last this storm passes, it will have dumped as much as 15 trillion gallons on coastal Texas. To put that into perspective, if all of that water came out of taps and faucets rather than in buckets from the sky, it would be enough to fill the needs of every man, woman and child in this country for 42 days, according to 2010 estimates of Americans’ water use. It’s more than twice the amount of rain that fell during Hurricane Katrina.
By any kind of reckoning, it is a monstrous storm.
And in the days to come, scientists and pundits will inevitably debate the role that the changing climate played in all of this. They’ll challenge one another over the extent to which the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico — waters that were as high as 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit above average as the hurricane gained strength — may have supercharged it. They’ll argue about the extent to which the black carbon that the President of Finland warned the president of the United States about just Monday might have warmed the Arctic and whether that was enough to stall the high-level winds that might otherwise have spurred the slow-moving storm along.
Those who resist the idea that a changing climate driven by our consumption played a role in this catastrophe will argue that Texas has always been a land of extremes, a place where crippling droughts often follow close on the heels of killer storms. That is true. Houston, America’s fourth-largest city, is what it is today in large part because earlier savage storms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries leveled the city of Indianola and ravaged Galveston, clearing the way for Houston to become pre-eminent.
The cycles of storms and droughts are, as my rice farmer friend will tell you, an inevitable fact of life in Texas. But as he will also tell you — even if you could make the case that climate played no role whatsoever in Hurricane Harvey’s fury or that we weren’t to blame at least in part for the severity of the last drought or the next — those storms and droughts are still more destructive than they ever were before, simply because there is more to destroy.
He will tell you that in the 16 years since Tropical Storm Allison deluged Houston, that city, which famously balks at any kind of zoning regulation, and the surrounding region, which encompasses all or parts of 15 counties, have undergone a period of explosive growth, from 4.8 million people in 2000 to more than 7 million today. Harris County alone, which includes the city of Houston, has grown to 4.6 million, up from 3.4 million.
Stand outside Mr. Simon’s Bay City office and you can almost feel it, that wave of development, of strip malls and gated communities, of big-box stores with bigger parking lots, rising up from the outskirts of faraway Austin, ebbing toward Houston and gaining strength as it rolls south toward that very spot.
That’s millions of people guzzling water when times are dry. Indeed, he’ll explain, it was because of all those new straws stuck into the water that, during the last drought, he and the other rice farmers in this corner of Texas found themselves cut off by upstream demand from their usual source of water on the lower Colorado River, forcing them to let some 40,000 acres lie fallow.
A century’s worth of unchecked growth, he’ll tell you, has brought prosperity to many. But it also has altered the landscape in ways that have made both the droughts and the floods more destructive and made that prosperity fleeting. Much of the region sits atop the overtaxed Gulf Coast Aquifer, and though efforts have made over the last 40 years to limit withdrawals from it, enough water has been sucked out of it that the ground still subsides in some places, altering runoff patterns and allowing flood waters to gather.
What’s more, those more than 2 million newcomers to the region are living in houses and driving on roads and shopping in stores built atop what once was prairie that could have absorbed at least some of the fury of this flood and the next. What once was land that might have softened the storm’s blow is now, in many cases, collateral damage in what could turn out to be a $40 billion disaster.
It will take months before the full weight of Hurricane Harvey’s ruinous rampage along the Gulf is realized, and it will be years before a full recovery. And in the space between those two points, my friend would tell you, there might just be a moment to consider how best to rebuild, to pause and rethink how and where we build, to reflect not just on whether we’re altering the weather, but whether there is a way to make ourselves less vulnerable to it. Perhaps we could build differently, or set aside land that would both help recharge the dwindling water supplies in times of drought and slow the floods when they come.
My friend has more than a few ideas on how that might be done. He can, and will, tell you in minute detail how to build a watch. What he cannot do is tell you how much time you have before the next storm hits, or how to use it.
That is up to you.
Reprinted from The Opinion Pages, The New York Times, August 30 2017
Seamus McGraw is the author, most recently, of “Betting the Farm on a Drought: Stories From the Front Lines of Climate Change.” He is at work on a new book about water issues in Texas.