Jeff Goodell on the New Joads: Climate Refugees in America

June 7, 2018

Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone:

Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas and Louisiana last August, causing $125 billion in damage, dumped more water out of the sky than any storm in U.S. history. By one calculation, roughly a million gallons fell for every person in Texas. The water rained down on a flat former bayou that had become a concrete and asphalt empire of more than 2.3 million people. Highways turned into rivers and shopping malls into lakes. As the water rose, people scrambled for safe refuge – into attics, onto rooftops and overpasses. A Texas game warden captured a nine-foot-long alligator in the dining room of a home near Lake Houston. Snakes swam into kitchens. A hawk flew into a taxicab and wouldn’t leave.

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As the deluge continued, tens of thousands of people fled – some in fishing boats down suburban streets, some in canoes, some on Jet Skis. Others risked a harrowing drive through water, fallen trees and swimming dogs. More than 30,000 people ended up in shelters. Thousands more headed up Interstate 45, toward Dallas, where parking lots at IHOPs and McDonalds were full of desperate people wondering how their suburban neighborhoods had turned into Waterworld. Many of them lived in their cars until the floods receded, and eventually returned to devastated homes.

Some people who hit the road during the storm kept going. A few days after the waters drained away, I was driving across central Arizona on old Route 66, which novelist John Steinbeck called “the Mother Road” – it was the route that hundreds of thousands of people took to escape America’s first man-made environmental catastrophe. Today, the ghosts of the Dust Bowl, the 1930s drought that caused a region roughly the size of Pennsylvania to dry up and blow away, haunt every gas station and roadside ice cream shop.

Near Flagstaff, I pulled into a service station and parked next to a Subaru with the words “We Survived Hurricane Harvey, Orange, Texas” scrawled on the back window in bright-pink letters. The mud-splattered car was loaded with luggage, boxes and a guitar case. A middle-aged woman and a scruffy man with wild brown hair pulled themselves out, looking road-weary and haggard. The man popped open the hood and fiddled with some wiring.

I nodded to the words on their back window. “How bad was Harvey?”

“Bad,” the woman said. She introduced herself as Melanie Elliott. “We had to get out of there.”

“It was a fucking disaster,” the man said, bent under the hood. His name was Andrew McGowan. “We got swamped.”

Orange, I later learned, is an old industrial seaport near the Louisiana border, population 18,643. The town has been hit repeatedly by recent hurricanes: In 2005, Rita savaged the city; three years later, Ike breached the city’s levee and flooded the streets with as much as 15 feet of water. Three people died. “We were just dealing with water all the time, constant flooding,” McGowan continued. “The whole place is going under.”

“Harvey was it for us,” Elliott added. “Too much water, we can’t deal with this anymore. We are going to San Diego.”

“What are you going to do there?” I asked.

“We don’t know,” McGowan said. “I’m gonna play some guitar and see what comes along.”

As they piled back into their Subaru and headed toward the highway, I thought of the old Woody Guthrie song about the farmers fleeing the Dust Bowl: “We loaded our jalopies and piled our families in/We rattled down that highway to never come back again.”

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6 Responses to “Jeff Goodell on the New Joads: Climate Refugees in America”

  1. Sir Charles Says:

    Hurricanes slow their roll around the world
    Storms’ slowdown means more rain, and potentially more damage, for populated areas.

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    An aside on the Dust Bowl. It wasn’t just drought that caused it. If the land had been left in grasslands as it had been for millennia, it would likely have recovered as it had in the past. The real problem was that nearly all of it had been plowed and planted in wheat, and when it dried out the winds blew it away.

    The situation in Houston is analogous—-building on unsuitable land is just asking for it. Same thing goes for building on barrier islands as has happened on so much of the eastern seaboard—-they are born to be inundated, and will produce even more climate refugees.

    View Ken Burns’ PBS documentary The Dust Bowl for a good explanation (and lots of Woody Guthrie).

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      “View Ken Burns’ PBS documentary The Dust Bowl for a good explanation (and lots of Woody Guthrie).”

      When I watched TDB, it felt like I was watching a horror movie where, instead of saying “Don’t go into the attic!” it was “Don’t plow up the prairie!”

  3. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    JG on Houston: “The water rained down on a flat former bayou that had become a concrete and asphalt empire of more than 2.3 million people.”

    Galveston was a thriving major port city before the storm surge of a great hurricane of September, 1900 trashed it and killed more than 6,000 people, after which Houston overtook it and became the major port. Who’s next?

    BOOK RECOMMENDATION: Isaac’s Storm (2000), by Erik Larson. This describes the great hurricane that struck Galveston and the development of nascent research into hurricane understanding and prediction.


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