The 11 trillion gallons of water that fell on Houston and environs caused 70 known deaths. There are hundreds of thousands of victims. The water stripped the city’s poor of the little they possessed and cost Harris County between $30 and $100 billion in property damage. But it also claimed a collateral victim—the first president of the United States ever to have been elected on a platform of overt climate-change denial; a position that the disaster has now discredited in the eyes of any reasonable American.
Naturally, one would hope for a public apology, expressions of regret, and frank and humble self-criticism. But for that to happen, for this bull-headed champion of ignorance to repent of his stubbornness and self-interested bad faith, we would have to see, God forbid, a flood on the Potomac high enough to inundate the White House; or a repeat of the Frankenstorm that struck New York five years ago, this time sending flood waters into the lobby of Trump Tower. And, alas, this reckoning could come sooner than later with Mar-a-Lago and Trump’s Florida properties potentially in the line of Hurricane Irma’s wrath—devastating winds and catastrophic flooding may be imminent, this time in Trump’s playground!
Nevertheless… Some retorts from nature are like the ruses of history. The idea that fearsome Harvey should lend its hand to the Cassandras who have worn themselves out warning us that nature’s stocks are only slowly replenished; or that, when those warnings go unheeded, recalcitrant facts exact their revenge—well, that is not wholly a bad thing.
I must confess that the fact of Trump being obliged to come once, and then a second time, to Houston, like King Henry to Canossa, that on the second occasion he appeared drenched and disabused—not exactly with a noose around his neck, but holding his boots while wading around—was worth its weight in ridiculousness. Harvey votes against Trump. Harvey slaps Trump’s face. Harvey hints that leaving the Paris climate agreement was (or would be?) both a crime against nature and against humanity.
The second piece of news brought by the serial killer known as Harvey does not involve Trump per se but rather the frightening urban hubris that is the trademark of America’s city builders, with rare exceptions (such as Chicago). Since the dawn of time, or, at the very least, since Jewish, Greek, and Roman antiquity, there has been an art of urban habitation that presupposes a modicum of respect for the ground on which the city stands.
From Augustus to Claudius, Trajan, Hadrian, and even Nero, Rome’s emperors knew that a city without green spaces, one devoid of parks and gardens that allow it to breathe, a city without catchments, without a sophisticated system for draining, pumping, and diverting water, a city where one neglects to build on pilings, on stones set without mortar, on permeable gravel, is marked for flooding.
But Houston’s developers obviously had not read The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. So they paved. They mixed concrete. They poured it over everything that lives and breathes, beginning with the bayous, those expanses of slow-moving water that act as sponges, which, as in New Orleans, they drained. And then when the earth stirs and falls into one of those rages that are as old as the world itself (but that global warming has made even more furious), what cracks first is the concrete layer.
It is the work of man that disintegrates first. And it is the city—the ever-newer and ever-uglier city, the city of giant malls and parking lots that look like cemeteries, the city stripped of unbuilt spaces where streaming water can find an outlet—it is the city that comes to resemble a new Atlantis, an Atlantis adrift. Its highways transform into rapids, its inhabitants into aquatic refugees, its rescuers into drillers in search of the phreatic zone, its chemical plants into time bombs, and the presidential catastrophe into the climate president who comes to contemplate the hideous counterpoint of his imbecilic denial.
And yet within this story there dwells a mystery. For the damage has been done. Leveling cities to begin again is not an option. But although these urban non-spaces must remain what they are, the fact is that the United States has the means to protect them.
The country that won the space race and whose child-kings of Silicon Valley are dreaming of eradicating disease and death, has the ability to predict, prevent, and mitigate disaster using the most sophisticated and powerful means in the world. The mystery is that those means go unused. The country fails to mobilize even a tenth of the scientific, technical, and financial resources that would allow it, if the will were there, to withstand and parry, at least in part, foreseen disasters such as Harvey or, 10 years back, Katrina.
After each foreseen disaster we see the same strange pantomime of rebuilding along identical lines, as if nothing had happened, as if there were nothing to be done but await the next cataclysm. Trump is not the problem here. No more than the deregulated capitalism of Texan developers.
When I was writing American Vertigo (Random House, 2006), I advanced the hypothesis of a national ideology surrounding what even secular Americans continue to call Mother Nature, an ideology centered on a magical, superstitious, and paralyzing reverence that is not the opposite of the blind and arrogant irreverence of the builders but rather a sort of double reverse of that irreverence: As if there lay in these hurricanes a version of the wrath of God. As if one felt obliged to tempt the devil—but only to a point. The situation reminds us that idolatry and desecration are often two faces of the same folly.
Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy