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Tempers flare at climate change event as Harvey victims complain of neglect

August 19, 2018

It seemed a reliably friendly crowd Saturday at a town hall dedicated to climate change effects in flood-prone areas of Houston. More than 100 had packed the community center auditorium east of downtown, many sporting T-shirts with environmental slogans. They nodded grimly at the dire predictions, cheered approvingly at the mention of Houston’s commitment to the Paris climate accord.

Then, like climate change itself, things heated up.

“I see this whole thing as low-hanging fruit,” declared Sheila Blake, who has been flooded three times in three years and is weary of promises being made to find solutions only to have governmental resolve fade.

“What are your plans to protect us?” someone else snapped during her turn at the microphone in the question-and-answer period.

But it was Sarahy Garcia who really lit up many in the crowd, much to the visible discomfort of those on the stage. “It’s environmental racism,” she alleged, saying that poor minority neighborhoods had been neglected as the weeks turned into months after Harvey hit.

The former nurse said she has seen children with rashes and sores that do not heal, parents with unexplained breathing problems, people with odd neurological symptoms — all since the storm. Even those whose homes did not flood are struggling with health problems, she said, simply because the air is so contaminated from debris, some of which is still not been picked up nearly a year later.

“What is the city doing to address all those health ramifications? Why are their voices being ignored?” Garcia asked, all the while holding her phone aloft to make sure the officials knew they were being recorded.

“The city is not ignoring anyone,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett shot back. Trying to diffuse or deflect the anger, Emmett explained that any city response was the responsibility of Mayor Sylvester Turner. He had earlier touted the $2.5 billion bond issue before voters to boost the area’s preparedness in future storms.

Turner had been invited to the event but did not attend. Instead, he sent a video greeting played earlier in program in which he voiced his commitment to the city’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan. In that plan, Houston vows to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adhere to the Paris agreement to cap future temperature increases to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius to curb further environmental damage.

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Gavin Dillingham, program director for clean energy policy at the Houston Advance Research Institute, also played defense, saying his role in the event was to present data. But quickly added about community efforts: “We’re going to be as inclusive as we can make it.”

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The Saturday afternoon town hall was co-hosted by the Houston Climate Movement and the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit science advocacy organization.

At the start of the event, Stephanie Thomas, a former oil company geologist turned researcher and community organizer for Public Citizen, asked how many had been impacted by Harvey. About half of the 100 or so in the audience raised their hand.

Shana Udvardy, a climate resilience analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, was the featured speaker and laid out a series of troubling predictions of high-tide flooding in coming years in Texas and along the U.S. coastline. For example, she said her group’s analysis showed that in Texas 10,000 homes, with a $2.2 billion total value, could be lost by 2045 due to chronic flooding. It would affect 17,000 people and have a $3.8 million impact on the tax base, she said.

Unlike in other real estate crashes, those homes that lose value are not likely to get it back, Udvardy added.

In addition, her group predicts that by 2060, more than 60 percent of Bolivar Peninsula would flood on average twice a month. About 45 percent of Galveston would hold the same fate, the fact sheet said.

No one needs to tell Blake the consequences — both financial and emotional — of a changing climate. The 58-year-old said she was an environmentalist even before her homes have flooded three times in three years. But when theory becomes reality, it all changes. “My life has been on hold for three years,” she said her eyes glistening. “It changes you.”

Jenny Deam

twitter.com/jenny_deam

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