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Flood and the limits of science

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Volunteer rescuer Matt Clarke searches for local residents after a mandatory evacuation was ordered in the area beneath the Barker Reservoir as water is released, after Hurricane Harvey caused widespread flooding in Houston, Texas on August 31, 2017.<br />Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast with over 3 feet of rain and 125 mph winds. / AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON


The images of on-going Houston, Texas flood disaster are quite scary and heart shattering. A young man in his thirties burst into sorrowful tears as he claimed he had lost all he had worked for all his life. Many sought safety on roofs of houses and on top of vehicles for hours as there was no dry place anywhere again, except for water everywhere. Worst of all are the images of little kids and aged ones, waiting helplessly to be rescued. Perhaps more horrific is the case of a woman on wheel-chair who had just had surgery and still had to cope with her frightened toddler. Homes have been submerged while power has been cut off. Even a heart of steel will melt at the sight of some of these horrific scenes. It is such a monumental catastrophe that is far beyond the scope of every human and scientific capacity.

Many have become homeless as thousands of people continue to seek emergency shelter from the wind and rains. Reports say about 30,000 residents are presently in need of shelter while the Houston’s George R Brown Convention Center has already exceeded its bed capacity of 5,000 even as new locations are being sought. A Red Cross source claimed that volunteers at the Center had to create space for more evacuees by pushing beds together. Houston authorities believe that in spite of the already jam-packed situation at the Center, no one would be turned away from taking shelter there. The objective is to give as much succour to as many people as possible.

37 people have reportedly been killed by the raging storm. The most pathetic being a family of six who allegedly got killed when the raging flood viciously swept them away in a van. Unidentified numbers of people are currently stranded in their homes awaiting rescue while rescue workers are using boat to reach out to the trapped. To further intensify rescue efforts, Texas Governor, Greg Abbot, has tripled the number of official personnel involved in rescue mission from 4000 to 12000.

All shops and business centers are currently shut down as loss incurred has tentatively been put at above 30 billion US dollars. This is aside huge health and economic concerns that might take years to really fully address. Since Texas is the energy hub of the USA, the disaster would no doubt have a grievous effect on the nation’s energy situation. Already, prices of gas have reportedly shot up in the Houston region.

Sadly, respite doesn’t seem to be in sight for Houston and her traumatized residents as Storm Harvey is regaining strength and continues to batter southeastern Texas, while life-threatening floods continue to surge through Houston. With up to 20 inches (51cm) of further rain already predicted for the grieving region, experts are of the view that the worst isn’t yet over for Houston.

According to experts, the situation is seemingly beyond control because the storm is generating a volume of rain that would normally be seen only once in more than a thousand years. There are fears that the floodwater would spill around a pair of 70-year old reservoir dams that protect the city-center of Houston. This implies that flooding might get worse in the days ahead and the floodwaters will be slow to recede once Harvey finally moves on. To further reinforce the notion that the amount of water being currently experienced in Houston is unparalleled in contemporary age, the National Weather Service had to update the colour charts on its official rainfall maps to indicate heavier totals!

According to Tom Dart, an environmental expert, there is no way that Houston or any other city for that matter could have been ready for the current disaster because much of the Houston regions flood planning is designed for the region for 100 years events, with just a 1% chance of occurring in any given year. He explicates that a flood of the magnitude being experienced in Houston is an 800-year event and it exceeds the design specifications of all the regions levees as they couldn’t cope with a 59ft river level which threatens to overtop many of the levees put in place in the region to hold back flooding.

A major truth to discover from the Houston tragedy is that in-spite of man’s advancement in technology and science, it is really difficult to fully tame nature. Man and nature interact dialectically in such a way that as society develops, man tends to become less dependent on nature directly, while indirectly his dependence grows. This is understandable. While he is getting to know more and more about nature, and on this basis transforming it, man’s power over nature progressively increases, but in the same process, man comes into more and more extensive and profound contact with nature, bringing into the sphere of his activity growing quantities of matter, energy and information.

However, man’s technological and scientific breakthroughs over the decades have had certain negative impact on the natural landscape of the earth. Forests were destroyed and the area of arable land increased. Nature with its elemental forces was regarded as something hostile to man. The forest, for example, was something wild and menacing and people tried to force it to retreat. This was all done in the name of civilization. But as time goes on, the interaction between man and nature is characterized by man’s continued quest to subjugate nature.

Modern industrial activity has embraced ruthless ways of crushing global natural systems. Indeed, the prevailing trend of the modern world is the pursuit of activities that portend great danger for the future existence of the earth. In finding solutions to complex world’s challenges, man unconsciously creates other problems that are often too difficult to manage. Climate change, overpopulation, loss of topsoil and fresh water, increasing rates of species extinction, deforestation, imperiled coral reefs, unstoppable invasive species, toxic chemicals that remain for eons in the environment, persistent human poverty and hunger, and an increasingly inflated and unstable world financial system are some of the results that unwholesome human induced activities have brought upon the world.

While one might not really have a straight-forward explanation for the Houston disaster, commonsense should however instruct all that the less man tampers with nature, the better for us all. Meanwhile, it is hoped that American President Donald Trump would do well to rise above his customary trivial and divisive style by using the Houston calamity to unite his already sharply divided country. This is not the time to take to undue slack talk. This is not the time for pointless tweeting. This is actually the right time to show the American people that they have elected a President who can actually make their country great again. Perhaps, more importantly, this calamity would make Trump change his mind about climate change.
Ogunbiyi is of the Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja, Lagos


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