If Only…

One of the very first things I exclaimed to my parents about Houston, as we drove a giant U-Haul down from Oklahoma City, was how green our new city home was. I was 12 at the time, and Houston was a veritable forest oasis to me. The neighborhood I lived in had wild forested lots just behind it, perfect for kids to explore and walk through.

Photo Credit: Marie D. De Jesus

Back then, the country was just a pleasant 20 minute drive from where we lived: farmland, thickly dotted with live oaks, maples, giant elms, and a host of Slash, Shortleaf ,and Longleaf pine. Now, the Woodlands and Sugarland–idyllic country names–are hubs of strip malls and housing developments–the epitome of Houston suburbia. By the time I left for college in North Carolina five years later, we had to travel nearly 45 minutes to get to the country, to the wild places that kept getting pushed further out.

The city just grew and grew.

It wasn’t the fault of any one person or even group of people. It was economics and geography–Houston is an affordable port city which rebounded rapidly after the Texas oil bust in the 1980’s. My parents continued to live in Houston for another 25 years after I left. During that time, I saw the city go from green to mostly gray. Each trip home revealed another lost portion of the oasis. The wild lots behind my house were logged, graded, and turned into a network of big box stores. The housing developments and the parking lots expanded so far in all directions that now the Houston-Woodlands-Sugarland Metroplex is the 4th largest in the country with an area bigger than the state of Massachusetts.

When Hurricane Harvey hit and the unprecedented rainfall predictions started to come in, I couldn’t imagine the devastation it would wreak.

A few inches of rain over a couple of hours was enough to create  dangerous flash flooding in my neighborhood, with street water cresting the tops of the curbs before slowly draining into the surrounding bayous. What could three feet of rain do? What could five?

I stayed glued to Facebook, happy to see the safe badges pop up on friends’ profiles. Fortunately, all my old high school friends and members of my mom’s former church are safe. Many lost homes though. Some had to evacuate to their neighbors’ as they helplessly watched the rising waters invade their homes and destroy their possessions. Some  stayed in shelters, not knowing what they’d return to, if anything. I saw pictures of friends carrying their cats, dogs, and children (sometimes all at once) under their arms as they walked up the rivers in their neighborhoods that had once been the streets we played on.

After everyone was mostly dry, and while dump trucks from other cities in Texas were starting to haul off trillions of pounds of damaged floors and furniture, conversations turned to questions of what could have happened differently.

A lot of sentences began with “if only.”

If only we’d gotten flood insurance. If only we’d moved out of the city years ago…

Photo Credit: REUTERS/Nick Oxford

Over the next several weeks, while Southern communities would be pounded first by Harvey, then by Irma, from the Florida Keys to South Texas to the coasts of the Carolinas to inland Tennessee, we’ve read countless articles linking the devastation wrought by these storms with the undeniable fact of climate change.

These disastrous events have been signifiers of the great challenge of our age.

The solutions to surviving climate change as a species are truly daunting. Many of us can recite them by heart. We have to get off fossil fuels. We have to keep global temperature increases to a mere 1.5 degrees. Doing these things means we need to rethink our consumption, our economies, and our policies. We need to keep the pressure on our government to meet the challenges of climate change instead of denying that they exist.

There is another big piece of the climate puzzle: we have to keep our forests standing.

Standing forests protect against flooding. Excess water drains better where there are healthy, intact, large areas of mature forests. When we keep forests standing along our riverbanks, there’s less erosion and less flooding inland. And as the flooding recedes, trees help to clean our drinking water.

If only we had protected our standing forests.

If only we had made this a priority in the South for the last 100 years. Even the last 50. The last 20. Might things be different now?

“If only” questions, as an exercise in reflective thinking, are only as good as the solutions that follow. Live and learn. We have an urgent need to solve climate problems now. We need to adopt forest protection policies throughout the South now. We need to stand up to the logging industry and demand better standards now. We need to recreate our skewed economics so that we value forests for the services they provide instead of the potential products they can be turned into–now. Obviously, yesterday was too late.

The costs of doing these things now will pale in comparison to the inevitable costs of human lives, ruined homes, and devastated communities in the future.

I am hopeful. The people of Houston have always been my favorite thing about the city. Certainly not the heat, the humidity, or the traffic. So, it was not surprising to me to see Houstonians reaching out to one another in a grand effort to save absolutely as many people as possible. It’s one of our better, human qualities, this ability to put our opinions on the back burner long enough to respond in a crisis: to help, to save, to give, to fix.

We know what we need to do, right? We know what the solutions are.

At what point is the crisis going to be enough for us to be our better selves? The moment has arrived, if only we’d collectively agree.

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