Hurricane Harvey has pummeled Houston and surrounding areas, dumping a year’s worth of rain in just a few days and displacing thousands from their homes.

Even though the cleanup process could take years, it’s unclear whether lawmakers will set aside the federal funding necessary to rebuild. In fact, House Republicans are considering whether to gut the nation’s disaster relief stash to pay for President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.

In this week’s episode, reporter Neena Satija offers the latest from the ground in Houston – and lays out why the city wasn’t ready for a storm like Harvey.   

Texas is home to the Houston Ship Channel, one of the world’s busiest maritime waterways. Also in Houston, and along the channel, are oil refineries and chemical plants that make up the nation’s largest refining and petrochemical complex. It’s a major economic hub, and it’s seriously vulnerable to storms like Harvey.

In 2008, Hurricane Ike swept through Texas and resulted in billions of dollars in damage. But it could have been much worse. The storm turned at the last minute and didn’t hit Houston head on. Harvey didn’t make a direct hit either, but its effects have been catastrophic. So imagine if Harvey or Ike happened again, but instead of turning away, it headed into Houston. A computer model shows that a direct hit would create devastation far worse than what we’re seeing now.

Also in the episode: Reporter Mark Schleifstein of The Times-Picayune saw Hurricane Katrina coming years before it happened.


The latest Harvey updates from The Texas Tribune:

  • Read: Texas districts prepare to take in students displaced by Harvey
  • Read: Houston’s historically black neighborhoods devastated by flooding, with little safety net
  • Read: Can Texas lawmakers tap the rainy day fund to help with Harvey relief?
  • Read: Texans in Congress face daunting needs in Harvey’s aftermath
  • Read: For low-income Texans, a tougher road to recovery after Harvey


Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

 Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 – 00:10:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Letson:From the Center For Investigative Reporting in PRX this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
In Houston Texas emergency rescue workers struggle to keep up with thousands of 911 calls from people who were trapped by the floods. Private citizens in canoes, fishing boats, and even monster trucks, rescued people who were stranded in their homes. Harvey, first a hurricane and then a tropical storm, poured a years worth of water onto Houston turning the city streets into rivers, damaging oil refineries, and forcing at least 30,000 people into emergency shelters.
Neena Satija:It’s a catastrophe. There’s no other way to say it.
Al Letson:That’s Neena Satija our reported based at our partner, The Texas Tribune. She arrived in Houston just before Harvey hit and spent the week recording what she saw.
Neena Satija:We were driving on this road yesterday and we could easily pass it. There was some water on the road. Now, it’s basically a river. There was a big sign that said “Houston BBQ,” you could see the whole sign yesterday and now you can barely see the top of the word Houston.
Al Letson:Businesses and homes were flooded and dozens of people died. We caught up with Neena in the middle of the storm. So, Neena, are you staying safe and dry first?
Neena Satija:I am, although I was just coming from wading through some water in a couple of streets. We were driving these streets yesterday they were totally clear, today they’re in, I would say, two feet of water, two and a half feet of water. It’s caused, in Houston, simply from torrential rainfall.
Al Letson:What have you seen in the past few days?
Neena Satija:Well, it’s really been catastrophic here, Al. Emergency personnel are still having a ton of trouble getting to rescue people. Here where I am, where you see a lot of high water streets, there’s just private boats going around trying to get people who are stuck. A couple of days ago we interviewed a family at an emergency shelter in downtown Houston.
Speaker 3:5 AM, 4 AM-5 AM around that we flooded. Water started to come in and just non-stop.
Neena Satija:They got scared on the second floor of their house. They felt like the water was rising. They didn’t have power, they didn’t have supplies.
Speaker 3:Flooded up to here and-
Neena Satija:Oh my gosh, that’s your waist.
Speaker 3:And-
Neena Satija:Called 911, called 311, could not get through to anyone. Kept calling, kept calling, eventually a private boat came to get them out of their neighborhood, drop them into a grocery store. After that another private citizen drove them from the grocery store to a pick up point, and again a private citizen drove them to the Red Cross shelter. It really shows that this area is in part depending on private citizens and just good Samaritans to go out there and help people out.
Al Letson:What’s next for the city in terms of clean up?
Neena Satija:I think this clean up could take years. This waterlogged street that I’m standing right next to may look like this for at least several days, if not weeks. There are areas, especially around two reservoirs that are west of Houston, that officials say will be flooded for months. This is not a quick recovery. It’s going to cost billions of dollars.
Al Letson:So I remember last year when you were working on this big story for both The Texas Tribune and Reveal that you talked about a massive hurricane hitting Houston. A lot of people after hearing that and reading what you wrote are saying that you predicted this. Did you?
Neena Satija:No I didn’t predict it. A massive hurricane did not hit Houston head-on. The area that got, as we have seen on the news, the area that got hit by the hurricane and the catastrophic storm surge, that’s a wall of water that would hit neighborhoods as the result of hurricane force winds, that did not hit Houston. That hit another much smaller town and hopefully we won’t see any more deaths uncovered in that town. There was no massive hurricane that made a direct hit on Houston, which is what we talked about.
However, the hurricane that hit outside of Houston produced so much torrential rain that it has really resulted in a catastrophe for Houston that feels like a hurricane, I will say. People have made comparisons to Katrina, hurricane Ike, just going through these emergency shelters, seeing people trapped on their roofs, again not because of flooding from storm surge, which was the primary cause from Katrina and the levees breaking, but just from torrential rainfall. If feels like a hurricane has hit Houston, but in fact that has not happened.
Al Letson:So, Neena, what you’re telling me is that this isn’t the big one. That this is a lot of water, a tropical storm, pretty bad, but not the big one. The big one that you modeled was called Mighty Ike. What is Mighty Ike and what would it look like?
Neena Satija:Oh the big one? If the big hurricane hit Houston, if the category five hurricane made a direct hit on the Houston ship channel, which is an industrial area near the city of Houston, we would see a far larger catastrophe. Oil production would be completely shut down. Oil refineries, chemical manufacturing plants would completely shut down and perhaps be damaged. There could be a major accident at one of those facilities. Of course, scientists have told us that thousands of people would probably die.
Al Letson:That’s Reveal’s Neena Satija based at the Texas Tribune reporting from Houston Texas. Thanks, Neena.
Neena Satija:Thanks, Al.
Al Letson:We should note that the nation’s largest refinery at Port Arthur near the Texas Louisiana border was shut down because of flooding from Harvey.


We’re going to turn back now to Neena’s original reporting about Mighty Ike. That’s the hypothetical storm modeled on another hurricane, Ike, which hit Houston in 2008 causing $30 billion dollars in damage and killed dozens of people. Like Harvey, Ike didn’t hit Houston head on, instead it turned at the last minute. So what if a major hurricane actually hit the city? What could happen?


In the fall of 2015 we teamed up with The Texas Tribune and ProPublica to find out. We got some pretty sophisticated storm models from scientists at the University of Texas at Austin and Jackson State University. They were run through hefty super computers to simulate what could happen if a hurricane like Mighty Ike hit Houston. It would go something like this.


Mighty Ike forms as a huge cyclone in the ocean. It’s so powerful it’s pushing all this water in front of it. So much so that 12 hours before the storm reaches the coast, Galveston Island is already completely underwater. Almost 50,000 people live there. When the storm makes landfall the real storm surge hits, which means rising water meets hurricane force winds. Imagine a shallow pan of water that’s already overflowing, then get a leaf-blower and blow it across. The first place that leaf-blower points is west, towards Clear Lake, a narrow body of water on the coast that runs a few miles inland.


That is where we find Reveal’s Neena Satija. Hi, Neena.


Neena Satija:Hey, Al.


Al Letson:Okay, so tell me about Clear Lake.


Neena Satija:As you said, Clear Lake’s a body of water but it’s also what people call a bunch of communities that are clustered around suburban Houston. More than 150,000 people live here and the population is growing. We wanted to see what Mighty Ike could do to this area so we went on a tour with someone who lives there, Sam Brody.


I’m ready.


Sam Brody:Let’s do it.


Neena Satija:Sam’s not just a resident, he’s also an expert in flood planning. Sam moved here after hurricane Ike. He works for Texas A&M University and they wanted him to move here to study the area’s vulnerability to flooding. Kind of funny for a guy who knows all about flood risk to move somewhere that floods a lot, but he loves it here.


Sam Brody:My research is better because I, every day I see these communities and I’m part of a larger body of people working on these issues. It’s better for my kids and my family. Every weekend we go to Houston and we do stuff.


Neena Satija:Sam’s wife and two kids are happy here. Good schools, nice neighbors, and the restaurants are great.


Sam Brody:I’ve always wanted to go there, around the bar. That’s a really good Italian restaurant right there.


Neena Satija:Here’s the thing though, Sam knows Mighty Ike, or a storm like it, is coming. Mighty Ike will pummel some of these low lying neighborhoods we’re driving through with more than 25 feet of water. Even much higher elevation points could see eight feet or more.


Sam Brody:It’s going to happen one day. It’s going to happen. Even without the increasing models that account for climate change and more severe storms, even without that …


Neena Satija:Thousands of homes and businesses in Clear Lake are in deep trouble in Mighty Ike. That Italian Restaurant that Sam likes, the area around it could see six feet of water. For some perspective there, I’m 5’3″ so I’d basically be swimming. Sam took us to see houses that are standing on stilts 10 feet off the ground, but if Mighty Ike hit, people living there wouldn’t be safe. Not even on the second floor.


Al Letson:This sounds just like Katrina with people trapped in their homes, climbing onto roofs. Neena, if folks know this is a hurricane prone area, why aren’t they more concerned about this?


Neena Satija:Well people know there’s always a chance for-


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 Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 – 00:20:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Speaker 1:Why aren’t they more concerned about this?


Speaker 2:Well people know there’s always a chance for hurricanes. But they don’t seem to know how bad it could get in a storm like Mighty Ike. And most of the time, life is fine. I mean, picture this. You get to live by this gorgeous lake and marina. It’s peaceful and quiet. But not too far from the bustle of downtown Houston. You’ve got a couple of major medical centers here. And you’ve got NASA’s Johnson Space Center.


Speaker 1:Yeah, I mean that sounds nice but what about the potential flooding?


Speaker 2:Yeah, that’s not something people really talk about. I mean no one’s crossing their lawn saying to their neighbor, “Hey I worked it out. We’ll only have an inch of water inside when the big one comes.” The communities clustered around Clear Lake have actually been some of the fastest growing in the country. And since Hurricane Ike, tens of thousands of people have moved here. And a lot of them aren’t coming from the coast. They’ve never seen a hurricane. This is how Sam sees it.


Sam Brody:So you’re a professional, you move to this area. And you’re like, “Cool, I have a water view. I’m sure there’s going to be some kind of boat launch.” This is a great place to be. The last thing you think about is 20 feet of water coming up here.


Speaker 2:To put that into perspective, think about it this way. It only takes 18 inches of water to float a car. So drive a modern car into 18 inches of water and that force is enough to lift the car off the ground and send it rushing off. Think about what even a few feet can do. That’s why Sam was so careful when he bought a home here. He looked at the exact elevation and he looked at all the flood defenses, from big to small. It’s how he chose the block he lives on.


Did you purposely choose one next to the big storm drain?


Sam Brody:Maybe. We’re going to go in.


Speaker 2:The land behind Sam’s house slips way down to the water below. And the whole neighborhood’s been raised several feet. In Mighty Ike, his house gets a couple inches of water. Not catastrophic.


But do you think that the new developments that are being built in this area, do you think that those developers are as responsible as-


Sam Brody:No. No.


Speaker 2:Sam drove us to a place called Nassau Bay Town Square. It’s this new commercial development in Clear Lake. It’s got a bunch of shops, an apartment complex, a hotel and some offices.


Sam Brody:And I can just tell the place is going under water.


Speaker 2:Under something like six feet of water according to the computer models. Sam says the buildings might stay standing but …


Sam Brody:They’d be catastrophically damaged. It’d be a total loss. You know, you may have a structure, but it’s not usable.


Speaker 2:Any cars in the parking lot here would be goners. They’d turn into floating barges that ram into other things.


Sam Brody:This is going to be a shopping center one day. And so we’re going to add more people and more structures and more pavement. And so we have a decision that we can say, “Okay, if we’re going to do that, can we do it differently? Does that make sense? Can we understand the risk better and have models like this, ‘Hey look, you could be under eight feet of water.’” I would be shocked if the developers of that shopping center knew that when they put that in.


Speaker 1:So what did the developers have to say? I mean, do they even know that this can happen?


Speaker 2:So I called the developer of that shopping center and he had no idea how high the water could get. He was kind of shocked because Nassau Bay Town Square is following the rules. It’s up to code. It follows the local flood planning regulations. Those regulations just aren’t designed to protect buildings from something like Mighty Ike. And the developer doesn’t think they should be. Neither does this guy.


Bob Mitchell:Bob Mitchell, President of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership.


Speaker 2:Bob works in Nassau Bay Town Square. And his group recruits businesses to come to the Houston area. And he’s pretty good at it.


Bob Mitchell:We have 46 aerospace companies that are members. We have, oh gosh, 8 or 10 specialty chemical companies, 17 different banks.


Speaker 2:If Mighty Ike hits, Bob knows what it does to his office.


Bob Mitchell:It’s under water.


Speaker 2:Right, it’s under water. It’s under water-


Bob Mitchell:Trust me. I know that.


Speaker 2:Why keep expanding this development if-


Bob Mitchell:I can’t believe that’s a serious question.


Speaker 2:Why? Why is that sound such a-


Bob Mitchell:Are you going to stop development? That question you’re asking me is no different than the terrorist right now. Am I going to stop everything I do because I’m worried about some body going to charge in to a store and shoot the place up?


Speaker 2:That sums up the attitude a lot of people have. How do I know which impending catastrophy I should worry about? But there’s no way of predicting when the next mass shooting is likely to happen or where. And we do know, that the Houston area gets a major hurricane every 15 years.


Bob said that himself a few minutes later.


Bob Mitchell:Look at the statistics, okay. Every 15 years, we have a major Category 4 or 5 hit this region. So what are the odds? One of these days, we’re going to have a major catastrophy.


Speaker 2:Bob doesn’t think we should stop building because of the threat of Mighty Ike. He wants to start building something else. Some kind of flood gate or levy system to protect Houston. And he’s been arguing for one for years. But that type of thing might take decades to plan and build.


Sam Brody wants to change things before then. Otherwise, it might be too late.


Sam Brody:Bob has a terrific organization and serves a great purpose. And he’s well positioned here. And the rent is such that it makes sense. And it makes sense until some kind of disaster happens.


Speaker 2:More than 160,000 people live around Clear Lake. That number’s growing every year. And more people are moving in who’ve never seen a hurricane. In fact, many didn’t evacuate this area during Hurricane Ike, even when the National Weather Service said they might die if they stayed. If the storm had of turned at the last minute, a lot of people would have probably have died in Clear Lake and Galveston. Even Bob Mitchell agrees.


Bob Mitchell:I hate fear but I’m going to tell you something, there would have been thousands of deaths. Thousands. I can assure you of that.


Speaker 1:That’s a pretty dire prediction. But the damage to homes and even the loss of life, that’s just the beginning. When we come back, we’re going to follow the path of Mighty Ike to Houston’s industrial complex where there’s another risk sitting on the waterfront. Billions of gallons of oil and dangerous chemicals in huge tanks.


You’re listening to Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.


On today’s show, we’re talking about hurricanes and Houston. The area’s home to the nation’s largest oil refining and chemical manufacturing complex. And just as Harvey’s rains were subsiding, there were explosions at one of those plants. It was at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas. The storm knocked out power to the plant, so they couldn’t keep volatile chemicals cool and safe. Residents in the area were evacuated. Back in 2016, we looked at Houston’s energy infrastructure and how prepared officials are or aren’t for a massive hurricane cutting through Houston.


Our investigation was based on a computer model of a hypothetical hurricane we called Mighty Ike. It showed what would happen if Houston took a direct hit. Remember that Hurricane Harvey veered away from Houston at the last minute, so the city was spared the worst. If a hurricane like Mighty Ike were to hit, all those oil and chemical industries would be in trouble. And that could cripple the economy of the entire country. That may sound like an exaggeration but not if you know what the Houston Ship Channel means.


Speaker 6:We’re the largest port in the country in foreign trade.


Speaker 7:Major cities are anchored with ports.


Speaker 8:The Houston Ship Channel is a vital national asset. There’s no question about it.


Al Letson:This is a documentary celebrating the Houston Ship Channel’s 100th anniversary made back in 2014.


Speaker 9:A Houston harbor pilot will meet the ship at the mouth of Galveston Bay and guide it up the Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest and narrowest water ways in the world.


Al Letson:The Houston Ship Channel is a water highway. And it extends more than 20 miles inland, almost into downtown Houston. Thousands of ships come through here each year. And tens of thousands of people live and work on the Houston Ship Channel. Right in the path of a storm like Mighty Ike.


Neena Satija, of the Texas Tribune takes it from here.


Neena Satija:A lot of people who work in the oil industry don’t like to talk to reporters. And they definitely don’t like to talk about the risks facing the oil industry like climate change or hurricanes. Janet Peluche is different. When we contacted Shell union worker-


 Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 – 00:20:04]
 Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 – 00:30:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Neena Satija:-Jana [Paloush 00:20:01] is different. When we contacted Shell Union workers trying to find someone to talk to about storms like Mighty Ike, Jana was immediately interested. She’s worked at the Shell Oil Refinery on the Houston ship channel for more than a decade.


Jana Paloush:I was always kind of proud that I worked in the oil industry because I felt like I was following in my father’s foot steps. I mean they are good paying jobs.


Neena Satija:Jana’s got an interesting background. She started out working in refineries but then she got a Master’s degree and became a librarian. After a few years of that she got sick of wearing pantyhose and sitting at a desk.


Jana Paloush:Then I decided that I preferred industry so I came full circle and came back to this area and was hired at Shell in 2004.


Neena Satija:The Shell Refinery and Jana’s home are in Deer Park Texas. One of the towns clustered around the Houston ship channel. Parks of Shell are very close to the water so I showed her the hurricane model on my laptop.


So let’s see what happens. So this is what they did, so now we’re at 24 hours prior to landfall.


Jana Paloush:This puts it in front of your face and makes it less abstract, so this is something that people need to see. It’s not something that some reporters have dreamed up.


Neena Satija:Eight years ago Jana rode out hurricane Ike in her little one-story house in Deer Park, so she knows what storms can do to the area but she didn’t realize quite how bad things could get until she saw the model of Mighty Ike. She thinks her neighbors should see it too.


Jana Paloush:As a community it would be good if we could come together and have a discussion about this.


Neena Satija:There’s another thing that could put Jana and her neighbors at risk. If you look at the Houston ship channel on Google Earth, you see a lot of tiny white dots near the water. Here on the ground those dots are a bunch of storage tanks full of oil and chemicals. Jana drives me to a cluster of tanks near her neighborhood. She calls it a tank farm.


Jana Paloush:Okay, now, [Crimshaw 00:22:08] is coming up. The tank farm is on the other side of the freeway.


Neena Satija:There’s a fence so we can’t get too close, but even 20 feet back they look like huge white towers. I didn’t realize quite how big they actually are, I mean it’s just so giant, so secure.


Jana Paloush:Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Neena Satija:Some of the tanks are surrounded by a low concrete wall.


Jana Paloush:It’s small enough to step over. I can step over one of them.


Neena Satija:Researchers at Rice University and the University of Houston used satellite data to locate all of these storage tanks, and then they looked at what Mighty Ike would do to them. More than a thousand are in the area that gets hit by storm surge.


Jana Paloush:Okay, heres what I’ve heard, that the tanks … If there’s enough water they actually come up off their foundations and it’s conceivable to me that here’s this huge tank floating around and it can float and just knock the *beep* out of that little concrete area, concrete wall.


Neena Satija:That scenario, the tanks lifting up off their foundation, that’s what researchers are most worried about on the Houston ship channel. They say spills from even a few tanks could cause an environmental catastrophe. It also makes Jana think about the industry she’s worked in for so many years.


Jana Paloush:Well it makes me look at everything differently. Having to do with the petrol chemical industry in this area, yeah it definitely impacts how I see that.


Al Litson:Mighty Ike is making Jana wonder, what if? What if that type of storm hit her community? What if those storage tanks ruptured? But it’s not just a what if because that type of damage already happened during hurricane Katrina.


In 2005 Katrina not only hit homes and businesses along the Louisiana coast, it also barrelled into massive storage tanks containing oil. You can guess what happened next. Here’s Bob Marshall of the investigative news site The Lens with the story.


Joy Lewis:Heres some pictures. These are some of the pictures of St. Bernard. Well, you know.


John Lewis:Yeah, look at that.


Joy Lewis:You recognize that.


Bob Marshall:Joy and John Lewis keep a set of pictures at the ready in a Ziploc bag. Like most folks here they have told their Katrina stories a hundred times.


John Lewis:The infrastructure of the entire Parish was devastated. The infrastructure, by that I mean you didn’t have any clean water.


Joy Lewis:Yeah it was totally. We didn’t have a roach living there.


John Lewis:You didn’t have a service station. You didn’t have a pharmacy. You didn’t have a barbershop. You didn’t have a super market.


Joy Lewis:Not a bird. Not even a bird was in the air.


John Lewis:Not even a bird in the sky.


Bob Marshall:Only six homes out of 27,000 were livable after the flood in St. Bernard Parish. Along with the flood’s destruction came something else, an over powering stench.


John Lewis:It smelled like in the summer time when they just black top a road.


Bob Marshall:It came from a skim of oil that coated everything.


John Lewis:Black top, you know what that smells like. It’s a petrol chemical odor.


Bob Marshall:The Lewises lived on Marietta Street between two oil refineries, each with a field of those huge storage tanks. Katrina’s storm surge lifted one of those tanks off its base and a million gallons of oil spilled into the flood. When the water receded, the oil stayed.


Joy Lewis:This, you can look here and you see the oil on the ground.


Bob Marshall:Out comes that Ziploc, and a stack of photos from their first visit back.


John Lewis:So the ground here looks like it’s all cracked up like maybe broken porcelain or bricks, and that’s the oil on top of the mud.


Joy Lewis:Right.


Bob Marshall:Nearly 2,000 homes got an oil bath along with the flood. So everyone of these homeowners …


Joy Lewis:Hit oil.


Bob Marshall:Now, Joy and John are part of a wave of New Orleanians who moved out of the city in the 1960s for a middle class suburban life here in neighboring St. Bernard Parish. When they moved here they brought along their working class New Orleans accents, not southern really but closer to what you might hear in Brooklyn. In fact, people like the Lewises are locally known as Yats, from the way they greet each other “Where ya’ at?” Kind of a local version of How ya’ doin’?


Joy Lewis:Cause this is where my kids, I had four kids and they were all raised here.


Bob Marshall:The neighborhood seemed like one big family.


Joy Lewis:I knew everybody. I had a choir at the churches. We used to move around at St. Mark’s and [Promsocker 00:26:42] and Prince of Peace. We just had fun here.


Bob Marshall:They helped build Marietta Street from the get go. New houses, new families just starting out, everyone’s children playing together. Those two refineries, they weren’t considered eye-sores but points of pride. They were the economic engines that made this new prosperous life possible.


Joy Lewis:At the time it didn’t, we didn’t even think about it because we all worked and we’d come home at night and go to bed and the kids were playing outside.


Bob Marshall:The storm delivered an unimaginable blow and the oil spill on top of that …


Joy Lewis:I was angry. Yes definitely. I was so concerned about getting everything out of the house, ’cause I didn’t let anybody help us. We just did what we could and I took a lot of furniture out of here with oil and everything on it. We kind of brought it to the car wash and we washed it off and I saved a lot of my stuff.


Bob Marshall:Now at first the Lewises fought to save their home even though Joy’s doctors advised against it because she was in treatment for kidney cancer.


Joy Lewis:I was on chemo and I was on all this mess and they told me not to come here, but I did it anyway because this is my home. I mean you know I came here and I worked in the oil and all that. I worked in the mud and the dirt and everything that was here.


Bob Marshall:But eventually the Lewises realized they just couldn’t do it. They couldn’t rebuild in the same spot. They gutted the home and sold it.


John Lewis:We decided it was time to leave the Parish.


Bob Marshall:Now the oil spill was the final straw, but it came after decades of disillusionment with the refineries. Years before Katrina the Lewises became convinced that living near the refineries was making people in their neighborhood sick even though no link has been proven. The kidney cancer Joy suffered, it wasn’t just her. She points to a nearby home.


Joy Lewis:The lady across the street, right here at this corner, her daughter was 19 and developed leukemia. She died at 20. So I started feeling, you know, this is a strange deal.


Bob Marshall:She did her own informal cancer survey between her house and the closest major street, Judge Perez Drive.


Joy Lewis:I walked up and down, about how long, Johnny?


John Lewis:I guess that’s about four blocks.


Joy Lewis:I wanted to know who had cancer and out of these blocks, from here to Judge Perez, I got 17 people had died of cancer.


Bob Marshall:Cancer also claimed one of the Lewis’s daughters. Then it struck both of them as well as their grandson. After that tank spilled in Katrina, the company that oiled it, Murphy Oil, now Valero, offered homeowners a settlement combined with insurance money and federal disaster recovery funds it was enough to get them a new home somewhere else.


Joy Lewis:You know my daughter had passed away, I just didn’t want to bother with it anymore.


Bob Marshall:Given a chance to leave, to start over, they took it. Joy and John Lewis moved about 40 miles north to higher ground without refineries.


 Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 – 00:30:04]
 Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 – 00:40:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Speaker 1:… 50 miles north to higher ground, without refineries. They weren’t alone. On their stretch of Marietta Street, only one original resident remains. Jorie does come back to visit her daughter’s grave.


Jorie Lewis:She used to live right down the street.


Speaker 3:Right around the corner.


Jorie Lewis:She’s buried right here in the Chalmette Cemetery and I intend to take her ashes out of there-


Speaker 1:Why?


Jorie Lewis:… Because I don’t even want her here.


Speaker 3:Don’t want her remains here.


Jorie Lewis:I don’t want my dead daughters’ remains here.


Speaker 1:Taking a drive around the old neighborhood and then to see the tanks, the Lewis’ seem more sentimental than angry. Of all their concerns about living near an oil refinery, they never worried about a storage tank spill.


Should we take a quick little tour down here?


Jorie Lewis:Yes.


Speaker 1:And so, on the left-hand side, these tanks that look like … You know, these huge tanks that you see at refineries all over the country, and the world, I suppose … These things rise like white mountains on this flat landscape and they look just as immovable. They’re 30 feet tall, about 100 feet around. It looks like you could put a high school gym inside of each one. But, as Katrina’s 15 foot surge hit the parish, it floated buildings, buses, and cars off of the ground and it did the same for at least one of these tanks.


And this is one of the ones that was lifted off of its pad?


Speaker 3:That’s correct.


Jorie Lewis:That’s right.


Speaker 1:And the oil came out from under the pad-


Jorie Lewis:Mm-hmm (Affirmative)


Speaker 1:The Lewis’ didn’t see that coming.


Jorie Lewis:I never in my wildest dreams ever figured that would lift and the oil would come out from the bottom. You know? I mean … That didn’t even enter my mind.


Speaker 3:It was a one in a million shot that happened.


Jorie Lewis:Yeah.


Speaker 1:To be fair, no one else saw this coming either. St. Bernard Parish was supposedly protected from the Gulf by the Army Corp of Engineers’ 20 foot levees. But Katrina proved those were not properly built and had been poorly maintained. Instead of water just coming over the top, the levees collapsed.


John Rahaim:The original levee system, which was earth and dam, had approximately 20-25 breaches.


Speaker 1:That’s John Rahaim, he’s the Emergency Manager for the parish. Today, he’s standing on a soggy section of ground on the edge of the parish that rises, maybe 5 feet, above the nearby roadway. Yet when Katrina arrived, that was the hurricane protection. Now, this pile of earth has a towering concrete wall on top that seems to run off to the horizon.


John Rahaim:It runs, probably 20-25 miles and circles most of St. Bernard Parish. It varies in height from 20, 25, to 30 feet depending on what part of the wall you’re looking at.


Speaker 1:This wall is a crown jewel in the 14 billion dollar protection system built by the Corp after Katrina.


John Rahaim:Okay. The official name of this wall is the “Hurricane Storm and Damage Risk Reduction System”, which it took me a long time to get it correct, but at St. Bernard, we call it the “Great Wall of New Orleans”.


Speaker 1:He says the Great Wall protects from a tidal surge of more than 30 feet. And the refineries and their storage tanks are inside that wall. Plus, the refineries now are supposed to fill the tanks with fluid before a storm, weighing them down, so they won’t float away.


John Rahaim:So that should take care of any problems that we had during Katrina with the refineries and their tanks.


Speaker 1:But some refineries and tanks are not inside the Great Wall. One of those, just a few miles from here, spilled in Hurricane Isaac in 2012, sending toxic chemicals into neighborhoods. What does an Emergency Manager say to that? Well, Rahaim says, “Safe is a relative term anywhere on the gulf coast.”


John Rahaim:If you’re going to move into an area that is hurricane prone, you’ve got to know the risk you’re taking before you move in. Investigate where you’re going to move, see what’s happened in the past, what’s the history of oil spills, if you will, hurricanes, or any kind of other natural disasters. Don’t move in somewhere thinking it’s the Shangri-La, when it’s not.


Speaker 1:But ask Jorie Lewis about her Shangri-La, her decades of happy family life, she’ll say they were only happy because they didn’t understand the risks they faced. What would it take to convince her that her old home is safe?


Jorie Lewis:They could not convince me of that at all because I don’t trust them.


Speaker 1:Back on their own block, the Lewis’ point out details they remember. The carport they built, the fence they raised, the tree hanging over that fence.


Jorie Lewis:And I had a Lemon Tree. And the lemons were this big. Beautiful. I’m glad they didn’t cut that down. At least it’s something living there.


Speaker 1:They worry about those lemons though. Are they safe to eat after the oil? They worry about the people living on their old block. About anyone living near a refinery or storage tanks.


What if you knew someone who was thinking of moving next to a refinery in a nice subdivision in Texas, between a couple of refineries.


Jorie Lewis:I would tell them they’re wasting their time. I would tell them they can research all they want, the tanks will be there forever. They can’t get rid of them, but they can move. If there’s any way that they possibly could financially get out of the area, I would advise them to get out and take their children with them.


Speaker 5:That story was produced by Bob Marshall of the nonprofit news room, The Lens. And Eve Troeh, formerly of New Orleans Public Radio.


Like we heard earlier, there are huge storage tanks oil clustered around the Houston Ship Channel. Those tanks, just like everything else in the Houston area, were pounded by Harvey and her reporting about mega storms in Houston reveals Neena Satija, the Texas Tribune, looked into what the city has in place to protect itself from a massive oil or chemical spill.


Neena Satija:If you want to know who’s protecting people on the Houston Ship Channel, the guy to talk to is Bryant Smalley. He’s with the Oil Enforcement Group at the Environmental Protection Agency. Bryant told me that companies with oil tanks near the water do have to follow rules to prevent a spill.


Do these rules include anything specific about a hurricane or storm surge situation? Protecting against that?


Bryant Smalley:Um, so, that’s … Storms get more … So, the industry standards that we lean back on are typically like the API Standards, the American Petroleum Institute standards.


Neena Satija:So there aren’t any government standards to protect against storm surge. You do have to build walls around your tank, but they’re usually not high enough to withstand these huge storms. The walls around the Murphy Oil tank that spilled in St. Bernard Parish, they were eight feet tall. And these federal rules only cover oil tanks.


What about storage tanks that have other types of chemicals?


Bryant Smalley:So, right now, the SPC requirements only cover oils.


Neena Satija:So all of the large chemical plants on the Houston Ship Channel that have these giant storage tanks, they’re not required to have a spill prevention plan in place for those tanks?


Bryant Smalley:If they’re not storing oil, then no.


Neena Satija:The scientists we talked to, who study this, they’re not satisfied with these answers. They think the rules protecting storage tanks need to be a lot stronger. But no one I spoke with in government or industry agrees. They said, “It’d be too expensive to prepare for a rare, monster hurricane, like Katrina.”


Marshall Mott-Smith is an industry consultant and he used to run Florida’s storage tank safety program. He’s seen a lot of hurricanes.


Mr. Mott-Smith:If you get a direct hit, there’s just nothing you can do. You wait until it’s all over and then you go pick up the pieces and you rebuild your tank.


Neena Satija:We did hear that some companies go above and beyond the rules, so I asked almost two dozen facilities on the Houston Ship Channel, “How do you protect your tanks?” The only one that gave me any specifics was Chevron. Chevron told me the walls around their tanks in Galena Park, Texas are roughly eight feet high. That may not be enough to protect against a really big hurricane.


I spent months talking to businesses on the Houston Ship Channel about this. And, when it comes down to it, they pretty much told me just making these walls a little taller isn’t going to cut it. They want something truly big. It’s called the Coastal Spine.


The Coastal Spine is a kind of barrier system that’s been used in other parts of the world, like the Netherlands.


Bill Merrell:The Dutch wouldn’t have put up with this. Why do we put up with it?


Neena Satija:That’s Bill Merrell. He’s a scientist at Texas A&M University in Galveston. It was Bill who first suggested building a Coastal Spine in Texas. He was inspired by the Dutch.


Bill Merrell:They have defenses for this and we could too. We’re certainly a rich enough country to do this.


Neena Satija:Basically, Bill wants to build a two mile long, giant gate in the water off of the Texas coast. Most of the time it could be left open, but when a storm is brewing out in the Gulf of Mexico, you’d close it to prevent storm surge from coming in.


Speaker 10:And the price tag for building the Coastal Spine, it’s in the billions of dollars. Neena Satija is back on the line with us. Neena, the explosions at the chemical plant that was flooded by Harvey are a reminder of how important it is to protect Houston’s infrastructure. But besides these explosions at the chemical plant, how is the oil infrastructure holding up?


Neena Satija:We’ve heard some reports of damage to some-


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Al Letson:… structure holding up.


Neena Satija:We’ve heard some reports of damage to some oil refineries, so that’s certainly a concern. That means they probably can’t operate. In general, even if refineries aren’t physically damaged by the storm, people aren’t able to get to work. So even before, even a few days ago, some of them announced that they were closing because they knew that their operators would not get to work safely. This is going to have a huge impact I think on gas prices and potentially, depending on how long it lasts, prices of other goods as well.


Al Letson:Thanks, Neena. That was Reveal’s Neena Satija, who’s based at The Texas Tribune. It’ll take time to figure out the price tag for fixing the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey this past week, which raises the question, who will pay, and will politics get in the way of spending the money necessary to protect vulnerable cities like Houston and New Orleans in the future? That’s next on Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


Byard Duncan:Hey, listeners. Byard Duncan here.


Cristina Kim:And I’m Cristina Kim. We’re part of Reveal’s audience engagement team.


Byard Duncan:A couple of weeks ago, our newsroom produced an episode on the deadly attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia. At the center of that episode, President Trump’s combative response to white supremacist violence.


Donald Trump:I think there’s blame on both sides. You look at both sides, I think there’s blame on both sides.


Cristina Kim:The speech created a massive fallout. Trump’s business council dissolved, and members of his own party, including Paul Ryan, criticized him.


Byard Duncan:It got us thinking, what are the right words after an attack like this? So we asked you, our audience, for your perspective.


Cristina Kim:We received messages from across the United States that reflected a wide variety of viewpoints. Some of you sympathized with Trump, like [Caroline 00:41:56] from Indiana.


Caroline:I think that Trump’s take on the riots was accurate. It’s not okay to fight violence with violence. Any violent act should be considered equal, regardless if it’s racially charged, racially motivated or if the violent person thinks that they’re doing the right thing to defeat fascists. I think everybody kind of just needs to lay off of them.


Byard Duncan:Some of you were appalled by the rise of racism. Here’s [Sarah 00:42:25] from Ohio.


Sarah:It’s extremely disappointing and frankly very terrifying that this is where we’re at in this country. I think Donald Trump won his seat as president by catering to people who believe in white nationalism and who are generally racist, and I feel like they have been empowered by his election and feel like now is their time. It’s just … it’s not. It’s terrible.


Cristina Kim:We also heard from people who shared a new commitment to opposing white nationalists, like [Mona 00:43:01] from Iowa.


Mona:I want to show up, and I won’t hide my face. I wish I knew where to show up because I would be there. I’d drive across the country to be there.


Byard Duncan:Since Charlottesville, more rallies and protests have taken place across the country, with more scheduled in the fall. We’re looking into who’s participating in these protests, and we want to hear from you again.


Cristina Kim:We want to know if you’re more or less likely to attend a political demonstration these days. If so, what kind of action will you take?


Byard Duncan:Call 510-851-8327 and leave us a voicemail. Again, that number is 510-851-8327. Thanks.


Al Letson:From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today, we’re looking at Houston and why that city is so vulnerable to storms like Harvey. We’re doing it with help from Reveal’s Neena Satija who’s based at the Texas Tribune. So Neena, how will Houston get back on track after Harvey?


Neena Satija:It’s going to take years for Houston to get back on track from this. I think people are going to have to start really thinking about whether they want to live in a floodplain in Houston, whether they want to live near these massive reservoirs that have seen just an enormous amount of flooding in the last few days. Houston is going to have to get back on track like any city does after a major disaster, which is just, you know, day by day.


Al Letson:This is going to cost a lot of money. What are the chances of that coming from Washington? Will federal money be a part of this?


Neena Satija:I think federal money is going to have to be a part of this. I spoke with Senator Ted Cruz this weekend at an emergency shelter. He said he imagined that federal money would be a part of the solution. How much? That’s up to Congress and up to what people ask for. Even Senator Cruz thinks this could be one of the most expensive natural disasters in American history. It could even rival something like Katrina, he told me.


Al Letson:You talked to Senator Cruz, but Senator Cruz actually voted against the Sandy hurricane relief bill when it was in the Senate. What’s his take on that now?


Neena Satija:I think a lot of people are asking that question. When I talked to Senator Cruz, he expected federal dollars to be involved. We’ll see if he is leading his delegation and asking for that money and how much money he’ll be asking for. Members of Congress who are Democrats in the Texas delegation have pointed that out. So it’ll be interesting to see what he does next.


Al Letson:Do you think this hurricane is going to convince lawmakers that climate change is real?


Neena Satija:I don’t know. We’ll have to ask them in the aftermath of the storm. Scientists certainly say that this is one of the effects of climate change for sure. They say Houston is going to be experiencing more frequent and more intense rainfalls like most other cities are. I think this is absolutely an example of that. We’ll see whether members of Congress and then other politicians agree.


Al Letson:Do you think this will move the needle in terms of how government prepares itself for these type of weather events?


Neena Satija:It’s really hard to say. We have these natural disasters it feels like more and more often. We still hear from public officials that these are rare events and that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to try and be prepared for something of this magnitude because it doesn’t come along that often. The question is with climate change, perhaps it will come along more often. What we’ve been told and this has been true after Hurricane Katrina, after Hurricane Sandy, after Hurricane Ike, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of political or public appetite for spending the amount of money that you would need to protect against these types of so-called rare events. Perhaps if we have enough of them, unfortunately, that may change.


Al Letson:That’s Reveal’s Neena Satija based out of The Texas Tribune, reporting from Houston. Thanks, Neena.


Neena Satija:Thanks.


Al Letson:Neena and scientists who study weather patterns have been sounding the alarm about storms in south Texas for years. It makes you wonder what it’s like to see a disaster on the rise, to scream at the top of your lungs trying to convince people that something really bad is about to happen, so bad people just don’t even want to see it coming. Reporter Mark Schleifstein knows that feeling. Back in 2002, he cowrote a series of stories that made some dire predictions.


Mark:Thousands will drown while trapped in homes or cars by rising water. Others will be washed away or crushed by debris. Survivors will end up trapped on roofs in buildings or on high ground surrounded by water with no means of escape and little food or fresh water, perhaps for several days.


Al Letson:He wasn’t talking about Houston. He was talking about New Orleans, three years before Hurricane Katrina. Back then, it all seemed impossible. When Mark pitched the story, not all of his editors were convinced.


Mark:At that original meeting, one of our editors actually leaned back in his chair and said, “Well you know, this is just more Schleifstein’s disaster porn.” I said, “Well, you know, like real pornography, it’s in the eye of the beholder. There are 100,000 people within the city of New Orleans who don’t have cars who might want to know that there really are no plans to get them out of the city,” which there weren’t at that time.


Al Letson:When Hurricane Katrina hit the city in August of 2005, the predictions Mark wrote about in the Times-Picayune started coming true on TV.


Speaker 10:By boat and by helicopter, rescue teams worked today to get people still trapped in their attics or on their rooftops to safety. Hundreds of people have been stranded this way. Dead bodies float by as crews look for the survivors.


Mark:Amid this maelstrom, the estimated 200,000 or more people left behind in an evacuation will be struggling to survive.


Speaker 11:We got children out here. There are pregnant women out here. They won’t even bring water. They won’t bring …


Mark:Whoever remained in the city would be at grave risk. Tens of thousands more would be stranded on rooftops and the high ground awaiting rescue that could take days or longer.


Speaker 12:These people are very desperate. I saw two gentlemen die in front of me because of dehydration. I saw a baby near death.


Mark:Hundreds of thousands would be left homeless, and it would take months to dry out the area and begin to make it livable. But there wouldn’t be much for residents to come home to. The local economy would be in ruins.


Speaker 13:The city is essentially cut off. One runway opened at the airport, but highways and roads remain impassable. Supplies are running short. So are tempers. The scope of the disaster, murky yesterday, is much clearer tonight.


Speaker 14:Twin spans are down. The bridges are down. There’s no electricity. Phone lines are down. Cellular phone lines are down. There’s no way of us getting into contact with any of our families, friends, anybody that’s left behind. Out of those casualties, we don’t know who’s hurt, if they’re related to us or what. We just can’t … We’re going to be here, whether we like it or not because we can’t take any road home. There’s trees. The causeway is no more. It’s gone.


Al Letson:After Katrina, Mark was treated like a diviner.


Mark:It makes me look like Nostradamus.


Al Letson:But the real scary thing is that Hurricane Katrina’s wrath wasn’t the worst the Gulf could dish out to New Orleans. Most of the flooding didn’t happen because the water went over the levees. It was because the levees breached. Huge gaps opened in the system of flood walls that was supposed to protect the Big Easy. The storm didn’t even make a direct hit on the city.


Mark:If Katrina had made a direct hit on the city of New Orleans and we had been in the eastern half of the storm, the storm surge would have been 28 to 32 feet above sea level. That would have overtopped every single levee in the city. The entire city would be completely under water by 20 feet. That my predictions were about the big one, and Katrina wasn’t the big one. Katrina was a storm that should not have caused the flooding that occurred.


Al Letson:That’s reporter Mark Schleifstein from the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. Neena Satija was our lead producer on today’s show. She had a lot of help from her colleagues at The Texas Tribune. Kiah Collier reported the stories with Neena with editing from Ayan Mittra and Corrie MacLaggan. We also wanted to thank ProPublica for their work creating the interactive maps of the storm models, which we wouldn’t have had without the use of the supercomputer at the Army Corps of Engineers Research and Development Center. Finally, Texas A&M University and Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disaster Center. Updates for today’s show were produced by Michael Schiller and edited by Taki Telonidis.


Before we roll into the credits today, Reveal would like to give a sad goodbye to two of our colleagues that are moving on to new opportunities. My man, [Ike Sreesh Kandarajah 00:52:41] has moved onto the New York Times. We wish him nothing but success. And one of the Wonder Twins is leaving us, Miss Claire Mullen. We are going to miss both of you from the bottom of our hearts. And for the last time, our sound design team is the Wonder Twins: my man, Jay Breezey and Claire “C Note” Mullen. Our managing editor is Amy Pyle. Christa Scharfenberg is our head of studio. Our executive editor is Susanne Reber. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado/Lightning.


Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.


Reveal is a coproduction of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.


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