After my parents divorced (again), my mom moved my sister and me to the company town on the Texas Gulf Coast where her parents had retired. We lived about ten miles from the beach, although I don’t think we went to Surfside more than a handful of times when I was in high school because I thought the beach — with its still brown water and dead-jellyfish-covered sand — was nasty.
If you’ve never been to the Texas Gulf Coast, you may not know that it isn’t just known for its beaches: it’s known for being the beating industrial heart of Texas. In between my house and the sea were two chemical plants and a liquefied petroleum gas terminal. Twenty miles down the road was the oil field and refinery where three generations of men in my family have worked. And this was just on one small segment of the coast; plants and refineries follow the coastline east all the way to Louisiana and west at least to Point Comfort, where Formosa has an enormous plant.
It was obvious twenty years ago when I lived in Lake Jackson that beach erosion was problem. Every time we’d get a tropical storm or hurricane, someone’s house on the beach would be gone and the sand that had been beneath it would be gone, too. Over time, the problem has only gotten worse, to the point that in 2009 people’s homes were suddenly on public beach and the state government started telling people they had to move.
And then came Harvey.
My grandparents in their house in that company town ten miles from the coast did just fine, although the rivers and creeks all around them flooded.
Forty miles to the west, the ranch where my aunt and uncle live was inundated. They’ve seen floodwaters before, but this time the water very nearly came into their house. The only way on and off their property was by boat or tractor.
Eighty miles to the north, on the other side of Houston, my aunt and uncle’s house flooded for the second time in two years.
All of this went through my head as I read The Water Will Come, by Jeff Goodell. What Goodell writes about in his book — climate change is real, the seas are going to rise to some degree, and we have to figure out what to do about the millions upon millions of people living along our coastlines — isn’t news to me. I don’t think it’s news to most of us, or at least those of us who’ve lived along the coast.
But knowing that the water is coming and actually doing something about it are two different things, because the rising water is — for the most part — a medium- to long-term problem. Human beings aren’t good with those. Goodell’s message is that governments, organizations, and individuals have to start thinking about this problem now. How do we buy time so that people who live along the coasts can either figure out how to live with the water or get away from it? How do we handle the environmental impact of all our toxic crap (that’s figurative and literal crap, by the way) getting washed into the sea? How do we stop ourselves from spending money on boondoggles that we hope will protect us from the water but that, in the end, probably won’t?
I think the movie “28 Days Later” put it best: the end is extremely fucking nigh. And the end of anything — especially the shorelines that mean something to so many of us — is both sad and scary. But Goodell’s point is that we still have time to take the terror out of rising seas. It will cost money, and it will be difficult and different, but it can be done.
The question is, will we do it?