The Hurricane in My Backyard

An environmental philosopher reflects on his experience enduring Hurricane Harvey, and what it teaches cities and their citizens about living with global warming.

Houston residents wade through floodwaters and heavy rain.
Jonathan Bachman / Reuters

It was Friday, August 25, 2017, the day Hurricane Harvey began to hit the Gulf Coast. Somewhere in the middle of Houston, I was panic-buying lunch at a Whataburger, the Texas-based hamburger chain, for my two children, Simon (then 8) and Claire (13). It was like being about to get on a plane: a strange moment of misrule, like the days after Christmas, where you allow yourself to do childish, comforting things. It was a sign of things to come in the Morton household.

A few days later, I looked out of the window and saw the street still underwater, the rivers four feet deep at either end, another kind of world turned upside down. I was bored, scared, and slightly ashamed of myself—too curious for the cabin fever, but too cautious to venture much farther than the rivers adjoining our street.

I live in the Montrose area of Houston, right smack in the middle, and we had been told not to evacuate so as not to clog up the roads. I was waiting for the moment when I would try to get up on the roof and flag down the helicopter, using the little hacksaw and claw hammer I figured were the two tools most suited to that task. When it comes to how I handled Harvey, the best headline would have to be: “Eco-Philosopher Fails Hurricane Test, Crawls Under Rock.”

But as I acclimated to the hurricane, it taught me something important about how people need to live with global warming. In addition to changing the way cities are planned, built, and managed, people need to learn to tolerate, and even embrace, the accidental situations they find themselves in as global warming’s effects become perpetual.

In the hurricane, a visceral feeing lets loose, the feeling that you are never really living in a humans-only world. You’re on hurricane time. And the big problem with hurricane time is that it unleashes hurricane you. In my case, hurricane Tim (pun intended) was a jerk, which embarrassed me a lot. I got cross with friends for not checking in, until I realized: This is a whole world inside here, and unless you’ve been in one, you can’t really know.

To a hammer everything looks like a nail. To a tick everything looks like it could be a juicy leg. To a hurricane everything looks like ... what? We need to know the answer to that one, because we are going to be in them quite a lot more.

Ecological thinking involves being aware that things are happening on all kinds of space and timescales at once. What looks great this week, like storing bread in a cupboard, looks terrible when you keep doing it for 12,500 years. Like for Dory in Finding Nemo, survival mode is assumed—“just keep swimming.” The trouble is, survive can come into very sharp conflict with live or thrive. No one at the start of the Neolithic period wanted to cause catastrophic global warming in the early 21st century—and neither do we who live in it today. But the extremely hierarchical and rigid societies that the actions of settling down, forming cities, storing grain, and spreading population created eventually resulted in just that outcome.

Some of these scales are so big, in time and space terms, that all we can do, even with powerful helpers like computers, is report, observe, and endure. These actions hardly seem like actions at all: Often, they look suspiciously passive—and therefore disquieting. We should be in charge! In moments like this, people forget that trying to be in charge, to be “on top of” everything (a telling metaphor) might have been part of what got us into this global-warming thing in the first place.

The trouble is, human civilization has inherited ideas about being active and passive, especially from theistic medieval philosophy. Passivity involves susceptibility, which risks sin and thus leans toward “evil.” Activity, meanwhile, is associated with divine creation, immortality, and closeness to God, and is therefore “good.” That’s a pretty strong contrast. But things might not be like that. If you’ve ever been in a band, you’ll know that doing something (in that case, playing the guitar or whatever) is made up of both playing and listening: being receptive or appreciative. “Active” and “passive” are blunt instruments for understanding what the climate is doing to humans, and what we can do in response.

One of the great things about old vinyl records is that it’s such a drag to get up and move the needle to the track you like. You end up listening to all kinds of stuff you can’t easily skip over. That’s how things grow on you—and that’s a great image for what happens with the big, bad ecological phenomena we are starting to experience: Was that weird temperature shift caused by global warming? What about that storm?

That’s what it was like in the hurricane. There it was, floating above our heads like the biggest, baddest LP ever—hurricanes are spirals too. On the third day there were five tornado warnings within an hour. From the safe little room in the middle of my old house, the tornadoes sounded like creamy-smooth, deep-white noise underneath the constant mid-range hissing of the rain. There was no way to skip the track. I’m here to report that, strangely, it did grow on us.

Global-warming-scale events—hurricane time for example—are like those un-skippable tracks. Right now we pretty much just have to endure them. “Endure” here doesn’t clash with novel responses of geoengineering, like filling the ocean with some kind of algae or putting gigantic mirrors in space. It has to do with attending to things, getting the shape of them. That’s very different from the big-scale solutions that geoengineers are considering. Endurance is part of science—you have to wait and wait while the data piles up. And it’s also part of life—even hanging a picture means you have to feel out the texture of the wall.

You can never get ecological planning just right. And if you try to get it totally right—if you try to get rid of all the anomalies entirely—well, that’s what gave us civilization in the first place, all the post-Neolithic social structures that eventually required fossil fuels to keep going. Think about washing your hands with antibacterial soap. It’s going to work in the short term—but you’re forcing the bacteria to evolve into more efficient upgrades that will hurt you more.

You can’t build the ecological city, but you can build an ecological one. There are all kinds of scales and I guarantee you that at some scale or another, those great technocratic solutions to ecological problems getting hardwired into cities will fail. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. In a way it means exactly the opposite. It means you shouldn’t stand around waiting for a machine that can reverse entropy and restore the climate to a prior state.

When you start thinking ecologically, you realize that you can’t produce a one-size fits all solution to anything. During Harvey, some fared better than others. Not surprisingly, rich people got the better end of the bargain, even though some affluent areas were badly hit. On August 28, the Army Corps of Engineers opened the Addicks and Barker dams, which prevented a lot of flooding, but also profoundly affected people living in wealthier areas.

Houstonians coped with hurricane time in surprising and hopeful ways. Two small examples clarify that hope: one from outside, one from within.

First, the Cajun Navy. It’s a voluntary flotilla of people with boats, beer, and music, who sailed around the city saving people’s lives. Volunteers formed the Cajun Navy during the disastrous government response to Hurricane Katrina. In many ways, New Orleans is the twin of Houston; perhaps it’s better to say it’s the cool, Goth younger sister of Houston, a sympathetic if slightly uncool older brother. After all, we share the same swamp (the gigantic Mississippi Delta), a fact that will only become more obvious as global warming takes hold. So it’s not surprising that Louisianans jumped in their boats to save Houstonians, who had provided lots of help during Katrina. Improvisation and mutual aid are where it’s at during changes that affect your entire city—your entire region, in fact. It’s worth remembering that Harvey’s impact zone was as wide as Western Europe and that the hurricane itself sat above Houston like a gigantic, invading UFO for several days. Hurricanes don’t understand state boundaries.

Then there’s what happened on Wednesday, August 30. Wednesday was four or five days in. A few days later, a headline in the Houston Chronicle offered a “Hurricane Harvey Timeline for Those Who Don’t Know What Day It Is.” At that point, pretty much everyone seemed not to care that at some point humans had decided to measure time a certain way, a way involving weeks and days, for example. We so often confuse time with the measurement of time, the fingers of metal going around a metal disc or the numbers on the lock screen of a phone. But metal fingers and numbers on lock screens don’t mean anything to a hurricane. So deeply ingrained is our confusion about time that any displacement of it can feel weird, and a big one can feel downright trippy.

That’s the point. We were finally on hurricane time, and it was like realizing that you’ve all been on the same dodgy drugs at a festival—for a couple of magical evenings, it seemed like everyone’s first thought about the other person at the pub wasn’t I think I know how you voted and now I’m not sure whether to talk to you at all. It was, Cool, you’re here—how can I be of assistance? It’s already a bit like that in Houston anyway. But hurricane time made it really like that. If that’s what to expect out of global warming—realizing that we are humankind and that one of our skills is having solidarity with one another—then I’m all for it.