PORT ARTHUR, Texas — Jefferson County, Texas, was drowned by more than 60 inches of rain during Hurricane Harvey, which left wide swaths of the county in ruins. Last November, Jefferson flipped from voting Democratic in presidential elections to instead back Donald Trump, who has dismissed the concept of climate change as a hoax and has worked to undo regulations meant to mitigate its damage.
Scientists say climate change doesn’t cause hurricanes but that warming and rising seas supercharge those already forming. Some who lost everything in Harvey’s floodwaters say they’re starting to take the threat of climate change more seriously now, and they want Trump to show more leadership on the issue. But this is a place that depends on the petroleum industry, and others applaud Trump’s efforts to reverse environmental policies that they see as harmful.
Here are some of the voices from the rebuilding in Texas.
“IT’S A WAKE-UP CALL”
Greg Gunner slumped down on his front stoop and dropped his head in his hands, feeling for the first time since the flood claimed his home that the weight of his troubles might overwhelm him.
Day after day, he had tried to keep smiling as he pulled up the carpets and tore out the baseboards. Inside the damp house, his 99-year-old grandmother, stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, lay in bed in a white nightgown and his 74-year-old mother’s joints ached from rheumatoid arthritis.
He had carried them out of the house in Port Arthur as the floodwaters rose, telling his grandmother they were going fishing to try to keep her calm. He cracked a front tooth as he hoisted her into a rescue boat. A week later, they returned to their home of 50 years to find the floors buckling and the carpet moulding.
Despite his missing tooth, Gunner kept a smile on his face hoping it might save his loved ones from worry. But on this day, he learned that the insurance would cover nothing. And because the normal world kept going despite the devastation here, his favourite aunt had died from cancer. He didn’t even own a pair of shoes to wear to her funeral because the flood swept them all away.
Money was tight for them even in the best of times. They always had enough for food and medicine and to pay the electric bill, but there was never much left after that.
So he sat down on the stoop, lit a cigarette and let it start to sink in. “I can’t collapse,” he told himself.
Gunner, a Democrat, believes the storm that wrecked his town is a preview of what global warming will bring if the nation’s leaders don’t find common ground to address it. There have always been storms, he said, but nothing like this.
“The intensity of the destruction taking place these days, there’s something going on. I think it’s a wake-up call to say: What’s really important?” he said, but the country’s political divides have left him with little faith in the government’s ability to do anything about it. “Are you going to work together, or are you going to pull each other apart?”
“I think the Lord is speaking to us all, telling us to straighten up,” said his mother, Gloria. “There’s a whole lot of straightening up that needs to be done.”
“WE’RE JUST IN A BAD WEATHER CYCLE”
The UPS truck pulled up next to the mountain of ruined furniture, appliances, family photos and more piled on the curb outside Wilton Johnson’s gutted house. Johnson stared, dumbstruck.
“UPS is running?” he said, mouth agape, as the driver hopped out, handed him a package and offered his condolences for this drowned neighbourhood in Beaumont. Johnson’s surprise turned to delight. “All right!” he said. “Things are moving along. Now I know … somebody can send me something. That’s a positive.”
Johnson believes the climate is changing but blames natural weather cycles, not carbon emissions, and he doesn’t believe global warming had anything to do with this storm that ruined his home and upended his and his neighbours’ lives. His father has been sleeping in a recliner under a tree in the yard, holding his pistol to fend off looters.
“It’s just crazy water did this,” Johnson said, still stunned weeks later that this flood had taken everything from them. “When I walked in … all the stuff was tossed around like it had been in a jar that was shaken, like a snow globe or something. Everything was thrown around and broken.”
Johnson and his father, Cliff, both support Trump. And though they wish he would spend less time tweeting and talking about himself, they applaud his moves to roll back environmental regulations and pull out of the Paris climate agreement, a global initiative of 195 nations to reduce carbon emissions. They believe the United States is required to pick up an unfair portion of the tab, which they worry will hurt American industry and workers.
“Yes, we do have a responsibility,” Johnson said. “What’s feasible though? Is it feasible to keep Texas out of work just so we can appease people who believe that we’re not environmentally friendly?”
He doesn’t believe humans have been on the Earth long enough to alter it enough to make bad storms worse.
“You talk to any old-timers, anybody who’s ever looked at Poor Richard’s Almanack,” he said. “You go through weather cycles. We’re just in a bad weather cycle right now.”
“THE WATER DIDN’T STOP COMING”
Angela Lopez wakes up on an air mattress every morning in a bedroom she shares with eight people and a Chihuahua, and for a few precious seconds before she opens her eyes, she forgets that her life is no longer normal.
“Every day … I have to reprocess where I am in life right now,” she said. She owns pretty much nothing. Her house is stripped down to the studs. She feels a surreal sense of guilt for abandoning it as the floodwaters started pouring in, like she might somehow have held them back if only she’d stayed behind.
She thinks America’s inaction on climate change brought her to this point. A Beaumont native, Lopez believes the consensus of climate scientists that global warming supercharged Hurricane Harvey to the point of dumping more than 5 feet of rain on her county.
“I feel like everything we’ve been doing and not doing is escalating that process in a really, really big and wrong way,” she said.
As the water rose and her family fled, Lopez could barely grab a pair of shoes because they were already floating away. She and her husband scrambled to get their children, her parents, her 90-year-old grandmother and their pets into the car before it washed away, but one cat ran off.
“Water was coming from everywhere,” she remembers. “Even when it wasn’t raining, the water didn’t stop coming up.”
Most of her relatives are conservatives and dismiss the threat of climate change. Her husband works in a petroleum refinery, so she understands concerns about potential economic costs of addressing the issue. But “to come up with real solutions, you have to be honest with yourselves about what causes something to happen. It’s not just because some storm came, it was bad and unprecedented. It was unprecedented for a reason.”
The flood smashed their windows, carried the washing machine into the garage, and tossed the freezer into the living room. The rancid water smelled like sewage and garbage. Lopez, worried about disease, stopped trying to save anything and threw it all away.
There was only one bright spot: They found the cat that had run away, curled up on a damp bed, wet and terrified — but safe.
“WHATEVER IT TAKES TO BRING INDUSTRY BACK”
When Joyce Ewing was growing up in a factory town in Michigan, she remembers that snow would turn black from the soot just as soon as it hit the ground. But times have changed, she thinks. Manufacturing is cleaner now that it’s more regulated — too regulated, in her estimation.
Ewing does not believe that human beings have contributed to climate change. She believes the melting ice caps and rising seas are all part of a natural process that will right itself.
“To me, that’s kind of haughty for people to think that they can control the Earth,” she said.
Ewing’s home in Port Neches survived Harvey unscathed, though she has friends and relatives who lost everything. She remains unshaken in her belief that emissions do no lasting damage to the Earth despite the consensus among climate scientists that global warming is real and caused by man. She said she trusts America’s manufacturers to regulate for themselves what they put into the air, and she believes the government’s attempts to control carbon emissions have caused some to move their factories overseas, where they pollute just as much.
“What’s the difference of a little bit of emissions coming up out of here or a little bit of emissions coming up out of Mexico?” she said.
Ewing, a widow, moved to Jefferson County 10 years ago and doesn’t like the industrial landscape of the community. The refineries, she said, are so massive “it looks like a little New York at night.” But in that lack of beauty she sees jobs that keep the American dream afloat, so she’s made peace with living in the refineries’ shadow.
Ewing is part of Trump’s base, an ardent supporter, and she said the only thing he could do that would disappoint her would be to resign. She feels that nothing — especially environmental regulations — should be allowed to get in the way of his pledge to bring back American manufacturing jobs.
“I strongly feel that whatever it takes to bring industry back should be done,” she said.
“I WONDER WHAT WE’RE DOING TO THIS PLANET?”
Joe Evans watched from his window as the rain stretched into its second day and the flood started lapping up into his yard, and he wondered if it would ever end.
In that moment, the Beaumont Republican was overcome with an unexpected sense of guilt: “What have we been doing to the planet for all of these years?”
Evans once ran unsuccessfully for local office as a Republican. He ignored climate change, as he thought Republicans were supposed to do. As an African-American in the GOP, he said, he felt like he needed to “out-Republican the Republicans.”
“I wasn’t going to go near it,” he said of environmental issues. “In the short-term, it didn’t have any effect on me, at least I thought it didn’t, so why would I even go down that rabbit hole?”
Evans voted for Trump, though reluctantly. He assured himself that Congress would keep Trump from doing too much damage.
“What has he really done up to this point? Nothing,” Evans said. But he does think the president could make a difference if he acknowledged climate change as a reality and tried to rally Republicans to find a way to apply conservative principles to simultaneously saving the Earth and the economy.
“He’s able to move people in a direction that most leaders can’t,” he said. “So if he wanted to take up the issue and say, ‘There’s something to this, guys,’ the people will probably listen.”
Evans’ home didn’t flood in the storm, and for that he is grateful. He’s been struggling to keep things going already. His wife of 15 years died of a rare liver disease in July, and he’s been raising their three girls as a single father since. They’d wanted a fresh start, so they moved into a new home just weeks before Harvey hit. Their old house flooded.
Once the storm passed, Evans, the chairman of the local board of Habitat for Humanity, drove to survey the damage. For block after block, he saw people tossing all they had in the world out on the curb, mouldy and slick, and he wept.
“Those people probably don’t want to hear about climate change, but I guarantee in the back of their mind they think about it,” he said. “Because I thought about it. I said, ‘I wonder what we’re doing to this planet to make it spiral out of control?”’