Sarah DeVries
Hurricane Grace damaged hundreds of homes in Xalapa. Hurricane Grace damaged hundreds of homes in Xalapa.

Natural disasters are getting worse, but we aren’t defenseless

Weather is getting more extreme, but the right infrastructure could minimize the damage

Last Friday, the sky was eerily still. The wind wasn’t blowing, and the rain wasn’t yet falling. But we knew a hurricane was coming, so we got ready.

I went to my local tiendita to get enough food for the next couple of days, as well as candles. I felt fairly certain that the electricity going out was a good possibility.

I went up onto the roof and stuck some Play-Doh around the edge of the sunroof above the stairs (it’s been officially “repaired” upwards of six times, but water still comes through every time it rains hard).

I made sure the back patio drain was fully open, having learned my lesson last summer when leaves got stuck over it and my kitchen flooded.

We were ready!

The rain started falling hard in the early morning, and I only slept on and off because of the noise. I’d get up once in a while to watch the sheets of rain and wind passing in front of my bedroom window.

My daughter, mercifully, slept through it completely, finally having gotten over her years-long fear of the rain in general and the idea of any vast accumulated quantity of water specifically. She used to start crying every time it rained, which is a lot in this city that receives an average of 1,500 millimeters of rainfall a year.

I used to assure her that she had nothing to worry about: “We live in the mountains; it doesn’t flood here because all the water goes down and we’re up! Don’t worry.”

Well, I’ve been wrong before, and I was wrong this time too. A look at the news later that morning showed parts of the city that I frequent completely underwater.

One of the mall’s underground parking garages was filled literally to the brim. A road that I frequently travel down had water on it that went up to the roofs of cars.

Many of Xalapa’s neighborhoods — and many of the state’s cities, I later learned — had seen the complete destruction of homes and businesses. Coffins floated down the road, and six members of one man’s family died in a mudslide when their home was overtaken. (He survived because he’d just left for work.)

As weather becomes more extreme all over the globe, humanity is collectively faced with the task of somehow surviving it all — fires, heat waves, hurricanes, tornados. Nature simply does not care whether you believe in the fierceness of climate change (and pandemics, for that matter) or not. It’s just doing what it does.

We humans have never had any guarantee of survival, of course, and even less of peace and happiness. What we do have are ways to both brace and cope, and these are strategies it would behoove us to put some extra energy into if we’re going to live both collectively and individually through all these one-two punches.

Extreme weather happened, happens and will continue to happen, likely in increasingly dramatic ways as the year, decades and centuries roll on.

The main reason for the flooding in Xalapa was, of course, a lot of rain — 133 millimeters to be exact.

These storms will get more intense and destructive as time goes on, and chances are my daughter’s generation and those that come after will remember these incidences now as mild in comparison to what else they’ll see.

Another larger reason is urbanization in general — especially when it’s not planned with our changing planet in mind.

In my city, as in many others, it’s fairly common for buildings and homes to pop up before the infrastructure to accommodate them (like sufficient drainage systems) and without actual building permits. In some of those places, the appropriate official infrastructure never does show up. More often than not, makeshift versions appear out of necessity, created by marginalized people who have no place else to go.

On the outskirts of the city, forests are slashed to make room for more farmland or more housing. Vegetation that’s no longer there can no longer ease the impact of heavy wind and rain on the ground, and all that force against the exposed earth causes erosion.

Where the earth isn’t exposed because it’s been covered up with concrete, on the other hand, water can’t get through and has to go somewhere else, which is often into the places we live and work — which brings us to our problem of facing simultaneous flooding and water shortages.

It’s typically been mostly poor people who face the most severe effects of extreme weather. That still stands true, but in Xalapa, at least, some of the nicer areas of town were also affected. Also, in the northern part of the state, there were blackouts and tumbled service towers. Here, there and everywhere was affected this time. Perhaps the more democratic distribution of misery will sway the powers that be?

The weather is not something we can control. Infrastructure and how we build is.

There are many things we could do: burying the vulnerable jumbles of wires we have everywhere is one. Another is making sure that neighborhoods get the infrastructure that they need either before they’re built or, in the case of existing ones, at least from this point on. Another is building sufficient, sturdy housing for those in need (with their input regarding what they need, of course). There’s also ensuring that there are enough protected natural areas to do what they’re meant to do, and helping as many buildings and houses as possible to capture and make use of rain when it falls to lessen our dependency on a strained water delivery system.

Extreme weather is fierce, but we’re not totally defenseless. And it’s going to keep getting more extreme, whether we’re willing to admit it has anything to do with human behavior or not. Natural disasters are indifferent gods.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sdevrieswritingandtranslating.com and her Patreon page.

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