Houston’s Blinking Red Light

The Second Half of 2020

The blinking red light

The alarm is sounding. We usually hear its screeching high pitched sound and it captures our attention. The blinking red light puts us on high alert. But that’s not the case right now. The alarm is now just a constant humming sound in the background. The warning is void of the alarm.

We are only months into a global pandemic and many of us are now accustomed to the alarm. Some of us are resigned to the chaos wreaked by the virus. We’re numb. We can’t imagine that things could actually get worse. Unfortunately, they can and most likely will.

The Great Plague of London and the Great Fire of London

Rewind 355 years; first a plague then a fire.

In the span of 1665 to 1666, the city of London confronted two debilitating disasters of consequential proportion. The first killed approximately one in four of the city’s inhabitants and the second left more than 100,000 homeless. London was granted no mercy and the conventional thinking that the fire ended the plague is only myth with little substance based in fact.

You know more about the Great Plague than you might imagine. It came from nowhere. The wealthy fled the city, businesses shuttered, it went through the community in waves, and the poor took whatever jobs they could regardless of risk to put food on the table. Evidence suggests that the plague claimed victims as late as 1679, but the death toll began to subside within about the first year. The return of King Charles II to London in early 1666 signaled a return to what was perceived as relative safety. In the minds of most survivors there was a sigh of relief.

The Great Fire of London was started by an unwitting baker in September of 1666, a full seven months after the king’s return. What the plague had not consumed, the conflagration was willing to devour. At the onset, the Lord Mayor of London did not demolish buildings adjacent to the fire to stop its spread. It was the most effective firefighting practice at the time. Due to lack of local control on such matters, the decisive action would have required authorization from the king. With absence of swift action, winds quickly swept the fire across rooftops. Only one-fifth of London was left standing.

No time to spare

London centuries ago has much to do with Houston today. It reminds us that one disaster does not prevent another one from taking place. London faced back-to-back calamities. We are primed for that and worse. We are not facing two consecutive disasters, we are confronting the likelihood of two simultaneous ones.

There is no time for respite. We can’t count on luck. We are on borrowed time.

On the horizon is a catastrophic flare up of the continuing first COVID wave and what is shaping up to be a highly dangerous hurricane season. We are on the brink of each, simultaneously.

Positive COVID cases in the Houston area are surging even though we have growing testing capabilities and an infusion of contact tracing. Despite the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical city the world, medical institutions are sounding their own alarm and warning of dwindling ICU capacity.

That’s not all. Hurricane season is here and the National Hurricane Center predicts an above-normal season with 13 to 19 named storms, six to 10 which could become hurricanes, and three to six which could be category 3 or higher. This early in the season we are on track to meet or exceed that. What’s worse, conditions are ripe to concentrate much of this tropical weather in the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Harvey aside, which was really a flooding event for us, the last traditional hurricane we faced was Hurricane Ike in 2008. We are overdue.

Don’t expect a quiet July and August before storms ramp up in September. They will be here sooner rather than later. It’s not the end of June yet and we already have four named storms.

That landscape does not even include the possibility of continued civil unrest, drought, wildfires, heat waves, flooding or any other disaster that typically emerges during summer and fall. Then there are the things we can’t anticipate.

The virus has little regard for weariness

For however analogous London is to Houston, the contrasts are also worrisome. London didn’t have an alarm for either the plague or the fire. We have plenty of warning. The blinking red light is furiously trying to get our attention.

We are weary but that is not an excuse to hit the ignore button on the alarm. Only a few months into the virus compared to the years-long duration of what London endured with the plague we are already tired, restless and some even resigned to the virus. The virus has little regard for weariness and it has no intention on playing second fiddle to whatever storm sees us as a prime landing zone this year.

We are also different from London in other respects. A great fire can only feast on our dwellings once, until there is nothing left to consume. Storms may come again and again. The marginalized and vulnerable will be repeated targets, because that is who disasters impact the most.

Our economy is frail. Our hospital systems are precarious. Our response infrastructure is running on empty. Our community is borrowing heavily from what is left of our resilience to stay steady. Each is an alarm unto itself. We are at a breaking point.

Our future does not have to be defined by the forecasts

We can ignore the reality. We can resign ourselves to the doomsday scenario. Or, we can act now and heed the alarm and act swiftly. London survived and today is a vibrant, thriving, resilient city but it was a long road to recovery. We will survive if the worst of the virus collides with the worst of hurricane season but how well and how quickly we rebound is up to us, not Mother Nature.

The alarm is blaring. It’s not a false alarm:

Act now.

Mask up and keep it on

Wash your hands often

Disinfect repeatedly

Social distance

Remember it’s not just about your health, it’s also about those around you

Be storm ready

Actually, be ready for anything

Heed warnings and act when you’re asked to

Government guidelines are just the minimum; do more than that

Care for others

Care for yourself

Stop the hubris, be humble as we face what is ahead

Fate is out of our hands; preparedness and resilience are not. But it takes a willingness to face our reality, the foresight to anticipate what may come and the fortitude to confront it with grit and tenacity.

Masked statue of Rosa Parks in downtown Dallas

Francisco Sanchez | @DisasterPIO

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