Safe Human Settlement Policy Initiative

Safe Human Settlement Policy Initiative

Monday, August 28, 2017

Houston's Underwater. Again.

The news from southeast Texas this past weekend has not been good. Hurricane Harvey slammed into the coast and stalled, dumping feet of water (some estimates as high as 60 inches, when all is said and done) onto already saturated land.  Wind damage was reportedly not as bad as expected from the (briefly) Category 4 storm, but flooding will definitely be a problem.  And that’s an understatement.

A reader (thank you Nathan) forwarded an article from the TexasTribune web page to me today about Houston and flooding.  The article included some really interesting maps showing the changes to the city’s development pattern and the range of devastation from past storms. According to the article, Houston’s “flood plain” designations fail to identify a large part of the land area prone to flooding.  Some residents have filed lawsuits against the City, while others have simply sold their properties at a loss and walked away—to higher ground. One is quoted as saying: the frequent flooding has “actually paralyzed me. I just don’t think I can go through another flood.”

The propensity of the neighborhoods in Houston to flood in recent years should have been, according to the article, “a wake-up call” for government leaders.  But it hasn’t been that way.  The article says:

The devastation of Hurricane Allison in 2001, “prompted FEMA and the flood control district to redraw floodplain maps, which expanded as much as 20 percent in some areas. And in conjunction with the city, the district spent hundreds of millions of dollars to improve drainage, widen bayous and build detention ponds to temporarily hold floodwater. 

“But when local politicians tried to change policies over development, they were met with stiff resistance from developers and residents. The city did pursue a law banning new development or major renovations of existing buildings in areas called floodways — the most vulnerable parts of the 100-year floodplain that are closest to the bayous. That prompted multiple lawsuits, and the law was ultimately severely weakened by the city council two years later.”

This has been the pattern in Houston.  The argument has always been that, if one county imposes a stronger restriction on building in the flood plain, then developers will simply spend their money in neighboring, “less restrictive” jurisdictions.  Many areas of Harris County, for instance, are particularly vulnerable to flooding.  The article quotes a Harris County Commissioner who says:

“The county’s development regulations are superior to the city’s and have been strengthened over time. But they have to be economically reasonable.  If the rules are too strict, developers will say ‘fine, to heck with Harris County. We’ll go build in Fort Bend,’ the county directly west of Harris County, or wherever else.”

The article says that the truth is, however, that Fort Bend County “has stricter regulations for developing in the floodplain — and it’s growing faster than Harris County.  Developers there must incorporate more green space or detention ponds than in Harris County. That’s because Fort Bend requires them to hold excess floodwater on their properties for longer and discharge it at one-tenth of the rate in Harris County.” 

Phil Bedient of Rice University, who helped develop Fort Bend County’s rules, says “They still have lots of development, it's just that they know how to do it.  Harris County has never prioritized green and is now paying the price.  Mother Nature is wreaking her fury on the county and sending some fairly strong signals that some things need to change.”

One of the state’s US Congressmen, Al Green, is quoted as saying “he was counting on his colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives to fund some key bayou-widening projects in the coming months — though he understands they only aim to protect against much smaller events. 

"'I’m going to maintain a level of optimism,’ he said. ‘We should not have another catastrophic event and then bemoan the fact that we didn’t do what we could have and should have done, so that’s an argument that I make.’”

His statement seems prescient in light of the last weekend.   

Similarly, do you recall the resident quoted above who said she didn’t think she could endure another flood?  Sadly, the article I’ve been discussing was written last year.  “Another flood” has already arrived.


Photo source: AP via Instagram