There are a series of manmade issues which have resulted in the massive damage we are seeing in the Houston region of Texas. The major contributor is the lack of Zoning Laws which would require developers to use certain standards in location and construction. Much like what happened in Florida during Hurricane Andrew some years back, there are no laws requiring builders not to build on floodplains, or to utilize special construction. As such a lot of the lessons from Andrew, and Katrina (I worked on parts of the Katrina recovery) were ignored.
The second problem is the US Government and FEMA. While FEMA is really strict on rules for coastal homes built along the ocean, and insurance rates are sky high (if you can get it at all) – they take a highly permissive approach to insuring homes and property a few miles inland – even when that property is located on a floodplain which repeatedly floods. I live in a coastal area, designated as a “flood zone”. I was required to utilize certain building methods. For instance the roof and siding are designed to survive a Category 5 hurricane – 140 MPH winds. The house is on “stilts” 13′ above the ground, which were driven 20′ or more into the earth. It has survived 4 Hurricanes, including a direct hit by a Cat 5 with no significant damage despite a 12′ Storm Surge and flooding. Indeed as I write this, my area is being pounded by a Tropical Storm moving up the East Coast, and we are expecting 60 MPH winds and 2-4 inches of rain.
FEMA has paid on properties which repeatedly flood – far in excess of the property values. Properties and localities with no storm mitigation systems.
The National Flood Insurance Program, established in 1968 was meant to protect and indemnify people without creating economic catastrophe. Instead of avoiding the floodplain, insurance allowed people to build within it, within management constraints recommended by FEMA. In theory, flood-hazard mitigation hoped to direct development away from flood-prone areas through the disincentives of risk insurance and regulatory complexity. It isn’t working – especially in areas where there was substantial construction before the law (NOLA), and in Texas where there is no Zoning.
In Houston’s case, catastrophic floods have been anticipated for some time. The combination of climate change, which produces more intense and unpredictable storms, and aggressive development made an event like this week’s almost inevitable. The Association of State Floodplain Managers has called for a national flood risk-management strategy, and the Houston Chronicle has called flood control the city’s “most pressing infrastructure need.” A lack of funding is often blamed, and relaxed FEMA regulations under the Trump Administration won’t help either.
The famously “un-zoned” city has allowed developers to pave over natural areas that provide resilience to floods, and build homes in the way of cataclysm. According to a 2016 analysis by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune, 166,000 acres of coastal prairies have been destroyed by development since 2001.“More people die here than anywhere else from floods,” Sam Brody, a Texas A&M University at Galveston researcher, told us last year. “More property per capita is lost here. And the problem’s getting worse.”
Not counting the Harvey’s devastation in Houston, in the past two years, 16,000 buildings have been flooded, and $1 billion in damage was caused by the so-called “Tax Day” and “Memorial Day” floods. In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison killed almost two dozen people and caused $5 billion in damage in Harris County, which includes Houston.
The next problem is Houston’s road system. Those giant highways are impervious surfaces which cause rapid rainfall runoff. In the case of the major superhighways in Houston, that runoff is along the road filling underpasses – making evacuation nearly impossible.
After Hurricane Sandy 36 Republican Senators refused to vote in favor of funding relief, including the two Senators from Texas. The political ramifications of that are floating around in the political miasma.
Maybe we need to take a different view of how to pay for this. The State, which is responsible for the laws leaving citizens defenseless – should bear a greater responsibility for its actions. Second – maybe we should put relocation on the table. Those buildings that have repeatedly flooded should be torn down, the owners should be provided FEMA Insurance money – but only to build elsewhere or to build with significant mitigation strategies. Ergo – the State, County, and City has to put a plan of mitigation on the table before a dime is spent for rebuilding.