Hurricane Harvey Is Not Just a Natural Disaster

About two years ago, I drove through Houston, on Interstate Highway 10, on my way to New Orleans. I saw a flat, hot, concrete sprawl with a brown-orange hue untouched by any green. The tallest structures in sight were smokestacks and hulking refineries. I pressed the gas pedal down a little further.

Like everyone else, I’ve been gawking at photos of Houston’s highways, which now resemble tributaries to the Mississippi River. Here’s a picture of Highway 10 now:

Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath is being described by city officials as a “500-year” flood, which is a shorthand for a flood that, given historical data, has a 1 in 500 chance of happening any given year.

Harvey was going to be a disaster no matter what, but it wouldn’t be true to say no one in Houston’s government could have seen something like this coming and worked to mitigate the risk. Harvey is the third “500-year” event to hit the Houston area in three years. [Insert obligatory joke about need to update “500-year” event.] But many others, including investigative journalists and academics in Texas, have been warning Houston officials about the risks. Throughout 2016, the Texas Tribune and ProPublica conducted a joint investigation project, “Hell and High Water,” about Houston’s lack of preparation for hurricanes and massive flooding.

Those warnings went unheeded by Harris County officials. (Harris County contains the city of Houston and its surrounding area.) As the Tribune’s Neena Satija and Kiah Collier ProPublica’s Al Shaw reported in December 2016:

Scientists say the Harris County Flood Control District, which manages thousands of miles of floodwater-evacuating bayous and helps enforce development rules, should focus more on preserving green space and managing growth. The City of Houston, too. And they say everyone should plan for more torrential rainfall because of the changing climate. (A host of cities in the U.S. and around the world are doing so.)

But county and city officials responsible for addressing flooding largely reject these arguments. Houston’s two top flood control officials say their biggest challenge is not managing rapid growth but retrofitting outdated infrastructure. Current standards that govern how and where developers and residents can build are mostly sufficient, they say. And all the recent monster storms are freak occurrences — not harbingers of global warming or a sign of things to come.

The longtime head of the flood control district flat-out disagrees with scientific evidence that shows development is making flooding worse. Engineering projects can reverse the effects of land development and are doing so, Mike Talbott said in an interview with The Texas Tribune and ProPublica in late August before his retirement after 18 years heading the powerful agency. (His successor shares his views.)

Mr. Talbott, and his successor, Russ Poppe, are repeatedly quoted as discounting the impact of climate change (though not outright denying it as an occurring phenomenon) and appear to be strict adherents to a particular axiom that has dictated city and county policy since the 1980s, no matter the political party in charge. It’s an axiom captured by Joel Kotkin, an academic and one of the city’s loudest boosters over the years, in a laudatory City Journal article from 2014:

Houston is neither the libertarian paradise imagined by many conservatives nor the antigovernment Wild West town conjured by liberals. The city is better understood as relentlessly pragmatic and pro-growth. Bob Lanier, the legendary three-time Democratic mayor who steered the city’s recovery from the 1980s oil bust, when the metro region bled more than 220,000 jobs in just five years, epitomized this can-do spirit. Lanier was more interested in building infrastructure and promoting growth than in regulation and redistribution. That focus remains strong today. “Houston is getting very comfortable with itself and what it is,” says retired Harris County judge Robert Eckels. “We are a place that has a big idea—supporting and growing through private industry, and that’s something everyone pretty much accepts.”

I don’t know about you, but by the end of the paragraph that initial disclaimer no longer holds water. Nonetheless, Kotkin’s portrayal seems accurate. What I saw in my decidedly brief tour of Houston—and what investigative journalists repeatedly showed—was a city seemingly organized, if one could use the word, around one principle: unfettered development. Houston has no zoning regulations. This, again, has long been held up by Kotkin and other “Texas Miracle” evangelists—a miracle, by the way, that isn’t—as part of Houston’s magic sauce:

An even bigger component of Houston’s growth, however, may be its planning regime, which allows development to follow the market instead of top-down government directives. The city and its unincorporated areas have no formal zoning, so land use is flexible and can readily meet demand. Getting building permits is simple and quick, with no arbitrary approval boards making development an interminable process. Neighborhoods can protect themselves with voluntary, opt-in deed restrictions or minimum lot sizes. Architect and developer Tim Cisneros credits the flexible planning system for the city’s burgeoning apartment and town-home development. “There are a lot of people who come here for jobs but don’t want to live, at least not yet, in the Woodlands,” he notes. “We can respond to this demand fast because there’s no zoning, and approvals don’t take forever. You could not do this so fast in virtually any city in America. The lack of zoning allows us not only to do neat things—but do them quickly and for less money.”

But as Texas Tribune and Pro Publica reported, Fort Bend county, right next to Harris, has zoning regulations and restrictions on developing on flood plains, and it’s also experiencing great economic growth. For free-marketeers like Kotkin and Harris County’s flood control district officials, any problem can be paved over and engineered away. That hubris led to the destruction of one of Houston’s best anti-flooding assets, one provided by nature:

The region was once home to acres of prairie grass whose roots extended far underground, with a capacity to absorb water for days on end or even permanently. Most of that land has now been paved over. The Katy Prairie northwest of Houston was once about 600,000 acres of flood-absorbing land; recent development has reduced it to a quarter of that capacity, according to estimates from the Katy Prairie Conservancy, an advocacy group.

Research by Talbott’s own Harris County Flood Control District points to the effectiveness of prairie grass to absorb floodwater. “The restoration of one acre of prairie,” a 2015 report by the district wrote, would offset the extra volume of runoff created by two acres of single-family homes or one acre of commercial property. (The district says that data is preliminary.)

But Talbott and his successor, Russ Poppe, don’t buy the research.

The interactive map of northwest Houston in this Quartz article, showing satellite imagery of 1986 and 2017, captures the ecological devastation in full. But what investigations are showing is that Houston’s developers, far from managing the flood risk, have either ignored it or simply displaced flooding risk to areas that have previously never or only very rarely experienced flooding. An officer in the Army Corps of Engineers charged with managing a reservoir to protect downtown Houston from flooding told the Tribune and Pro Publica that entire neighborhoods should never have been built in the first place. Academic researchers meanwhile have been gathering evidence that overdevelopment on Houston’s floodplains has pushed flooding into neighborhoods far away from those plains, with houses that aren’t built with flooding in mind and whose owners often don’t have flood insurance.

These investigations prompted Texas’s mostly Republican congressional delegation and President Obama to write and pass a law in December, the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, to expedite the construction of a coastal protection barrier.

But elections have consequences. From Quartz:

Just 10 days before Harvey struck, [President Trump] signed an executive order that rescinded federal flood protection standards put in place by his predecessor, Barack Obama. FEMA and the US Housing and Urban Development Department, the two federal agencies that will handle most of the huge pile of cash expected for the rebuilding of Houston, would have been forced to require any rebuilding to confirm to new, safer codes. Now, they won’t.

“What’s likely to happen is we’re going to spend tens of billions of dollars rebuilding Houston exactly like it is now, and then wait for the next one,” says Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst on water issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Hurricane Harvey will be remembered as a natural disaster. But myopic policy informed by a dogmatic ideology has doomed Houston to the flood next time.

Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is an associate editor at Washington Monthly.