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Houston after Harvey

The country’s largest city without zoning laws is at a development crossroads

I moved to Houston in 2003, two years after Tropical Storm Allison. I listened to the stories of the storm with a mixture of awe and disbelief. One picture in particular always stuck in my mind: an area of Highway 59—known as “The Canyons” for its long stretch of underpasses—completely filled with water up to the bridges. I never thought I’d see such a thing.

Allison was what's known as a 500-year storm. For three days, the system stalled over Houston, dumping 32 inches of rain on the city, much of it downtown and near the Texas Medical Center. After Allison, the Harris County Flood Control District spent more than $1.5 billion widening the city's bayous to mitigate future flooding. The medical center made millions of dollars of improvements and put into place new policies to minimize damage from floods. And you couldn’t buy a house in Houston without first asking “Did it flood?” The “during Allison” part was understood.

For many Houston residents, it was a watershed moment. Subsequent floods—like the Memorial Day storms of 2015, which brought Downtown’s Buffalo Bayou several feet out of its banks—couldn’t compete. Until Harvey.

The story of Hurricane Harvey is the story of Houston itself—the city’s spontaneous nature, its exponential growth, its location, and its leadership. And in the wake of Harvey, this city is at a crossroads. Will we continue to do things as we’ve always done them, or will we take this storm for what it is—an opportunity for a new paradigm?

Houston is known as the “Bayou City.” Seven major bayous flow west to east through town, eventually making their way into the Gulf of Mexico. Because of this, much of Houston is built on a floodplain, the land surrounding a body of water that is likely to flood when discharge volumes of the body are high. But the prediction of where a floodplain lies is largely theoretical. One-hundred-year floodplains are somewhat easy to predict, because we can use historical data, but it is still an exercise in probability—it means that there is a 1 percent chance in any given year that the area will flood. That's why it’s possible to have two 100-year floods two years in a row. Five-hundred-year floodplains are harder to predict because our statistical data doesn’t go back that far. For houses in the 100-year floodplain, insurance is required. For those in the 500-year floodplain, insurance is recommended but not mandatory. Which is good, because the probability of a 500-year flood is only .2 percent in any given year. Theoretically.

But Houston has seen three 500-year floods in the past three years: the Memorial Day Floods of 2015, the Tax Day Flood of 2016, and Hurricane Harvey, which, like Allison, parked over the city and unleashed a year’s worth of water in a 72-hour period. Now, the floodplain maps, and the city’s response to flooding, need to change to meet the ever-evolving conditions. Which, in Houston, include both climate change and population growth.

Since 2001, more than a million new people have moved to Houston—myself included—and the city, largely resilient in both the housing crisis and the Great Recession, needed a place to put all those people. So we started building in the floodplains.

I missed the Tax Day Floods because for all of 2016 I lived in Amsterdam, a city that is familiar with flooding. There is a famous Dutch saying: “God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.” The country is well-known for its feats of civil engineering, many of them undertaken before modern technology. After a series of deadly floods in the late 1300s and early 1400s, the Dutch began installing windmills to pump water from the land. This required the collaboration of villages normally separated by religion. Protestants and Catholics worked together to preserve the land, leading to what is now referred to as the polder model, the consensus-based decision-making process prevalent in Dutch culture. (Polder is the name for the land drained of water and reclaimed from the sea.)

Houston could learn from the responses to two catastrophic events in recent Netherlands history. The first was the blitzkrieg of Rotterdam in May 1940. The second was the North Sea Flooding of 1953.

In May 1940, looking for a strategic route to the U.K., the German Luftwaffe broke a ceasefire and bombarded Rotterdam. Most of the city’s medieval center was leveled, and 900 people were killed. Within four days of the bombing, the government of Rotterdam gathered in an attempt to seize the opportunity—a chance to build a newer, more modern city. As a result, Rotterdam is now known as a paragon of modern architecture and civil engineering.

Just a few years later, the floods of 1953 killed almost 2,000 people and caused widespread property loss across the Netherlands. This led to the creation of the Deltawerken, a series of dikes, levees, and storm-surge barriers meant to protect the coast. The project took three decades to complete and is now considered one of the greatest civil engineering achievements of the 20th century.

“If your country is under constant threat, which Holland is, you better have your shit together as a community to be able to defend yourself against the sea,” said Albert Pope, professor of architecture at Rice University, where he heads the school's Present/Future program. Pope is especially interested in postwar urban development, density, and the urban implications of global climate change.“There's a strong collective communal ethos that is centuries old in Holland that exists up to this day, up to the point where they made the huge infrastructure works of the ’50s after it flooded,” he said. “That's because they had to work collectively to fight off the sea. It's also what led them to get together and decide what they were going to do with Rotterdam. “The collective project was already there. And that is precisely the opposite of Houston, which is that we each have our own little plot of land with our own detached house on it, and the city gets made plot by plot by plot by plot.”

It's ironic that while half of Houston was submerged, the city celebrated its 181st birthday. On August 30, 1836, two brothers, Augustus and John Allen, placed a dubiously worded ad in the Telegraph and Texas Register describing the prospective city as “beautifully-elevated.” They also, presciently, referred to it as “well-watered.”

Allen's Landing, the site of the city’s founding, is now a concrete park in the middle of Downtown, right on Buffalo Bayou. Further downstream, that bayou was widened and dredged to become the Houston Ship Channel, one of the U.S.’s busiest ports and a major contributor to this city’s prosperity.

But before Houston was a city, the region was covered with coastal prairies. In a subtropical climate, which includes most of the Gulf Coast, coastal prairies serve an important purpose, basically acting as sponges to absorb and filter the more than 50 inches of rainfall Houston gets in an average year. Unfortunately, according to the United States Geological Survey, less than .01 percent of coastal prairies in the U.S. remain intact.

In Houston, city leaders took action after major floods in both 1929 and 1935. They created the Harris County Flood Control District, which, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, constructed two reservoirs on the far west side of town, Addicks and Barker. The reservoirs prevent downstream flooding by holding water until it can be released slowly. At the time they were built, Houston had a population of just 400,000 people, most of whom lived close to downtown.

Unfortunately, as Houston’s population grew, the city also grew—out, not up.

Part of Houston’s charm comes from its spontaneous nature. As Washington Post writer Krissah Thompson wrote in her love letter to Houston, it's “impossible to manufacture the spirit of the place. It came together organically, a city without a master plan.” Houston is the largest city in the U.S. without zoning laws, which essentially gives developers carte blanche to build where and how they want.

“Houston is not very dense. It’s one of the least dense cities of its size in the world,” Pope said. “To get X number of units in a subdivision of single-family houses takes about 50 times the amount of land that would be needed to make a high-rise. And so it spreads and spreads and spreads.

“That spread does two things: one, it covers up the land with surfaces that no longer absorb water. The second thing is that you just need a lot of land. You’re gonna end up building in places where you shouldn't build."

For years, Houston has been able to make do and mend with its current flood-control system after each major storm, Pope said. But the city, now spread over roughly 650 square miles with a population of 6.5 million, will soon reach a point where the infrastructure can’t keep up with the city’s growth—if it hasn't already.

“When (the 1935) flood happened, it wasn’t that hard to go out to what is today the Beltway and buy a massive chunk of land and turn it into a reservoir,” Pope said. “We're way past that now. It's not even possible that we could imagine assembling pieces of land large enough to provide for all the bayous of Houston. It’s all developed. And if you tried to assemble it, it would cost a fortune.”

The only solution, Pope believes, is to pull people out of the floodplain. That’s going to require a complete change of mindset for the people of Houston—embracing density, for a start, and support of costly buyout programs for homes already in the floodplain. It’s also going to require collaboration, like the polder model.

“We have to somehow begin to think more collectively in order to solve this problem, if only to give this city a future.”

It’s difficult to conceptualize just how much water fell on Houston during those three days. I witnessed it and I still can’t wrap my head around it. By some estimates, more than 30 percent of Harris County was underwater. The water trapped people in neighborhoods and on freeway overpasses, consumed family photos and favorite articles of clothing. Mile after mile of curbs are now lined with soggy drywall and rotting carpet. A month later, parts of the city are still submerged. It’s hard not to see the water and destruction and feel helpless.

Being in the subtropical zone, Houston knows rain. We know hurricanes. But no city, no matter the infrastructure, is prepared to deal with 27 trillion gallons of water.

My neighborhood did not flood, but that is largely a matter of luck. Unlike Hurricane Katrina, Harvey’s flood affected affluent and marginalized neighborhoods in equal measure. I know of at least two friends whose homes flooded in all three storms. Another friend’s house flooded for the first time.

That friend, who had to evacuate in the middle of the night after waking up to rising water, is already expressing doubts about remaining in Houston. That is my biggest concern for my city. There is little doubt that Harvey’s force was exacerbated by climate change. Storm-fueling water temperatures in the Gulf are several degrees warmer than normal, and the longer climate change goes unaddressed or unacknowledged, the worse these storms are going to get.

And if Houston, the nation's most diverse city—a city with a robust arts and food scene, a city that settles more refugees than any other in the U.S.—faces catastrophic flooding every year, who is going to want to continue living here? “I think that's the micro version of the macro problem, which is what company, what industry is going to invest in Houston if we can’t even keep our city together when there’s a storm?” Pope said.

The cost for Harvey is not yet calculated, but it could approach $200 billion. A fraction of that money could have been spent on improvements before disaster struck.

“So the question is—how big a mess must be made before political change can happen?” said Pope. “How many storms will we go through? A lot of climate scientists thought that Sandy would do it. That that would change the public opinion, that would change the politics, once you saw the magnitude of that storm and the huge amount of money that it took to clean up after it.

“Now we're five years later, and we’ve got an even bigger storm and a much bigger clean-up bill than Sandy in Houston alone. You just have to ask the question—is this enough now, that we can actually start doing something about it?”

There are reasons to be optimistic. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said “all options were on the table” to improve flood control post-Harvey. “You got to say, ‘We’re in a new normal so how are we going to react to it?’ That means a lot of projects,” Emmett told the Chronicle.

Pope consoles himself by thinking about how quickly public opinion has changed in other situations is U.S. history, such as opposition to the Vietnam War and support for gay marriage.

“We've seen public opinion push politics, where public opinion has turned very quickly and where politics has followed,” he said. “I think we can look forward to that kind of change. Or at least that’s what I say to cheer myself up. We’ll recognize that this has happened before and that at some point we will change because it is built into the climate now. It’s just, how much grief are we gonna save ourselves?”

Editor: Sara Polsky


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