The disaster in Houston should not have come as a surprise. Scores were killed and thousands driven from their homes in catastrophic flooding. An estimated 30% of Harris County (which includes Houston) was underwater at the height of the floods.
Billions of dollars in property damage was done, and recovery will take years. Even while relief efforts continue and the human tragedy is mourned, it is important to begin understanding the origins of this disaster, so that we can increase our chances of averting or reducing other disasters to come.
Some point out that Hurricane Harvey itself may be an example of intensifying storms accompanying climate change. However, the origin of Houston’s disastrous flooding is even more basic.
Houston is a case study of what happens when development on a massive scale is allowed to utterly ignore the environment. It must remind us of why we control development in floodplains, attempt to reduce stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces, and control the loss of wetlands—at a time when the disciples of deregulation are seeking to dismantle all those programs.
An excellent article in the Washington Post last week graphically connected the dots between why Houston has been hit by massive flooding time and again, and how terrible policy choices by politicians over time made these problems so much worse.
The absence of zoning and floodplain building restrictions allowed rampant development in the highest-risk areas. (Houston is the largest city in the United States with no zoning.) The Post reported, “Since 2010, at least 7,000 residential buildings have been constructed in Harris County on properties that sit mostly on land the federal government has designated as a 100-year flood plain, according to a Washington Post review of areas at the greatest risk of flooding.”
Explosive, unregulated development has severely degraded the land’s natural water absorbing capacity by destroying wetlands and blanketing the landscape with concrete and asphalt: “Houston’s population climbed to 2.2 million in 2015, a 25 percent increase from 1995. Harris County had an even bigger bump over that time, 42 percent, and now has 4.5 million residents. As the population grew, the city expanded, covering fallow land that had served as a natural sponge. Between 1992 and 2010, 30 percent of the surrounding county’s coastal prairie wetlands were paved over, according to a 2010 report from Texas A&M.”
Hurricane Harvey is far from the first massive flood to hit Houston—and it will not be the last. “At the same time, severe storms are becoming more frequent, experts said. The city’s building laws are designed to guard against what was once considered a worst-case scenario — a 100-year storm, or one that planners projected would have only a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year. Those storms have become quite common, however. Harvey, which dumped up to 50 inches of rain in some places as of Tuesday afternoon, is the third such storm to hit Houston in the past three years. In May 2015, seven people died after 12 inches of rain fell in 10 hours during what is known as the Memorial Day Flood. Eight people died in April 2016 during a storm that dropped 17 inches of rain.”
These lessons could not come at a more critical time. The Trump Administration is attempting to revoke the Clean Water Rule which protects our nation’s small streams and wetlands. Meanwhile, not a “special session” goes by in Raleigh without some new assault on the stormwater management rules and riparian buffer protections built up over decades of environmental progress in our own state. The perpetrators of these assaults on our environment seem incapable of understanding the adverse human consequences toward which they are trying to rush us all.
If we fail to learn from the lessons Houston is teaching us, all our families and future generations will pay the price.
Attorney and Winston-Salem City Council member Dan Besse edits the “Conservation Insider Bulletin” for the N.C. League of Conservation Voters. This essay appeared in the Sept. 5 edition.