Houston Lashed By Critics Over Harvey

A Roundup of Harvey Flood Reporting and Commentary

Sept. 18, 2017

Not since the Enron scandal in 2001 has Houston faced such a deluge of criticism and bad publicity. Abundant praise, yes, for the generous and courageous response of neighbors helping neighbors and strangers. But according to our critics, flaws in the civic character—greed, incompetence, short-term thinking, a disrespect for nature—created an urban landscape that allowed maybe the worst storm ever to hit a metropolitan area to become a catastrophic flood, damaging or destroying some 136,000 homes, businesses, and other structures, maybe a half a million cars and trucks, taking fifty lives, damaging and disrupting the lives of many thousands more.

Here are links to some of the more thoughtful and informative articles published.

On Flooding Causes and Solutions and Working with Nature

Development, Drainage, and Destruction of Wetlands

Houston’s Flood is a Design Problem

The Atlantic, Aug. 28

Debo advocates that urban design mimic rural hydrology as much as possible. Reducing impervious surface and improving water conveyance has a role to play, but the most important step in sparing cities from flooding is to reduce the velocity of water when it is channelized, so that it doesn’t deluge other sites. And then to stop moving water away from buildings and structures entirely, and to start finding new uses for it in place.

Houston’s Flooding Made Worse by Unchecked Urban Development and Wetland Destruction

Quartz, Aug. 29

The Harvey-wrought devastation is just the latest example of the consequences of Houston’s gung-ho approach to development. The city, the largest in the US with no zoning laws, is a case study in limiting government regulations and favoring growth—often at the expense of the environment. As water swamps many of its neighborhoods, it’s now also a cautionary tale of sidelining science and plain common sense. Given the Trump administration’s assault on environmental protections, it’s one that Americans elsewhere should pay attention to.

Houston’s ‘Wild West’ growth

How the city’s development may have contributed to devastating flooding

Washington Post, Aug. 29

Houston drainage grid ‘so obsolete it’s just unbelievable’

AP, Aug. 29

Experts blame too many people, too much concrete, insufficient upstream storage, not enough green space for water drainage and, especially, too little regulation.

“Houston is the most flood-prone city in the United States,” said Rice University environmental engineering professor Phil Bedient. “No one is even a close second — not even New Orleans, because at least they have pumps there.”

The entire system is designed to clear out only 12 to 13 inches of rain per 24-hour period, said Jim Blackburn, an environmental law professor at Rice University. “That’s so obsolete it’s just unbelievable.”

Also, Houston’s Harris County has the loosest, least-regulated drainage policy and system in the entire country, Bedient said.

Houston’s development boom destroyed wetlands that naturally absorbed flood water — and left thousands in Harvey’s path

New York Daily News, Aug. 30

Experts believe the lack of regulation, building in the federally designated flood area, and paving over wetlands might’ve contributed to the storm’s severity. ….

Houston has lost a significant portion of its prairie and wetlands in the last 25 years — and with it a natural absorbent for rain water.

Harris County, which is primarily made up of Houston, lost almost 30% of its wetlands between 1992 and 2010, according to a Texas A&M study.

Looking upstream from a high bank in Memorial Park on Sept. 11, 2017, at around 2:30 p.m. Flow was still about 7,000 cubic feet per second.

Twelve steps Houston can take to address our flooding problem

Houston Chronicle, Aug. 31

1) First, we cannot control flooding, but we can manage flooding and the damages and disruption to our lives. Our land is flat. Our bayous have limited capacity. Our existing, legacy flooding problems are substantial. And our severe rainfall events are becoming more frequent. We need to be honest about our flooding situation. Citizens should be given the courtesy of accurate and up-to-date information and answers to the questions that all of us have. The primary clients of our governmental entities should be residents. In our zeal to support new development, we often forget those who are already here. That has to stop.

This Houston suburb is a magnet for growth and flooding. That’s not a coincidence.

Texas Tribune, Aug. 31

Northwest Houston suburbs like Cypress have exploded in population in recent years. Scientists say that’s a big reason some neighborhoods here saw devastating floods last year and now from Hurricane Harvey.

Flooding outside flood zones

New York Times, Sept. 1

“Houston has urban storm water flooding, flooding due more to inadequate storm water drainage” than conventional factors, said Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, based in Madison, Wis. He was not involved in the Texas study. …

Harris County had just received a new flood map in January, and experts said it did not pick up storm water drainage risks.

“That type of flooding is not shown on the maps,” said Carolyn Kousky, director of policy research at the Risk Management and Design Processes Center at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “And it’s a problem nationwide.”

Booming Houston built over land meant for flood control projects

Yahoo News, Sept. 2

HOUSTON (AP) — The explosive expansion of Houston subdivisions into prairies far to the west helped make the city affordable for the average 345 people who moved there each day, but it also paved over thousands of acres that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had intended for a reservoir and other flood-control projects to help against deluges like the ones from Harvey.

How government policy exacerbates hurricanes like Harvey

The Economist, Sept. 2

Poor planning bears even more blame. Houston, which has almost no restrictions on land-use, is an extreme example of what can go wrong. Although a light touch has enabled developers to cater to the city’s rapid growth—1.8m extra inhabitants since 2000—it has also led to concrete being laid over vast areas of coastal prairie that used to absorb the rain. According to the Texas Tribune and ProPublica, a charity that finances investigative journalism, since 2010 Harris County has allowed more than 8,600 buildings to be put up inside 100-year floodplains, where floods have a 1% chance of occurring in any year. Developers are supposed to build ponds to hold run-off water that would have soaked into undeveloped land, but the rules are poorly enforced. Because the maps are not kept up to date, properties supposedly outside the 100-year floodplain are being flooded repeatedly.

We already knew how to reduce damage from floods. We just didn’t do it.

Washington Post, Sept. 3

The federal government spent $121 million on this type of mitigation after the 1993 floods — acquiring land or elevating, relocating or flood-proofing buildings. That investment probably saved $600 million in disaster relief: The National Institute of Building Sciences estimates that each dollar spent on flood mitigation saves $5 in future flood damage.

Post-Harvey, the city must reset its development trajectory

Houston Chronicle, Sept. 5

For starters, Houston must make better use of its natural systems of flood protection and mitigation. It should look to Philadelphia, which is investing over $1.7 billion in a green infrastructure plan. By building more parks, gardens and swales, the city plans to reduce its stormwater outflow by 85 percent, saving it $7 billion in infrastructure costs. Rotterdam’s climate change adaptation strategy uses undeveloped areas as “sponges” to absorb stormwater. Creating more green spaces in Houston will help absorb rainfall, reduce summer temperatures, and improve the quality of life, increasing its ability to attract the talent that powers today’s knowledge economy.

Houston should also rebuild in a denser way, with more high-rise apartment and office buildings that can withstand severe flooding. Green construction, energy-efficient building technology and distributed energy systems will not only increase the region’s resilience to weather events but reduce operating costs and create new jobs in green technology

How Houston’s Growth Created the Perfect Flood Conditions

New York Times, Sept. 5

As floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey recede in Houston, one thing that’s been revealed is that some of the damage — financial, physical, emotional — could have been avoided.

Engineers 20 years ago warned of flooding risk for Harris County

Channel 13, Sept. 6

Former Harris County Flood Control Director Art Storey is flooded out of his home.

Back in 1996, Storey told officials the Harris County reservoir system wouldn’t be able to handle a storm the size of Harvey.

“This isn’t caused by rain,” he said, on his flooded street. “This is caused by the responsible party, intentionally discharging exorbitant amounts of water, partially to save people behind the dam that I said 25 years ago shouldn’t have been allowed to build there in the first place.”

Storey said instead, the feds should have purchased that land to extend the reservoir, prohibiting development behind the dam and potentially saving many from the flood they are now dealing with.

Above all, elevate!

Watershed Texas, Sept. 7

There are many things that we must think about as we begin to consider how to rebuild Houston. But one thing stands above the rest, literally: elevation. Elevation is the number one predictor of flooding and flood damage.  Water seeks the low spots; we need to seek the high spots. It is just that simple.

The monumental task of restoring Houston after Harvey

Wired, Sept. 7

“What Harvey gives us is a really good data point on flood risk,” says Wesley Highfield, professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M University at Galveston and an expert in demography and development in the context of disaster recovery. “We need to use it. Revise our flood maps. Redesign our infrastructure. Require people to build more resilient houses—or not to build at all. And in an ideal world we would. But we’re not talking about an ideal world here.”

After Harvey: Top Ten Planning And Engineering Actions

RiparianHouston.com, Sept. 8

An engineer’s top ten list of things to do after Harvey.

How do cities rebuild after hurricanes like Harvey and Irma?

The Guardian, Sept. 8

The aftermath of a disaster is often focused on getting back to normal. But do cities need to think harder about how to withstand the next one?

The US places huge emphasis on flood recovery, rather than avoidance, using the heft of FEMA to help those in need as well as administer a national insurance scheme that ostensibly places restrictions on what is built where but in practice has repeatedly bailed out houses in flood-prone that are frequently inundated.

This emergency response is entirely appropriate in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, according to Jeff Herbert, chief resiliency officer for New Orleans. But, Herbert added, at some point a difficult conversation about whether a city needs to be refashioned as it recovers also needs to happen.

Chronicle of a Flood Foretold

Counterpunch, Sept. 8

Houston didn’t need to be warned. The city had already been sunk by four major hurricanes, each less powerful than Harvey, in the last 80 years. Generational storms. But boomtowns have short memories. After each epochal deluge, Houston rebuilt on the ruins. Rebuilt in a Texas way: Bigger. Brasher. Gaudier. Rebuilt on the very same vulnerable grounds. In the same pathway of destruction.

What lessons will Houston-area officials learn from Harvey? History gives us a clue.

Texas Tribune, Sept. 8

As part of a broad effort to revisit development policies after the devastation of Tropical Storm Allison, in 2006 the city of Houston tried to restrict building in the “floodway” — an area within the floodplain that is at particular risk of being damaged by flooding because it’s directly in the central current of floodwaters.

It seemed like a no-brainer to many at the time. Since the mid-1960s — well before people fully understood what floodplains were — a Houston ordinance had technically forbidden building in a floodway. But the policy was riddled with exceptions that led to thousands of dwellings being built in floodways. Five years after Allison, the city decided to get rid of those exceptions.

The result was a political catastrophe. As the floodplain maps were redrawn after Allison, hundreds of new properties were suddenly included in the floodway. That meant their owners could no longer renovate them or build anything new. Property values dropped instantly. A series of lawsuits and a political firestorm pressured the Houston City Council into severely weakening the restrictions two years later.

Be Part of the Solution

Houston Chronicle, Sept. 9

Bill McKibben

But Houston does have one advantage over India, Nigeria, Yemen, and the other places that experienced disastrous floods the same week as Harvey. Because its major industry is oil and gas, Houston’s civic and business leaders could play a serious role in helping stanch the flow of carbon into the atmosphere. Harvey could be the wake-up call the city needs.

Fight Flooding Now

Houston Chronicle, Sept. 10

6. Require more effective land-use regulations

Adopting new regulations at both city and county levels to better control runoff would include restrictions on expanding impervious surfaces, investment in green infrastructure and stronger flood-detention standards. If the county refuses to act, politicians at City Hall should not be reluctant to use their authority in the extra-territorial jurisdiction to impose land-use regulations beyond city limits.

Prairies and wetlands in west and northwest Harris County must be preserved either through direct purchases or deals with landowners. New construction should be subject to higher building-elevation standards perhaps with detention ponds. The ploy of paving over Houston and putting up parking lots that are just under a 10-acre regulatory threshold to avoid mandatory flood-mitigation requirements is the sort of loophole our politicians must close. Houston also must reduce the need for impervious parking lots by lowering or eliminating parking minimums.

Emmett calls for sweeping changes to region’s flood control strategy

Houston Chronicle, Sept. 11

“I think the judge is spot on,” said Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, a Republican, whose own home flooded during Harvey. “I would like to see us not only go forward to the reservoir, which had been previously planned in the 1940’s, but that we would also examine all of our bayous and our creekways in terms of trying to increase the green space and the areas for which our waters can flow to.”

A follow-up conversation with Houston’s Flood Czar Steve Costello

Texas Tribune, Sept. 13

TT: Last year you told us that there needs to be a discussion on development regulations in Houston. Has any progress been made on that front?

COSTELLO: We’re going to roll out [a task force] in October. And the mayor is really excited about it. It’s a group of probably a little over 50 people. There will be be a couple of developers, people that are representing some of the trade associations, engineers, landscape architects, bureaucrats like myself, as well as community people.

We want a dialogue between all the groups so that the development community can get a better understanding of what the community at large is thinking. And then we can have a frank discussion about these issues and we want to address it.

Experts: New Way of Thinking Needed to Reduce Flooding Risk

KHOU, Sept. 13

What wasn’t right was responding to new-home demand by building in flood-prone areas, said two Rice University professors of architecture.

“We cannot do business as usual…to build the way we’ve been building, which is to build in the wrong place,” Albert Pope said.

Another architecture professor, Jesus Vassallo, added, “I think we need to be much much smarter about where we build.”

Putting a price tag on the flood-reducing value of wetlands

Anthropocene Magazine, Sept. 13

With every big coastal storm, attention turns to the role of wetlands in reducing their destructiveness. Quantifying that service, however, is a difficult thing to do. Now a team of ecologists, engineers and risk modelers have provided two such price tags: $625 million in damage prevented by wetlands during Hurricane Sandy, and — in a New Jersey county broadly emblematic of the Atlantic coast — a 16 percent reduction in flood losses every single year.

Arriving in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Harvey, the figures, published in the journal Scientific Reports, underscore just how under-appreciated wetlands remain despite scientific recognition of their ability to absorb water and blunt storms. “We would like to see the scale of the benefits of these natural defenses reflected in the investments we make in conserving them,” says Siddharth Narayan, a coastal engineer at the University of California Santa Cruz and the study’s lead author.

White: Rebuild smart or watch an exodus from area

Houston Chronicle, Sept. 13

Houston is about to be the global epicenter of the urban planning market. Don’t squander your resources on those who substitute gloss for substance. Don’t overuse the word “resiliency.” Don’t allow the oil and gas industry or real estate developers to pay for your plans. Hire local. Don’t privatize your public school system. And enact zoning laws, for crying out loud.

One House, 22 Floods: Repeated Claims Drain Federal Insurance Program

Wall Street Journal, Sept. 15

Experts say more such homes should be purchased and razed, but funds for buyouts are lacking and residents push back

Nearly half of frequently flooded properties in the U.S. have received more in total damage payments than the flood program’s estimate of what the homes are worth, according to the group’s calculations.

“Anyone looking at this would say there are perverse incentives for staying on the floodplain,” said Nicholas Pinter, a geology professor and associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, who has analyzed repeatedly flooded properties.

Harvey will make history books for nation’s wettest storm

Houston Chronicle, Sept. 15

Based on assessments by the National Weather Service and analyses by various meteorologists, Harvey rained down more water on a metro area than any storm in U.S. history. The estimated 34 trillion gallons of rainfall across East Texas and western Louisiana is about the same as Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, 2015’s Memorial Day floods and last year’s Tax Day floods – combined.

One of Houston’s greatest developers incorporated nature into his plans

Houston Chronicle, Sept. 16

[George Mitchell] hired Ian McHarg, a University of Pennsylvania landscape architect who believed that building design and engineering should promote harmony between man and nature.

McHarg, who died in 2001, conducted an unprecedented hydrological study that became the basis for flood protection in The Woodlands, and later a model for other environmental impact studies in government-funded developments. Lots – which maintained much of the native trees and vegetation – employed a complicated drainage system that used the natural forest environment to reduce flooding. It was tedious, costlier than clear-cutting and allowed for fewer homes per acre, but it preserved the natural environment.



Wrecked Wetlands Lead to Flooding. Here’s What You Can Do.

Houston Chronicle, January 18, 2017

When wetlands are allowed to function, they’re the kidneys of the area’s watershed. Their special soil types are surrounded by particular wetland plants that help hold water in shallow depressions. They clean the water as they allow some of it to filter slowly into the ground, the rest to drain slowly into our bayous. That process is the foundation of our region’s ecology.

The rampant destruction of our forested and prairie wetlands is upsetting this balance, drastically reducing the land’s ability to absorb water. By allowing so many wetlands to be turned into subdivisions, we’re not just kicking them to the curb; we’re turning them into curbs. We need the ecological equivalent of dialysis.

China’s Sponge Cities

Soak it up: China’s ambitious plan to solve urban flooding with ‘sponge cities’

The Guardian, October 3, 2016

Designers working on the unprecedented, government-funded programme will prioritise using permeable materials, green spaces and connected waterways


Pollution, contamination

Houston residents breathe in toxic fumes as petrochemical facilities cope with Harvey

Refineries exceeded state pollutant limits as they shut down.

Think Progress, Aug. 28

Hurricane Harvey damages petrochemical refineries, releasing thousands of pounds of airborne pollutants

PBS.Org, Aug. 29

Harvey likely caused millions of gallons of sewage overflows in Houston

Environment Texas, Aug. 31

AUSTIN, AUGUST 31 — At least 12 sewage overflows in the Houston area have been reported since Hurricane Harvey hit, according to Environment Texas, a statewide nonprofit advocacy group. Volume amounts have yet to reported. But given that up to 2 million gallons of sewage have been released in previous storms with only 10 inches of rain or less, Hurricane Harvey’s much higher rainfall amounts should be expected to cause millions of gallons in sewage overflows.

In post-Harvey Houston, extent of water contamination largely unknown

Texas Tribune, Sept. 8

Government agencies and scientists are still trying to get a handle on what exactly is percolating in lingering floodwaters — and who might be most impacted.

Texas bays struggle to adjust in Harvey’s aftermath

Houston Chronicle, Sept. 9

“Events like this have devastating and heartbreaking effects on us. This is an unimaginable tragedy on an unprecedented scale,” Robinson said. “For the bays, there are positive and negative effects. It can be like a forest fire, destroying things but also pumping nutrients into the bays. Almost invariably, productivity goes up in the years after something like this.”

Houston’s Floodwaters Are Tainted, Testing Shows

New York Times, Sept. 11

Sewage, fecal bacteria in Hurricane Harvey floodwaters

CNN, Sept. 15

The total coliform samples were “huge,” said Sevukan, compared to EPA standards. Coliform bacteria is present in the feces of all warm-blooded animals and humans.

The three water samples for total coliform bacteria were 57,000 CFUs, 43,000 CFUs and 45,000 CFUs. (Colony-forming units, or CFUs, estimate the number of bacteria or fungal cells that have the ability to multiply in a sample.)

Private air quality monitoring detects high levels of pollution following Harvey

Houston Chronicle, Sept. 16

As Hurricane Harvey barreled into Houston, the state shut down 50 stationary air quality monitors that track pollution levels to protect the sensitive devices from the high winds and torrential rains that swamped the region.

The timing, while perhaps unavoidable, couldn’t have been worse. Over the week – longer in some neighborhoods – that the air monitors were out of commission, record floods triggered spills from refineries, chemical plants, pipelines and storage tanks that released volatile chemicals into the air.

The extent of exposure to these pollutants, some known to cause cancer, may never be known, but since the skies cleared and floods receded, a small corps of private air monitors have spread out into the neighborhoods near the spills and found that emissions likely reached dangerous levels – in some cases more dangerous than environmental regulators initially acknowledged.



 Houston releases water from two dams in attempt to prevent uncontrolled overflow

Washington Post, Aug. 29

HOUSTON — One of two major flood-control reservoirs in the Houston area began spilling over for the first time in history, despite efforts to prevent such “uncontrolled” overflow the day before, officials said.

Why Houston’s dams aren’t going to fail

Texas Tribune, Aug. 29

As Tropical Storm Harvey continues to pummel an already devastated Houston, many residents are terrified that the dams on two of the region’s massive reservoirs will fail. Here’s why government officials say that is not going to happen.

Decision to open floodgates that ravaged Kingwood area comes under scrutiny

Click2Houston, Sept. 4

Judy and George Rittenhouse’s home, like many around Houston, had to be gutted. Judy said she’s grateful that her home is still standing, unlike many others in the Kingwood area that washed away after floodgates at Lake Conroe were opened.

The water rushed in at nearly 80,000 cubic feet per second. It was powerful enough to take entire homes with it.

Flooded by design. Why Houston had to flood itself again after Harvey.

Vice, Sept. 7

The day after Hurricane Harvey finally stopped dumping rain on Houston, thousands of area residents woke up to an unwelcome surprise. Overnight, their homes, which were spared during the storm, had been completely flooded — on purpose.


 Personal Narrative

This is probably the worst US flood storm ever, and I’ll never be the same

Neither will the fourth largest city in the country, Houston.

 Arstechnica, Aug. 30

Opinion: Hurricane Harvey Was and Still Is a Catastrophe

“Look into the eyes of the children who were sitting on their rooftops waiting to be saved from the raging floodwaters and tell them that this was Houston’s finest hour.”

Houstonia Magazine, Sept. 8