Harvey Wasn’t Just Bad Weather. It Was Bad City Planning
Houston has been wet since birth. In the 1840s, the German explorer Ferdinand von Roemer described the Brazos River prairie just outside the young town as an “endless swamp” that mired the wheels of his wagons. He reported that some people who’d intended to settle in Texas turned around and left after seeing the “sad picture.” But Houston never let itself be hampered by its hydrology. It spent billions patching together a mess of dams and drainage projects as it grew and grew. It’s the fourth-biggest city in the U.S., boasting one of the world’s largest medical centers, oil refineries, a stupendous livestock show and rodeo, highbrow culture, vibrant economic growth, and speakers of 145 languages. The consolidated metropolitan statistical area surrounding Houston and extending to Galveston is larger than the state of New Jersey.
Harvey is a devastating reminder to Houston that nature will have its due. The Category 4 hurricane that hung around as a stationary tropical storm punished greater Houston with rainfall measured in feet, not inches. No city could have withstood Harvey without serious harm, but Houston made itself more vulnerable than necessary. Paving over the saw-grass prairie reduced the ground’s capacity to absorb rainfall. Flood-control reservoirs were too small. Building codes were inadequate. Roads became rivers, so while hospitals were open, it was almost impossible to reach them by car.
Harvey’s damage was selective. It’s a minor event for the $19 trillion U.S. economy, since most of the economic activity that was interrupted will be made up later. It was a light hit for insurers, because few underwrite flood insurance and the wind damage they do cover was minimal; insurers’ stock prices barely fell. The refining and petrochemical industries lining the busy Houston Ship Channel also got off fairly lightly (this time), because they’ve invested heavily in storm defenses.
The impact on taxpayers is more serious, because Harvey is likely to generate tens of billions of dollars in emergency federal aid and claims on the money-losing National Flood Insurance Program. In the short run, the precautionary shutdown of refineries drove wholesale gasoline prices traded in New York to a two-year high.
Above all, Harvey is a humanitarian disaster. Ordinary Texans were defenseless against rising waters contaminated by sewage and dotted with floating colonies of fire ants. The confirmed death toll, 20 as of Aug. 30, is expected to rise as rescuers discover more bodies. Residents will return to damaged homes vulnerable to the spread of mold. Much of the damage, which could run to $100 billion or more by one estimate, is uninsured. “This will be the worst natural disaster in American history” in financial terms, Joel Myers, founder and president of AccuWeather, predicted in an Aug. 29 statement.
Sprawling Houston is a can-do city whose attitude is grow first, ask questions later. It’s the only major U.S. city without a zoning code saying what types of buildings can go where, so skyscrapers sometimes sprout next to split-levels. Voters have repeatedly opposed enacting a zoning law.
Most of the time, the light hand works: Harris County, which encompasses Houston, added more people than any other U.S. county for eight straight years until 2016, when it fell to second. But Houston is suffering now from the lack of an effective plan to deal with chronic flooding.
Attitude is partly to blame. Michael Talbott spent 35 years with the Harris County Flood Control District trying to protect Houston, mainly by seeking funds for widening drainage channels and bayous. But he resisted the notion that more drastic measures such as preserving green space and managing growth were required. Shortly before retiring as executive director in 2016, Talbott gave an interview to ProPublica and the Texas Tribune in which he disputed the effect of global warming and said conservationists were antidevelopment. “They have an agenda … their agenda to protect the environment overrides common sense,” he said. Talbott, now retired, couldn’t be reached for comment.
It’s not only Houston that’s hands-off. Texas, despite being among the states most vulnerable to storms, has one of the nation’s most relaxed approaches to building codes, inspections, and other protections. It’s one of only four states along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts with no mandatory statewide building codes, and it has no statewide program to license building inspectors. Corpus Christi uses codes that reflect national standards, minus the requirement that homes be built 1 foot above expected 100-year-flood levels. But Nueces County, which encompasses Corpus Christi, has no residential building code.
Nationally, insurers favor tighter building codes and fewer homes in vulnerable locations. Homebuilders and developers want to keep houses as inexpensive as possible. As the costs of extreme weather increase, that fight has spilled over into politics: The federal government wants local governments to adopt policies that will reduce the cost of disasters, while many state and local officials worry about the lost tax revenue that might accompany restrictions on development.
The consequence of loose or nonexistent codes is that storm damage is often worse than need be. “Disasters don’t have to be devastating,” says Eleanor Kitzman, who was Texas’ state insurance commissioner from 2011 to 2013. She now runs a company called MyStrongHome that helps homeowners upgrade their homes to qualify for lower homeowners’ insurance premiums. “We can’t prevent the event, but we can mitigate the damage.”
Any measure introduced in Texas that increases costs draws opposition from homebuilders, a powerful group in state and local politics. At the end of this year’s state legislative session, the Texas Association of Builders posted a document highlighting its success in killing legislation it didn’t like. That included a bill that would have let cities require residential fire sprinklers. Another would have given counties with 100,000 people or more authority over zoning, land use, and oversight of building standards—something the builders’ group called “onerous.”
Ned Muñoz, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Texas builders’ organization, says cities already do a good job choosing which parts of the building code are right for them. And he argues that people who live outside of cities don’t want the higher prices that come with land use regulations.
The fight in Texas is a microcosm of a national battle. The International Code Council, a Washington nonprofit made up of government officials and industry representatives, updates its model codes every three years, inviting state and local governments to adopt them. Last year the National Association of Home Builders boasted of its prowess at stopping codes for 2018 that it didn’t like. “Only 6 percent of the proposals that NAHB opposed made it through the committee hearings intact,” the association wrote on its blog. The homebuilders demonstrated their power again this year, when President Donald Trump reversed an Obama initiative restricting federally funded building projects in flood plains. “This is a huge victory for NAHB and its members,” the association blogged.
Not all homebuilders are OK with the organization’s antiregulatory bent. Ron Jones, a member of the NAHB board who builds houses in Colorado, says that while the first priority now is helping the victims, he hopes the storm will force new thinking. “There’s no sort of national leadership involved,” he says. “For them it’s just, ‘Hell, we’ll rebuild these houses as many times as you’ll pay us to do it.’ ”
There’s a glimmer of a possibility that Harvey could lead to a détente between environmentalists and Trump administration officials in charge of disaster response. Some of the codes the homebuilders blocked had been proposed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is on the hook when homes collapse, flood, or wash away. In an interview before Harvey hit, FEMA Administrator William “Brock” Long expressed support for an Obama administration proposal to spur more local action on resilience, such as better building codes, if states want to keep getting first-dollar disaster relief from Washington. States that didn’t reduce their risks would have to cover a deductible before qualifying for federal aid. “I don’t think the taxpayer should reward risk,” Long told Bloomberg.
The Trump administration’s interest in strong building codes is less ideological than practical. Over the past decade, the federal government spent more than $350 billion on disaster recovery. Much of the money has gone to homes that keep getting damaged; 1.3 million households have applied for federal disaster assistance money at least twice since 1998—many of them in the same areas hit hardest by Harvey. Repeat claims are also common in the National Flood Insurance Program, which Congress must reauthorize by the end of September. Some lawmakers, and Long himself, have said homes that repeatedly flood should be excluded from coverage. “We need to take a look at where structures are being built,” says Todd Hunter, who represents Corpus Christi in the state legislature.
The pressure on government to back off from tough rules is strong, and how hard Long will work to make good on his pledge remains to be seen. When a reporter asked who was responsible for planning the rebuilding effort after Harvey, a FEMA spokeswoman suggested contacting the Texas Department of Public Safety. The department suggested asking FEMA.
However important it was in the past to come to grips with flood control and construction codes, it’s essential in this era of climate change. For Houston, the cruel irony is that the greenhouse gases that contribute to superstorms are intimately connected to the oil and petrochemical economy on which the city built its fortune.
The contribution from global warming is the result of what meteorologists call the Clausius-Clapeyron relation, which says the water-holding capacity of the atmosphere increases about 7 percent for each 1 degree Celsius increase in the temperature. (That’s 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit.) So: warmer air, more water, bigger storms. The temperature of the oceans is rising, too. Heat from the Gulf of Mexico is what fueled Harvey.
Jeff Masters, a meteorologist who flew with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s hurricane hunters in the 1980s and later co-founded the mischievously named Weather Underground Inc. website, argues that storms are worsening even more than one would expect from Clausius-Clapeyron. “The extra energy that you use to make the vapor stays with the vapor. It’s latent heat. When the vapor condenses into rain, it releases the heat that helps power the storm,” Masters says. “The more water vapor that you bring into a hurricane, the more energy, the stronger updrafts. You have to suck in even more air to replace the air that’s leaving. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Climate change could also explain why Harvey hovered over Houston, dropping rain on it for days instead of moving on. Global warming tends to cause subtropical high-pressure systems to expand, pushing the jet stream northward, Masters says. When that happened in August, the winds that might have pushed Harvey somewhere else were largely absent, he says. Michael Mann, an atmospheric scientist at Pennsylvania State University, together with five co-authors, explored the jet stream theory in a recent paper in the journal Scientific Reports.
Skeptics point out that the United Nations-affiliated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it doesn’t have the evidence to conclude that global warming is making storms and flooding worse. But not knowing if a phenomenon exists is different from saying it doesn’t exist. The IPCC, appropriately cautious, said its uncertainty is partly because of a dearth of reliable data from gauge stations and partly because extreme events are hard to analyze statistically. “The more rare the event the more difficult it is to identify long-term changes,” the panel wrote in 2012.
It’s also true, as skeptics note, that no particular storm can be attributed to a long-term phenomenon such as global warming. Then again, neither could any particular home run by Barry Bonds be attributed to steroids. “But steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther,” Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund and a former Bloomberg Businessweek deputy editor, said after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. “Now we have weather on steroids.”
If climate change is a hoax, as President Trump has said, then Houstonians just got 50 inches of hoax dumped on their soaking wet heads. They don’t want to live through this again. Unfortunately, should things keep going the way they’re going, another 100-year or 500-year flood will hit within the decade, and we’ll be back to chewing this over all over again.
Houston’s clay soil doesn’t absorb water quickly, so when a hard rain comes, much of it runs off to pool elsewhere. Authorities have made matters worse by allowing developers to pave over much of Harris County and beyond; it’s spent its flood-control budget on culverts, canals, drains, levees, berms, pumps, and other “gray” (as in concrete) infrastructure to flush the water away—but that hasn’t been enough. It builds new roads with curbs and gutters designed to channel water away from buildings. Roads make good sluices in an ordinary storm, but in Harvey they couldn’t shed their water fast enough and became rivers.
Samuel Brody, a resident of the west side of Houston who says the flood waters crept up “into the freak-out zone” of his house, argues that Houston and the region should make better use of green solutions, such as preserving wetlands and digging more detention ponds, which are normally dry but fill up in storms. New buildings—and even old ones—should be elevated on piles so water flows under them, not into them, says Brody, who has a doctorate in city and regional planning and teaches at Texas A&M University’s Galveston campus. And, he says, builders should be prohibited from raising the heights of building lots with fill, which merely diverts more water onto their neighbors’ property.
The acreage of metro Houston that can’t soak up rainfall increased by 32 percent from 2001 to 2011, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. The political difficulty of green solutions is that they require buying up and ripping out stuff that’s already been built, which is expensive, or protecting existing green spaces from development, which means forgoing property tax revenue, which is also a costly response. (That’s especially so in Texas, which relies heavily on property taxes, since there’s no state income tax.) “What we’ve done hasn’t worked,” Brody says. “The question is, what else can be done? Keep developing and putting people in harm’s way, or do we need a shift in thinking?”
Making a city more resilient isn’t easy. Lots of U.S. cities—Miami comes to mind—were built in places that don’t make a lot of sense anymore. It’s worse abroad, where the world’s poorest cities are among the most vulnerable. More than 1,200 people in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal have died this summer from the worst monsoon flooding in years. One obvious solution is to curb the emission of the gases heating up the planet. But even if countries get a lot more serious about slowing climate change, we’re still going to have catastrophes. Mitigation of the consequences will have to be part of the answer.
Singapore could be a role model, says Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities, a nonprofit founded by the Rockefeller Foundation. While its population has more than doubled since the 1980s, the city-state, which is in the path of monsoons, has increased to 46 percent from 35 percent the area of land with green cover, according to the government’s Centre for Liveable Cities.
A strategy such as Singapore’s takes time, though. Rattled by Harvey, Houstonians may understandably want a quicker fix. “There will be such a focus to reduce a single hazard, to get the water away as quickly as possible” through sluices, berms, and the like, Berkowitz says. “Houston will miss an opportunity. If you’re really going to make those improvements, that’s the work of a generation.”