Houston’s ‘Wild West’ growth – Washington Post

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Houston calls itself “the city with no limits” to convey the promise of boundless opportunity. But it also is the largest U.S. city to have no zoning laws, part of a hands-off approach to urban planning that may have contributed to catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Harvey and left thousands of residents in harm’s way.

Growth that is virtually unchecked, including in flood-prone areas, has diminished the land’s already-limited natural ability to absorb water, according to environmentalists and experts in land use and natural disasters. And the city’s drainage system — a network of reservoirs, bayous and, as a last resort, roads that hold and drain water — was not designed to handle the massive storms that are increasingly common.

Certainly, the record-shattering rainfall on Houston and its surrounding area this week would have wreaked havoc even if stricter building limits and better runoff systems were in place. And local officials have defended the city’s approach to development.

But the unfolding disaster — at least 22 people are dead and 30 percent of Harris County, which includes Houston, is underwater — is drawing renewed scrutiny to Houston’s approach to city planning and its unique system for managing floodwater.

“You would have seen widespread damage with Harvey no matter what, but I have no doubt it could have been substantially reduced,” said Jim Blackburn, co-director of Rice University’s research center on severe storm prediction and disaster evacuation.

Over many years, officials in Houston and Harris County have resisted calls for more stringent building codes. Proposals for large-scale flood-control projects envisioned in the wake of Hurricane Ike in 2008 stalled. City residents have voted three times not to enact a zoning code, most recently in 1993.

Rather than impose restrictions on what property owners can do with their land, Houston has attempted to engineer a solution to drainage. The region depends on a network of bayous — slow-moving streams that run east into Galveston Bay — and concrete channels as the main drainage system. Streets and detention ponds are designed to carry and hold the overflow.

In previous public comments, the leaders of the Harris County Flood Control District have rejected the idea that the city’s growth is responsible for massive flooding. They also have disputed the scientific assessments. Those officials were not available this week.

Bill St. John, a retired civil engineer and former project manager for the district, said in an interview: “There are people who would turn around and say there needed to be stronger rules and regulations. And in hindsight, it’s real easy to say that. But the rules and regulations were what they needed to be at the time. There was no scientific proof it needed to be stronger at the time, so it wasn’t.” 



Permeability rating of soil

Source: U.S. Geological Survey, 1995


Permeability rating of underlying soil

Source: U.S. Geological Survey, 1995


Permeability rating of underlying soil

Source: U.S. Geological Survey, 1995 data

But in a city built on a low-lying coastal plain, on “black gumbo,” clay-based soil that is among the least absorbent in the nation, many experts say those approaches no longer suffice. They say that new homes should be elevated and that construction should be prohibited in some flood-prone areas.

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. Some other cities also allow building in flood plains, with varying degrees of regulation. 

“Houston is the Wild West of development, so any mention of regulation creates a hostile reaction from people who see that as an infringement on property rights and a deterrent to economic growth,” said Sam Brody, director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University. “The stormwater system has never been designed for anything much stronger than a heavy afternoon thunderstorm.”

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.

Like other coastal areas, Houston and its surrounding areas have repeatedly turned to federal taxpayers for help rebuilding.

Harris County has received about $3 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for losses in the past four decades, federal data show. It ranks third in the amount paid by the National Flood Insurance Program, behind Orleans and Jefferson parishes in Louisiana, which sustained significant damage during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

In the 1940s, the Army Corps of Engineers built two massive reservoirs that serve as holding areas during big downpours. In the following decades, the city carved out additional concrete channels and lined bayous with pavement to shunt water away.

“The system is dependent on bayous that have been there forever and had a certain capacity,” said Gerry Galloway, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Maryland and a visiting professor at Texas A&M. “Over the years, that was probably a reasonable way to deal with this. As the city grew, and there was more development, there was less and less capacity to carry the runoff.”

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