Comment of the Day: The Risky Game Houston’s Been Playing All These Years

COMMENT OF THE DAY: THE RISKY GAME HOUSTON’S BEEN PLAYING ALL THESE YEARS “It is really amazing to look at the total disaster that Harvey caused (And Ike. And Allison. And the Tax Day flood. And the Memorial Day flood.) and say to developers and regulators in the Houston area, “Doing a heck of a job, Brownie.” Developers and regulators built thousands of homes and strip malls all across Houston during the boom cycles of the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’90s that had completely insufficient stormwater drainage infrastructure. Regulators allowed people to build too close to flood zones and builders did not think twice about building right up to bayous and rivers. The response from regulators was to require better development practices moving forward in some areas and apply a few band aids in other areas. This lax development attitude worked for a long time because it helped keep housing relatively affordable compared to other large metro areas. But after Harvey, people looking to come to Houston will have to consider whether the affordable housing and economic opportunities are worth the risk of losing everything in another big flooding event. The reassurance that developers are doing a better job with new projects does nothing to allay fears that existing housing is prone to devastating flooding. Houston’s failed development practices are now an albatross around the City’s neck.” [Old School, commenting on Comment of the Day: What Out-of-Town Reporters Don’t Understand About Houston-Area Development Regulations] Illustration: Lulu

17 Comment

  • By the way, amen, old school.

  • I have the opposite perspective on this. Sure, there are many things Houston could do to better manage flooding. I live a few blocks from Brays Bayou, so I’ve seen where we can improve.

    But I’m shocked at how well the area handled this amount of water. I read the Houston area received 21 trillion gallons of water over five days. Is there really a city that would be in better shape after that kind of rainfall? Maybe Manila?

  • This is like sophomore level undergrad civil engineering and yet people act like I’m a communist when a civil engineer states something like, “lowering the amount of permeable surfaces in a region increases the runoff” — This goes for suburban sprawl and for inner city growth. With the growth of the city you have to address the infrastructure needs associated with increased runoff. You have two choices (which can be combined), control development, or improve the infrastructure capacity. Both have a social cost.

  • memebag: Agreed. I was amazed (and quite frankly, blessed/thankful) at the small amount of damage to our properties given the number of them we have and the fact they’re spread out. We made an offer to about 100 agents we’ve worked with letting them know that if they knew people that got displaced from the strom, and had no where to go, we could put them in one of our units.
    We also put that offer on our website and facebook page. We got only a small handful of people that took us up on our offer (I was worried I’d have to shuffle around tons of units to be able to fit as many new people as possible). Which suggests if there were a lot of people who lost their housing, at least they’re able to be absorbed and not homeless without options

  • We’re still waiting for a count of Harvey homes flooding, but we know in TS Allison that 70,000 homes took on water. It’s certainly a disaster if your home flooded, but in a region of 5+ million people, the vast majority were not impacted.

    Flood insurance is readily available, and extremely affordable if you don’t live in a flood prone area.

    You can’t plan for everything. Should NYC stop building since scientist say the oceans will someday swamp the city?

  • An estimated 30% of the county is hard surface, including paving, roofs, etc. If it had all been heavily regulated in its construction, you might have gotten that down to 25% (roofs wouldn’t be smaller, but parking areas might, etc.). So you have a 1/6 reduction in hard surface (this is being very generous), or about 17%. Then you must consider the difference in runoff between hard surface and clayey dirt. What percentage of a 25″ rainfall can be soaked into the ground? Maybe 3 inches of rain, or about 12%? So take 12% of 17% and what does that come to? 2-3% difference in runoff, with or without regulations?

  • Sorry enginerd… No matter the investment in better infrastructure, the floods still would have come. With 50 inches of rain even Little House on the Prairie would be flooded. Even the pristine Attwater Prairie Chicken Wildlife Refuge (with very little development nearby or upstream) was flooded. Sometimes nature is unstoppable. Now surely you are right that a little more spending (on civil engineering projects…) might help for a lesser storm, but in this case the half billion spent on the Brays Bayou proved to be wasted. The water rushing by my old apartment on Braeswood Blvd. was higher than ever before. It hurts the very poor the most, but they will keep tolerating it. Nothing will change until the banks, insurance companies, or (mostly foreign-owned) petrochemical businesses are impacted.

  • Maybe Houston let flood control lag behind development but the recent attempts to fix that seem to have worked in some areas…I live close to Brays Bayou around the Mason Park area where Project Brays added holding capacity, including the big Willow Waterhole project upstream and we had no water get above the curb..just like heavy rain level..and I went down to Mason to see how far the bayou had risen and it was way less than when Ike came to town.
    But it will be interesting to see how this last one changes things from here on.

  • I find it very helpful when an out-of-town moron shares their “zoning prevents flooding” take. It signals that you can safely ignore what they’re saying. Drop 4 feet of rain on Portland and houses will probably flood there, too. Doesn’t NYC have a shit load of zoning? I learned in 2012 that rain causes flooding there just like it does in Houston. It turns out that weather events that exceed the design capacity of the infrastructure causes problems.
    Guess what you would have if Houston had the kind of restrictive zoning found in most large cities? Lower density residential development, driving more population to the suburbs, resulting in more sprawl, and more impervious cover upstream of the city’s bayous (where CoH doesn’t have regulatory control).
    Restrictive zoning is as likely to make the situation worse as it is to make it better. If people think regulators are too developer-friendly under the current development rules, what makes you think they’d be any less so if given more power?

  • Funny, because my moms circa 1970 home managed not to flood, yet several neighborhoods built within the last decade immediately nearby on Tidwell/BW8 did flood and bad. These newer neighborhoods even had several detention ponds around them that were built by the developers and that did nothing. This drainage problem you speak of, goes much further than just the “60’s, 70’s & early 90’s” construction….it’s still occurring presently.

  • @matt I want to make clear, that I’m not indicating that we should design for 1000 year storm events or greater. But we can certainly lessen the impact with better planning and infrastructure development. I’m well aware that not many systems(if any) would have been able to handle last weekends event. My issue is now weve had three, 500 year storm and flood events, in 3 years that have resulted in 3 instances of significant and expensive property destruction, which the public partially bears responsibility for paying for. My opinion is that perhaps our system is insufficient because, in part, we’ve decreased the amount of permeable surfaces within the region.

  • Mike: I think the amount absorbed/slowed by prairie is a good deal higher than bare clay.

    Not that the county isn’t plenty disturbed, but that needn’t be the default.

  • Climate change little donnie tramp. You are correct, it is not real. Lets see, three 500 plus year floods in the last three years. Statistical anomaly or do the concepts of what constitutes a 100/500 year flood need to be changed.

  • Callirhoe, I didn’t say bare clay, I said “clayey dirt,” i.e. dirt with a high clay content. My guess is our soil holds about 3 inches of rain before it becomes saturated. I could be wrong, but I doubt it’s more than 5 inches.

  • Mike, sorry, the point I was trying but failed to make, about prairie grasses, whose roots go many feet into the ground, is that they increase the porosity of clay soil.

  • It’s been very frustrating for me to watch so many articles and reports from the national and global media that proffer simplistic assessments of the Houston region’s flooding problems and quick prescriptions for changing everything. Almost universally, the stories default to…’well the locals just don’t have a handle on it and if only they’d listen to the wise snippet of words of a self-described expert from another place or a wet bystander on the street or a know-nothing talking head, then those [denigrating epithet for Houstonians] down there could fix everything.’ This is a problem with the usual suspects like MSNBC or Fox News, and its also a problem with NPR. It’s a problem with anything that’s popular enough to be relevant to general public discourse.
    I wouldn’t say that that these attitudes are at all based in reality. If you consider the strides that have been made in the Brays and Sims Bayou watersheds in particular, and with the hardening of the Texas Medical Center…yeah, I think that it’s undeniable that been progress made. Clearly the new infrastructure is working and reflects many hundreds of millions of dollars since TS Alison that were mostly well spent. But as much as has been done, those projects are perennially underfunded. Every legislative session is a fight. The City government’s finances are tied now more than ever. Where subsidence has historically been a very big problem, like in Meyerland and in the northern reaches of Harris County, well we can’t fix the damage but we can stop the process, and that’s been done or is being done also at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.
    I wouldn’t dare say that throwing money at it is all it’s going to take to get past this sort of mega-flooding event, but that seems to be the biggest singular regional issue there is. Unfortunately, covering federal grants and the relative minutiae of state budget cycles and municipal finance…that stuff is dry as a bone. That’s where the real journalism is, and most everything else is just “reality”-based entertainment.

  • Maybe put Houston under direct federal control for now – in effect it’ll be a martial law of governance. Forget spending bills; just spend the money directly on what needs to be done – starting with a network of canals throughout Houston (in addition to existing bayous) and ultimately possibly concluding by making the Barker and Addicks dams taller (with closable tunnels for driving through in normal conditions).