The headline suggestion in a 6-page policy paper published last week under the banner of Rice University’s Baker Institute comes in item 2 of a helpfully numbered list of 15 things Houston might want to do or think about to make future never-seen-this-before flooding events a little less catastrophic: Author Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney, pioneering Houston-area naturalist, and longtime let’s-not-flood advocate, proposes a “fair but extensive home buyout and removal program” targeted at homes that have been flooded 3 or more times since Tropical Storm Allison in 2001: “It is unlikely we can develop strategies to protect them from severe rainfall events that are much more frequent than labels such as ‘100-year’ or even ‘500-year’ rainfall events suggest,’ he writes.
Among the less radical proposals put forward in his list is the suggestion to map and categorize the Houston region by its propensity to flood: “safe” areas that didn’t flood — and should therefore become “the backbone of the Houston of Tomorrow” — “transitional” areas (only “single-event” flooding); and “buyout” areas — which can be targeted for parks and “future green infrastructure.”
Other ideas and issues from the paper that Blackburn hopes will “initiate a conversation” are summarized here:
- Repair and clean out the accumulated silt from Barker and Addicks reservoirs, and go ahead and build that third reservoir northwest of Addicks that’s been waiting for funding.
- Harvey was very bad, but future storms could still be worse: Imagine a 25-ft. storm surge near Galveston Bay, exactly where floodwaters would be trying to drain. Bonus: Resulting floods in nearby chemical and refining plants could be expected to trigger “one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.”
- “100 year floods” have become a joke. Until a more realistic remapping can occur, maybe we should consider the 500-year zones Houston’s official floodplain.
- The areas designated as floodplains are too small because the rainfall amounts they’re based on are too small. FEMA should consider limiting new construction in these danger zones.
- Market-based approaches — such as paying landowners to raise a “crop” of stored water — should be used to preserve native prairies and wetlands in the western and northwestern portions of Harris County. One such approach: the Texas Coastal Exchange trading system, developed by Rice’s SSPEED Center, which requires no government funding.
- A special flooding abatement tax — with safeguards to prevent its use on other projects — would help provide funds needed for flood-damage reduction and planning projects.
- We need better real-time flood warning and information tools to help us live with regular bouts of high water. People should be able to find rainfall intensity, bayou conditions, and which roads and intersections are flooded easily. For high-priority areas of the city, these should trigger local warning systems and flood gates automatically.
- Growth patterns in the Houston region typically subsidize new development at the expense of downstream residents. Better and more stringent drainage regulations for new developments — perhaps modeled after those of Fort Bend County — would reduce runoff in older neighborhoods.
- Foundations of all new and rebuilt homes should be elevated well above the crown of the street.
- Information about precisely where and how many times flooding has occurred — and the accuracy of existing maps — should be more easily available. People should be informed if they are moving into an evacuation zone. Public elevation markers — like one removed years ago from NASA Road 1 (because it “interfered with land sales”) that show the expected height of surge flooding from Category 4 and 5 hurricanes — should be installed.
- An “Ike Dike” would protect the region’s refining and chemical infrastructure against a future storm more catastrophic than Harvey — one that comes with an envisioned 20- to 25-ft. storm surge. But a less comprehensive “mid-bay solution” would cost much less ($3 billion), offer almost as much protection, and could be funded locally.
- To ensure all flood-control work remains accountable and transparent, Houston needs to keep score. How about a continuously updated tally sheet, for each watershed, of the number of acres in the floodplain and floodway, the number and locations of flooded homes, the streets and intersections that flooded the worst, the number of cars that flooded, the dollar amount of flooding damages, all grandfathered permits and variances issued, and other metrics?
- Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey: Policy Perspectives (PDF) [Baker Institute for Public Policy]
- Baker Institute paper offers ideas to design a post-Harvey Houston for the future [Rice News]