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Houston has to decide whether to rethink its development strategy

Chris Ginter wades through deep floodwaters on September 6, 2017 in Houston, Texas.  Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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Wes Highfield witnessed last week’s flood in real time from his home in Friendswood, Texas, about 20 miles south of downtown Houston.

“I do this kind of research for a living,” said Highfield, who teaches about flood loss and mitigation strategy at Texas A&M, Galveston. “This is the first time I’ve watched it unfold before my eyes.”

Few would have predicted southeast Texas would get 50 inches of rain in less than a week. That’s a good year for Houston. But no one should be surprised that Houston flooded in a big way.

Hydrologists, city planners and flood experts like Highfield have been warning the country’s fourth most populous city is susceptible to catastrophic floods because of the way it has developed over the past 20 years. In that time, Houston grew into a 600-square mile metropolis.

Highfield’s house is on higher ground and he said that a lot of his neighborhood is still dry, though his kid’s schools were flooded. He has also run the statistical models and admitted the development of neighborhoods like his a part of the problem. 

He said the storm has led him to a lot of introspection and he knows the local government is torn about what to do, too. Politicians lack incentive to think about how development will affect future generations. Highfield said city officials are in a tough spot between risk and reward — and short-term gain and long-term safety.

“Do I want to increase my tax base,” he said, “or do I want to tell a developer, ‘no’?”

To attract businesses, residents and money, Houston has developed without much planning and practically zero zoning. 

“The lack of zoning in Houston has contributed to people building anything, anywhere,” said Bruce Hyde, a certified city planner at the University of Connecticut’s Center for Land Use Education and Research. “That’s the reason there are oil refineries or chemical plants surrounded by residential neighborhoods.”

Wetlands and bayous in a large swath of southeast Texas are now paved over. Old marshes are new malls. Waters that once drained or pooled up in prairies now ruin homes. In the two years before Harvey, 16,000 buildings had been flooded, and the city was hit with more than $1 billion in damage. 

“We need the prairie grass, we need these natural preserved systems to be able to absorb the water and soak it up like a sponge,” said Adam Griffith, a doctoral student in Geography and Urban Regional Analysis at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

Griffith has a personal connection to Houston, too. He taught 6th grade science at Stevenson Middle School in Houston from 1999 to 2002. He said when he saw the damage Harvey was inflicting on the area, he decided to investigate how much green space had been developed there in recent history. He found that between 2001 and 2010, almost 7 percent was transitioned from primarily permeable to primarily impermeable land.

Overview: The image above shows the Houston city limits in blue-green and development built between 2001 and 2011 in orange. The development shown here is greater than 50 percent impervious surfaces. Map courtesy of Adam Griffith.

Griffith said that’s a big reason Houston is in this mess.

“When they designed Houston they weren’t thinking of stormwater runoff,” he said. “But with the very flat topography combined with a very high percentage of impervious surfaces, it’s a double-whammy.” 

As the waters recede and rebuilding becomes an immediate priority, the city has to come up with a plan to make sure Houston doesn’t flood again. So, do officials convert developed land back into wetlands and just tell people to move? If that ends up being the best option, that leads to another question, said Hyde.

“Who is going to pay for all these homes to be removed and who is going to pay for all these people to be relocated? I don’t know the answer to that,” he said.

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