Houston, can you read me? –Heartbroken in St. Louis

Houston Flood: This was home
[Family Photo]

St. Louis, Sept. 1, 2017: Hurricane Harvey has devastated Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city. While capable first responders, an able governor and alert local officials  have worked around the clock and taken decisive measures to rescue marooned residents and begin recovery, the long-suffering citizens have endured heartrending loss.

Among our own relatives, three households have been flooded, two temporarily and the other, due to total flooding in a FEMA designated 500-year flood zone, suffered  damage the agency has classified as Category Four, the worst. Countless families—and an early estimate I’ve heard is 100,000 people—have also been put out of their homes. Some have lost every possession they have ever worked for, had their lifestyles wrecked and their lives completely disrupted. In the nation’s seventh-largest school district, some 215,000 students have been shut out of their schools.

Despite current good measures being taken by local officials, a series of unfortunate policy decisions, on both land-use and protection of our environment, are at the root of Houston’s current crisis. Right now the focus is on Houston, but a closer look at many other cities will reveal both floodplain development and global climate change have aggravated the situation and will only make it worse in the coming years.

In just over the past 25 years Houston alone has occupied 50 percent of the region’s wetlands, paved them over and made them mostly impervious to the absorption of rain and floodwater.  Famously in the annals of urban growth, this city has no zoning regulations and very little coordinated land-use planning. Widely accepted land development customs, a loosely-evolved network of covenants and  local ordinances and highway planning uncoordinated with growth patterns have aggravated the problem.  Such practices ignore issues that have determined the creation of paved highways – often 10 lanes wide with outer access roads making them even wider – local streets, driveways, parking lots, big-box stores and office buildings with impervious roofs. All of these hard surfaces force both rainfall and floodwater to run off to ditches, storm sewers, creeks and streams. Most of these waterways in Houston proper lead to Buffalo Bayou, a principal waterway right through the center of the city.

Buffalo Bayou, despite a picturesque name of origin, which evokes a lazy, meandering stream with backwaters and absorptive banks, is no longer anything of the kind. Today, it is a paved ditch, with admittedly wide borders and expansive, grassy banks, but its capacity has not kept up with increases in runoff from urbanizing areas. Over the years this principal floodway for a major American city became a disaster waiting to happen.

Increasing atmospheric disturbances, above-normal rainfall and a decade of atypical hurricanes in the peak August-September season have culminated over the past week in a flood of biblical proportions. Harvey moved in and stayed, moving as slowly as two miles per hour, doubling back on itself, as if determined to keep one of its massive feet planted in the Gulf of Mexico at all times. Bands of rain on the northeast, dirty side of the hurricane deluged Houston again and again, making landfall three separate times.. The amount of water from the skies has been estimated to be 1 trillion gallons descending on the City of Houston alone in four days. The state of Texas received many times that amount. The result was a perfect storm, which FEMA may yet  declare to be a 1000-year flood, This means it has a one in 1000 chance of occurring in any given year, but it is based upon past experience only, not predictions of future, increased precipitation and runoff amounts.These totals far exceed all previous predictions FEMA used to create their detailed, block-by-block maps of flood risk in the city’s urban terrain.

Another factor has contributed to this situation. The vast majority of the worldwide scientific community concludes with very little contradiction that the principal cause of these unusually violent storms can be attributed to global climate change.  Nonetheless, our highest federal officials arrogantly declare that the experts are wrong and that our policy of commitment to the Global Climate Accords must be reversed

It is time to defy the deniers. Coastal and  riverine areas host the greater part America’s urban population. One sage panelist on NPR this week observed that we can’t move all the cities to  higher ground : we must find another solution. Our land-use and environmental protection policy must change.

In view of this current political impasse and likelihood of continued hurricanes in the coming days and years along America’s Gulf coast and eastern seaboard, the New York Times op-ed analyst Rebecca Elliott today published a call for a Green New Deal: 

As the legal scholar Michele Dauber has shown, President Franklin D. Roosevelt understood the relationship between “ruined landscapes and ruined lives.” Roosevelt likened the Great Depression to the devastation of the Dust Bowl, tornadoes in Georgia, and floods on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to build his case for the huge public investments and assistance programs that transformed the fates of Americans who were also starting over.

Environmentalists and scholars have sometimes called this a “green New Deal” or “environmental Keynesianism.” We should invest in science and public education to train the next generation of engineers who will build safer homes and infrastructure. (President Trump promised us infrastructure but, just weeks before this storm, rescinded an Obama-era regulation that required structures built with federal money to take sea-level rise into account.) We should expand and enhance programs that make adaptation to climate change possible for ordinary Americans, helping them to retrofit their homes or relocate to safer ground.

Meanwhile, our hearts go out to the beleaguered inhabitants of Texas, whose faith in their government has been so badly betrayed. We can’t go back and change what, collectively, we all did wrong. We must find ways to make the affected people as comfortable as possible in these dire circumstances. And then we must plan ahead so that in rebuilding we not only don’t repeat past mistakes, but constructively begin to work toward solutions which avoid recurrence of such disasters.

Heartbroken in St. Louis,


Peter H. Green, AIA, AICP

Architect, Planner, Author

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