How can Houston live with the uncertainty of flooding?

A great American city, struck by natural disaster, forever changes the way it thinks about building and planning. That’s not the story of Houston after Hurricane Harvey — yet. It should be.

It is, however, the story of California — one that has plenty of lessons to teach us.

A 1933 earthquake in Long Beach fundamentally changed California’s mindset on disaster preparedness. Everyone knew powerful earthquakes would strike again. That deep-seated awareness profoundly affected not only how the state rebuilt and recovered from the disaster, but also how it developed during the 20th century. Now nearly every aspect of development and investment along the San Andreas Fault involves consideration of the persistent seismic threat.

After Harvey, Houston is starting to undergo a similar paradigm shift, a fundamental change of philosophy documented in the first report released by the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium. We all know we cannot eliminate flooding, but this report makes it abundantly clear we must take bold steps and implement a wide range of strategies to minimize its impact.

The big lesson: We can’t just respond and move on. Flooding must sit at the core of any conversation about Houston’s future.

This consortium of local experts on hydrology, the environment and urban planning has been funded by a coalition of local philanthropic groups, most notably the Houston Endowment, the Kinder Foundation and The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. We mention their names because they deserve praise and credit for bankrolling this outstanding effort, which has produced a remarkably thorough and lucid call for the Houston area to fundamentally rethink how it faces the inevitability of more flooding.

One of the consortium’s more eye-opening insights involves the Addicks and Barker reservoirs. If the dams holding back the waters in the reservoirs fail, the consequences could be cataclysmic. The Army Corps of Engineers estimated a collapse of the outlet works at Addicks would kill up to 7,000 people. And yet, there’s no publicly available information clearly proving or disproving the structural integrity of the two reservoirs. The consortium calls not only for a clear report on the condition of the dams, but also a candid revelation of the risks they pose.

This report also outlines how some freeways and railroads act as de facto dams trapping water in adjacent neighborhoods. Independence Heights, for example, suffered significant flood damage largely because water backed up north of the North Loop. The consortium suggests problems like these could be addressed by collaboration between railroads, the Texas Department of Transportation and the Harris County Flood Control District. At a time when TxDOT is planning a massive redesign of the freeways around downtown, flood mitigation should be a prime consideration.

Perhaps the most galling problem highlighted in this report is the fact that flood mitigation analyses nakedly discriminate against people living in lower-income neighborhoods. When deciding where to spend flood-control dollars, the federal government uses a cost-benefit ratio based on economics, not the impact on human lives. So a family living in a $1 million home is basically considered 10 times more important than a family flooded out of a $100,000 house. The consortium suggests using more sophisticated tools such as a social impact assessment. 

Those are just a couple of this study’s long list of insights. The Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium’s deserves continued funding from its philanthropic supporters, and its work product is essential reading for civic and political leaders. The entire report, which is available on its website, is only the first edition of what we hope will become a series of studies on how the Houston area should respond to Hurricane Harvey.

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© 2012-2024 Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.