- - Monday, August 28, 2017


Why is Houston so vulnerable to epic floods? Because, as the old song said, “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” (Thank you Joni Mitchell.)

The flood ravaging Houston, with its rising death toll, will send an estimated 30,000 people to shelters, and destroy property that will take many years to rebuild. The storm named Harvey is unprecedented, but it was not unexpected.

Harvey is only the latest – and the worst, so far – of Houston’s recent trials by water.  The “tax day” flood (named for occurring on the day income taxes were due) back in April 2016 came only 11 months after the flood that preceded it in 2015.  Together, those two floods killed 16 people, inflicted well over $1 billion in damage and set off an uproar from Houstonians, some of whom have sued the city over chronic flooding problems. A month after the Tax Day flood, another mega-storm hit the city, dumping well over a foot of rain on parts of Harris County, home to Houston, in 24 hours.

Excessive, unbridled and thoughtless development are not the only causes of Houston’s flood woes.  There are natural causes that add to its vulnerability, too.  The land under Houston is clay, not sand, which absorbs and drains rainfall better.  Houston also sits close to the Gulf of Mexico, whose warm water adds vapor to the air, giving a storm more water to pick up and dump on the land.

But the increase in number and ferocity of urban flooding in recent years cannot be attributed to those natural factors alone.  Human decisions, actions and failures to act are key to why more people die in Houston than anywhere else from floods, and more property per capita is lost there, according to Sam Brody, a researcher at Texas A&M University at Galveston who specializes in natural hazards mitigation.  “And the problem’s getting worse,” he said.

Scientists, and federal officials say Houston’s explosive growth is largely to blame. As millions have flocked to the metropolitan area in recent decades, local officials have largely disparaged the need for stricter building regulations, and allowed developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater. That has led to an excess of floodwater during storms that chokes the city’s bayou network, drainage systems and two large federally owned reservoirs, endangering many nearby homes.

You can see the results just by turning on your TV.

More evidence for the responsibility of reckless development in Houston’s flooding is the fact that much of the flooding occurs in parts of the city which are not located in any floodplain identified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Memorial City is one such neighborhood that was flooded in 2009, 2015, and 2016 … and probably today, as well.  Residents have organized to sue the city, demanding better drainage.

President Ronald Reagan was famous for having said, “government is not the solution; government is the problem.” 

In this case government is indeed a significant part of the problem because of its failure to plan and manage the Houston’s growth with adequate attention to safe living along with economic progress.

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