This second flood will either kill me or ruin my marriage. I cannot deal. My house is in shambles, my kids are overwhelmed. And my husband and I are fighting over what to do or not to do next. I just want to run away screaming and never look back.”
– A post made to the Houston Flood 2015 Resource and Support Group on Facebook, by a woman who lives in the Meyerland area of southwest Houston. Her home was flooded during the Memorial Day 2015 floods in Houston, and flooded again on April 17th – 18th, 2016.
I’ve lived in Houston for most of my life. I lived through Hurricane Alicia in August 1983, Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, Hurricanes Rita and Ike, the Memorial Day floods of 2015, and now the floods of April 2016. During the Memorial Day 2015 flooding, some younger friends who were working for Matt Murphy, who was then running for Houston City Council, organized an effort on the Saturday following the rain storms to help clean up houses in the Meyerland area that flooded after Brays Bayou overflowed its banks. That day, I worked with three others cleaning out a World War II and Korean War veteran’s house, which he had lived in for the past 40 years. I then went on to help clean out four more houses, and helped out on a food and cleaning supply drive with deliveries to affected homeowners. I donated over $500 towards fundraising drives to help flood victims, and I’ll be cutting checks this weekend to help with the most recent flooding. I’ve been fortunate enough never to have had flooding in either my parents’ house or my home. However, having volunteered to help victims, I’ve gotten a pretty close look at what it’s like to have your life turned upside down from a flood, as well as to see how people reacted.
Houston – The Big Swamp
It’s probably not a bad idea to restate the obvious: Ever since the Allen Brothers pulled off their great swindle job and founded the City of Houston in 1836, we who have chosen to live here have had to struggle with the fact that it rains a lot around these parts. The Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) was created in 1937 after Houston was pounded with a series of massive floods in the 1920s and 1930s. There is a reason why Sugar Land was called Sugar Land, and to this day farmers in southeast Texas still grow plenty of rice. Yes, rice and sugar are very thirsty crops.
Back around 2007, the Houston Property Rights Association had someone from the HCFCD speak. After telling us that he started at the District one week before Tropical Storm Allison (what a way to get baptized by fire at your new job!), he opined that Houston was a horrible place to locate a vast city. I raised my hand and respectfully disagreed. Houston, I opined, was an excellent place to locate a vast city, and none other than Arthur Comey, a famous landscape architect from the so called Progressive Era of the early 20th century, thought so too. Comey is famous to this day in certain circles of the political classes of town, as he wrote a report – known as the Comey Report – where he also opined that Houston had a great future. Comey wrote that cities that were growing quickly during his era were cities that were linked by railroads and were close to the sea (Houston qualified on both counts). The reason I added my voice 100 years later to Comey’s opinion was that the 20th century was to prove that Houston was sitting near an ocean of crude oil and natural gas, and was to become the city that would be the worldwide headquarters of the industry that would power the 20th century and beyond, providing opportunities to millions in its wake.
Comey thought during his time that one thing Houston lacked was a system of parks, and pointed out that Houston’s creeks and bayous could easily serve as natural parks. He also proposed that roads approaching and that were near the parks should be wide streets, boulevard-like, that would be restricted to traffic — what we would these days call limited-access parkways. Comey’s vision was at least partially carried out. It’s easy to see where Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive conform to his vision. North and South Braeswood, as well as East and West T.C. Jester, are somewhat like he envisioned, albeit they are not limited-access parkway roads. Comey also stressed the need for good storm sewers to handle Houston’s sudden downpours.
Another aspect of Comey’s vision that was ultimately not realized was one that was to play a role in the 2015 and 2016 rainstorms: the parking of Houston’s bayous. Comey suggested parking Houston’s bayous for a distance of 4-6 miles to accommodate future growth. That might sound silly to a Houstonian of today, since 4-6 miles from downtown Houston barely gets you to the Interstate 610 Loop, but you need to remember that Comey was writing in an era of streetcars, and Henry Ford was still a year or two away from making his great breakthroughs in using the assembly line to build automobiles that would revolutionize our lives. But the principle of Comey’s idea was that the City would acquire swaths of land around Houston’s bayous which would serve as natural parks complementing the bayous. Wise minds would also note that those bayou-oriented parks could also serve to hold plenty of storm water in the event of rainstorms.
Houston suburbanized in the decades after Comey wrote his report. One thing that occurred during all that suburbanization was that some Houstonians acquired a taste for living nearby Houston’s creeks and bayous, and real-estate developers built subdivisions rather close to them. All one has to do is go to Yahoo Maps or Google Maps, and look at their renditions of Houston to see how closely some property owners have built to Houston’s waterways. Indeed, many of those subdivisions are affluent. Memorial and Tanglewood (which bracket Buffalo Bayou to the north and south respectively) as well as the West University and Meyerland areas (which bump up against Brays Bayou) are home to property owners whose mere one-eighth acre lots are worth $300,000 and up. Many of these subdivisions were started and built in the 1960s, if not earlier.
So, why would Houstonians want to build and live near creeks and bayous? The answer is actually simple. Waterways provide a natural source of recreation. Residents can kayak down Buffalo Bayou, and there have been bicycle and running trails paved along many of Houston’s waterways.
Further building near bayous occurred with areas around Cypress Creek in northwest Harris County, which overflowed its banks during the most recent flooding, causing many middle-class suburbanites to sweat whether their homes would go under as well. Additionally, several hundred people had to be evacuated around the Greenspoint Mall area and be provided with temporary housing.
The final report on the April 2016 floods indicates that several thousand homeowners and apartment dwellers, plus 40,000 motor vehicles were flooded. Several people I know were personally affected. One acquaintance mistakenly parked her car on the street, only to find that her vehicle flooded out the following morning. One young woman and her husband who live in The Woodlands had water come into their dining room. It could have been worse. Indeed, Tropical Storm Allison was far worse than the April 2016 floods. And, there are area waters which only started to crest well after the rains.
The $64 billion question: Who is to blame for Houston’s flooding?
Whenever disaster strikes, it’s natural for people to start looking for scapegoats to blame. The Houston Chronicle‘s Lisa Falkenberg wrote the following:
When the carpets are replaced and the new drywall is installed, we can’t forget to plan for next time. Quite a few essays have been written on the flooding, several published on the Chronicle’s Gray Matters site, all weighing in on causes and solutions: It’s the developers. It’s suburban sprawl. It’s paving over wetlands. It’s the easily gamed permitting process. It’s building in floodways. It’s global warming.
Predictably chiming in on those same lines is David Crossley. Mr. Crossley used his access to the local, like-minded media to pen an Op-Ed in the Houston Chronicle, largely to say — surprise, surprise — that sprawl was a mistake. Meanwhile over at the Houston Press, Steve Jansen has posted a number of stories on last week’s flooding, including one suggesting that the troubles of Meyerland can be blamed on flood protection efforts made by the Texas Medical Center. He also included a statement from conservative-leaning policy analyst George Scott, who blamed Meyerland’s flooding woes on real-estate development in Fort Bend County. Meanwhile, a friend of mine who lives in the Spring Branch area, who calls himself a hardcore libertarian, blames John Culberson for the fact that he has flooded out three times in the past seven years. He blames the Interstate 10 / Katy Freeway expansion, and wants the federal government to fix the problem. That despite the fact that he lives on a stretch of Campbell Road which is some 2 1/2 miles away from Interstate 10.
In short, it’s the same story that occurs after every disaster. Everyone gets busy during the Monday morning quarterbacking blaming everyone else for flooding — everyone that is, except for God / Mother Nature for dumping hundreds of billions of gallons of rainfall on us all at once.
Houston, it’s time to start building up
The inevitable question that gets asked after every flood or hurricane is, “what is to be done now?” There are tons of suggestions and demands being made. Houston’s two “Green” Congress critters, Gene Green and Al Green, are wanting $311 million on federal funds for flood projects for one. The City of Houston has moved families out of the flooded areas around Greenspoint Mall and given them shelter. Lots of private charities are working, as they do during every disaster, to help.
One problem with making political demands on either the local or the federal government to fix your flooding problem is that governments everywhere are under immense piles of debt. The federal government is now $19 trillion in debt, while the City of Houston has billions in debt. Pressure groups succeeded in making sure that governments, which would have otherwise easily been able to drop billions in infrastructure projects, are now under pressure because the decision has been made to take care of people, rather than infrastructure. Whether that involves paying out big pensions for decades to firefighters and police officers, or paying for retirement via Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid by Congress, taking care of huge numbers of voters in affluent countries is not cheap. People vote in elections, while roads, bridges, bayous, detention basins, and drainage canals do not, and the zeros have added up, squeezing tax dollars that would otherwise would be available to help with issues like flooding.
Amazingly, as much as David Crossley and his Smart Growth brigade have served as a punching bag for me over the years, Crossley did make a few good suggestions in his Op-Ed. Namely, his observation that every flood is different is something I do agree with. We know it’s going to flood in the Houston area, but we don’t know to what intensity each area of town is going to get hit in any particular flood. Mr. Crossley did say we need better maps, something I agree with. Staying away from lower-lying areas is always a good idea.
I also agree with Mr. Crossley that we need to start building up. However, where Mr. Crossley and his friends want Houstonians to shut down suburbia and pack the entire population of the Houston metropolitan area inside the 610 Loop in high density development six floors up, I have another idea. I’d suggest that Houstonians start elevating homes and businesses 4-5 feet up off the ground. Why? Well, let’s just say that I have several friends who live in high rises, and I never hear a peep from them about flooding whenever the rains come. I myself live on the second floor of a complex, and I never have to worry about flooding either. Quite a few of the homes in the older parts of Houston were built on pier and beam foundations, rather than on a slab.
Also, as much as I disagree with the all-powerful federal government providing flood insurance (which to me is unconstitutional, but who cares about the constitution when there are other people’s money and votes are at stake, right?), Congress and FEMA require cities that buy into the federal flood insurance plan to adopt a local floodplain management program. In Houston, what this means is that homeowners who have been flooded out with damage claims that are greater than 50 percent of the value of the property must submit plans to lift their rebuilt house at least 18 inches above the base flood elevation. More about the issue can be read here. In short, if you’re flooded out and have flood insurance, the feds have strong-armed the cities to kick Americans in the pants to get them to build up, should they want to rebuild their homes in place.
The blunt fact of the matter is that building Houston up is not going to be cheap. After all, well into the hundreds of billions of dollars of residential, industrial, and commercial real estate has been built in our great city. Having a real-estate developer bring in trucks to dump several feet of dirt on a 1/8th – 1/4th acre lot to elevate a single-family dream house out in the suburbs is costly, as is deciding to rebuild a house in place and lift it up several feet. However, building up is the most powerful and effective decision people can make to defend themselves against flooding. In effect, such a course of action would entail taking matters into your own hands and buying yourself insurance against flooding. It sure beats having to cut out thousands of dollars of carpet, tear up 2 feet of drywall, sheet rock, and baseboards in your house, not to mention having to redo your electrical outlets, spray to combat mold growth, and losing your computers, television, and all your furniture to a wall of water entering your house. As one veteran disaster volunteer told one homeowner whose house I helped clean out last year, if your house floods out, you’ve looking at two years of your life being lost before you’re able to get your life back on track. And, how many times are Houstonians going to put up with losing two years of their lives every time it floods before they decide that it isn’t worth it?