Flooding in Houston for the 21st century and beyond – Part 2 (Hurricane Harvey edition)

As the entire world knows, the Houston metropolitan area (indeed much of the Texas Gulf Coast from Corpus Christi to Lake Charles Louisiana) was pummeled during the last week of August 2017 by Nature in the form of Hurricane Harvey.  The hurricane blew its way through the Caribbean and lumbered towards Texas, making land north of Corpus Christi near the towns of Rockport and Port Aransas. Frighteningly, Harvey gained a great deal of strength over its final days out in the Gulf of Mexico, ultimately going from a tropical storm to a category 4 hurricane by the time landfall occurred. The towns of Port Aransas and Rockport were flattened by the winds, while Corpus Christi was spared the worst of the damage. Harvey then stumbled around like a drunkard, meandering its way into Texas and then up the Texas coast. In the process, Harvey dumped unprecedented levels of rainfall primarily on east Texas,  all the way into Louisiana. The final rainfalls for the Houston area were a stunning 25-51 inches, depending upon what part of Houston you were in, with an incredible 64 inches of rain falling on the town of Nederland, Texas, near Beaumont. As of this writing, the death toll attributable to Harvey is 82. Most of Harvey’s fury for Houston was from a seemingly bottomless amount of water dumped on hapless Houstonians — some estimates are into the trillions of gallons that fell from the heavens that for four days in late August 2017 never seemed to quit.

 

How Houstonians and Texans have reacted to Harvey

The response of the general public to Harvey’s fury has been nothing short of incredible. Harvey’s reach was far and wide, affecting Texans of all walks of life, ethnic groups, and incomes. God (or Nature, or whatever you believe in) does not discriminate when it comes to natural disasters.

In general, the handling of Harvey by local, state, and federal officials was pretty good. Governor Greg Abbott got out and mobilized the troops and declared disaster areas quickly. Both City of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (a Democrat) and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett (a Republican) performed reasonably well under difficult circumstances, as did figures like Harris County Clerk Chris Daniel, who worked tirelessly during Harvey. Perhaps the single best decision was from Judge Emmett, who during the height of Harvey admitted that the government’s resources were tapped to their limits and asked for any and all private civilian help in rescuing Houston area residents from flooding. FEMA and local government law enforcement did not try to hinder or otherwise take complete control over the situation, as they seemed to have done during disasters like Hurricane Katrina, and Houston-area residents responded with aplomb. Moreover, we had help from Louisiana in the form of the Cajun Navy, whose volunteers drove from across the Texas / Louisiana border to aid in rescues. Indeed, I heard of stories of Americans from all over the country who volunteered to come to Texas during a time of severe distress. Natural disasters have a way of revealing what kind of person you really are, and Harvey showed that when the chips were down, most Texans don’t care a whit about your skin color, ethnicity, what kind of job you have, or how much money you make. It’s what you do that matters.

Now, this is not to say that everything that local governments did was a resounding success. A widely reported story was published in the USA Today that the command of the Houston Fire Department told employees to stand down as Harvey barreled towards Houston. Reportedly, the 845 City fire fighters on duty ended up working to their breaking points during the storm, while many fire fighters disobeyed orders and worked anyway. The storm also revealed HFD to be woefully short of rescue equipment for storms. Other political faux pas were committed by City of Houston mayor Sylvester Turner, who pushed for a substantial property tax increase in the aftermath of Harvey, but partially backed off after a firestorm of disapproval. Eventually Texas governor Greg Abbott gave the City $50 million in discretionary state monies in assistance, and Turner called off the dogs on tax hikes.

As I write this epistle just over a month since Harvey, Houston has more or less settled down, but has become a town of two worlds: a City where for some 90% of Houstonians, like me, life has more or less returned back to normal; and the other place, where 10% of the population — the several hundred thousand residents who in one way or another were seriously affected by the hurricane — have entered what has otherwise been called Harveyland. The current estimates are that some 130,000 properties in Harris County were flooded during Harvey. For all Houstonians, however, Harvey was a landmark event.

 

Where Houston got lucky with Harvey

Houston was very fortunate in some ways regarding Harvey’s impact. Namely, one very big difference between Harvey and other hurricanes that have struck Houston in the past was that Harvey was a rain storm and not a wind hurricane. As such, a big plus for Houston was that utilities stayed on and operating during and after Harvey for over 90% of residents. Electrical power stayed on for most, as did water and sewer. Yes, there were outages here and there, notably a City of Houston water plant which served the Spring Branch/Memorial areas for a few days. Yet, the much ballyhooed rescues, self organizing through social media, and assistance Houstonians (and outsiders) were able to perform were all possible because the electrical power stayed on. Looting, which has sadly affected a few people I know, would have been far worse had the electrical power gone out. The ugly mess Houston found (and still finds) itself in would have been far worse had the power and the water gone out, and those facts should not be overlooked when it comes to dealing with future natural disasters.

 

But Neal, it’s about the flooding, stupid!

Yeah, I know. And if you want to talk about flooding, then here it goes.

On September 2nd, 2017, the Texas Tribune published a preliminary analysis by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) of where Harvey hit the hardest. Now, it has been pointed out to me by a few people I know that the map was not entirely accurate, but it needs to be stressed that this was a preliminary gathering of data in the immediate aftermath of the storm. That being said, there are some very distinct patterns that quickly stand out. Namely, many of the properties in the Houston area that flooded were (and are) located within a half mile of a creek, bayou, ditch, the San Jacinto River, or either the Addicks or Barker reservoirs. One can compare the preliminary FEMA analysis map with the Harris County Flood Education map to see this. Areas that reported heavy flooding include properties along the Cypress Creek watershed, Greens Bayou, Hunting Bayou, Buffalo Bayou, Brays Bayou, the Halls Road ditch leading to Turkey Creek and Clear Creek, areas around Addicks and Barker reservoirs (more on that later), areas nearby both the Brazos River in Fort Bend County, as well as the San Jacinto River and Lake Houston (like Kingwood).

Another more recent map detailing which parts of the City of Houston flooded can be viewed at the Houston Recovers website. This map was published during the last week of September, and can be considered an updated map.

In contrast, the Houston Chronicle published a study compiled by Paige Martin of Keller Williams realty of neighborhoods that did not flood. The areas include the Briargrove subdivision, the Houston Heights, the Montrose area, Afton Oaks, most of Spring Branch, the southern part of River Oaks, most of West University, and the Woodlands. And what do these areas of town have in common? With the exception of of the northern part of River Oaks and the southern part of West University, they are all located several miles away from the nearest major creek, bayou, or river.

Furthermore, a number of Houston-area landmarks also flooded, including the Omni Hotel (whose spa manager was killed by flood waters); the Wortham Center (closed until May 2018 due to flooding); the Alley Theatre (which had just completed a $46 million renovation and lost decades of history and costumes to Harvey); the famed Spaghetti Warehouse; as well as the downtown Houston civil and criminal justice center and jury assembly rooms (County Judge Ed Emmett has announced that the underground jury rooms will not be rebuilt where they were).

And what do all these local landmarks have in common? You guessed it – they are all located right up against Buffalo Bayou.

 

A word about flood maps and the 100- / 500-year floodplains

There has been quite a bit of criticism about flood maps on social media, and in my estimation some of it is warranted. I had my first encounter with these issues 10 years ago when I worked with the Floodway Coalition of Houston in their 2-year-long property rights battle against the City. In the aftermath of Tropical Storm Allison, the federal government drew new flood maps (which will likely again be drawn after Harvey). In the wake of those redrawn maps, the Houston City Council clamped down severely on any new (and existing) building in Houston’s floodways. I was concerned not so much about the issue that Houstonians were already directly in the path of floodwaters so much as I was that the City was doing a $3 billion regulatory property taking of those in the floodways without intending to pay for the taking. Our group largely won that fight.

During those depressing days of fighting the City over the floodway ordinance, I first encountered the joys of the politics of flood maps. And politics there are. Professor Sarah Pralle of Syracuse University recently published a 24 page academic paper on the politics of the National Flood Insurance Program and of flood zones that is certainly worth reading. Among Professor Pralle’s findings are that local officials and citizens who live in flood-prone areas usually fight like all mighty hell to derail flood maps so that probabilities are underestimated. She writes about the people of New Orleans who fought for seven years after Hurricane Katrina to convince FEMA that 50% of the population of New Orleans is no longer living in flood-prone areas, despite much of the city being located at or below sea level. Pralle also writes that funding for flood maps by Congress has been sporadic, that half the flood-prone areas in America still aren’t mapped, and that it would take some $4 billion to map them. Furthermore, many flood maps are old. As of today, some 5-6 million properties in America are covered by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), but that’s easily less than half the properties in the 1% flood zones in America. Many observers remarked during Harvey that less than 20% of Houstonians had flood insurance.

So, why would people fight like all mighty hell over flood maps? Because those flood maps have a lot of power! Property owners don’t want to be in flood zones because it hurts their property values and it hurts their personal reputation. After all, what kind of a dolt buys a house or has a business in an area prone to flooding? Then they might have to buy flood insurance when they might not want to. Politicians don’t want to see widened flood zones for similar reasons: They can hurt property values, and if your state relies heavily on property taxes (like Texas) for local government revenues, that’s going to cut into the pickings.

I’ve attended a lot of public meetings in my life, including a few where I’ve seen crusty old men shake their fists at politicians and bureaucrats about how their homes were in flood zones, but they had never flooded. Then they elicited cheap laughs and scored points for pointing out how FEMA is full of morons, and how wrong the flood maps are. However, I will say one thing in favor of the flood maps as they are. I’ve helped to clean out eight houses now, between the Memorial Day 2015 floods and Harvey (I didn’t clean out any during the 2016 tax day floods). I looked up the location of all eight houses I helped to clean out on the Harris County Flood Education mapping tool site — houses on streets like Wigton and Cheena in Meyerland, Cliffwood inside 610 Loop, Sagewind off the Sam Houston tollway near I-45, and a townhouse complex located on South Dairy Ashford close to a creek that feeds into Buffalo Bayou. I found that all eight of the properties I helped to clean out were located in the 100-year flood plain. This is not to say the flood maps have perfect information; that would mean they have no mistakes whatsoever. However, they have to be at least fairly accurate for a random stranger like myself to go out and about, pick eight random properties in Houston to flood, and to later find out that all of them were located in the 100-year floodplain as currently mapped. And, not to belabor a point, but they also all happened to be within a few hundred yards of ditches, creeks, or bayous.

And that brings me to the issue of so called 100-year and 500-year floodplains. A 100-year flood is an event that is considered to have a 1% probability of happening in any given year. In Houston, that standard is that 12.4 inches of rain are to fall within a period of 24 hours. Former Houstonian John Nova Lomax wrote in Texas Monthly a few years ago that there seemed to be an awful lot of 100-year floods happening in Houston recently, and I fully agree with Mr. Lomax. I’ve come to think that the current concept of a 100-year flood is flawed, namely because we really don’t know what the probabilities of such rainfall totals really are. Governments in America have reliably been collecting data on rainfall for the past 125 years or so. Now, that sounds like a long time in human terms, but from a geological time scale that’s nothing more than a tiny sliver of Earth time. In other words, the 125 years we have been collecting data on rainfall is not nearly large enough of a sample size from the viewpoint of statistics to be able to definitively say that a 12.4 inch rainfall in Houston during a 24-hour period is an event that only has a 1% chance of happening in any given year. As Mr. Lomax alludes to, by that yard stick, we’ve had Tropical Storm Allison, Hurricane Ike, and the 2015 and 2016 floods, as well as Harvey all hit within the past 16 years. That’s a lot of 1% probability events to strike within such a short time span, and for the very concept to hold water (sorry!), that would mean that Houston would have to go centuries before the next 12.4 inch rain event were to occur for the current 100-year flood standard to hold. By this standard, Meyerland, which has flooded three years in a row, would have gone through a one in a million event in doing so (1% x 1% x 1% = .01 x .01 x .01). The same concepts go for 500-year floods.

In other words, I’ve come to think that not only are probabilities that Houston will have 12.4-inch rain events within 24 hours much higher than 1% per year (maybe 5% per year?), but we don’t really have a good grasp of what the probabilities really are with the data we have. If we had been collecting rainfall data for 1,000 years, I would be much more confident in pronouncements by authorities that “this hurricane or storm was a 100-year (or 500-year, or 1,000-year) event.”

And this matters. Why? Say for a moment that you are a real-estate developer, and you own land in a low-lying area, or property close to a bayou. You decide to develop and the government says, “Hold it right there, buster! You’re building in the 100-year floodplain!” So, you scratch your head and think to yourself, “That’s okay! All that means is that the nice 2,000+ square foot non-elevated houses I’m building on slab have only a 1% chance per year of flooding, right? So, what’s the worry? It’s only 1% per year!” And, the same thought goes through the home buyer who is looking for their dream home. They’re told they are buying in a flood-prone area during disclosure before buying, but the thought goes through Mr. and Mrs. Jones’s head that, “Hey, we only have a 1% chance of flooding every year! So what’s the problem?” Well, the problem may well be that the developer and the home buyer (or business owner) are both making some potentially fateful decisions on building and buying based on data that might well be very wrong, and underestimating the probabilities that the future property owner will flood. A few parts of Houston may be in 20-year or even 10-year flood zones, and will need to plan accordingly.

 

Would zoning have solved Houston’s flooding problem?

Not particularly.

This was a popular argument in the international press during Harvey and in its aftermath. One thing that such writers didn’t seem to grasp was that the Houston metropolitan statistical area (MSA) is not just the City of Houston. There are nearly 40 municipalities in Harris County alone, with substantial differences in the strictness of land-use codes between them. To illustrate the point, the City of Houston famously does not have zoning but the upscale City of Bellaire is heavily zoned. And what was the fate of Bellaire? It turned out that 2,300 of Bellaire’s 6,500 single-family homes flooded during Harvey, some 35% of the total. And where is Bellaire located, you ask? A good chunk of Bellaire is on flat terrain within one mile of… drum roll please… Brays Bayou.

As the real estate folks love to say, it’s about location, location, location.

 

On the Addicks and Barker reservoirs and the San Jacinto River

One of the saddest aspects of Hurricane Harvey was that the rainstorms were so heavy that decisions were made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the San Jacinto River Authority to discharge tremendous amounts of water out of Addicks and Barker reservoirs in west Houston, and down from Lake Houston towards the San Jacinto River. The result was that neighborhoods near Buffalo Bayou and near the reservoirs were flooded, as was a good 20-30% of the Kingwood area (located near the banks of the west fork of the San Jacinto River). The neighborhoods in question are upper- (or upper-middle-) income neighborhoods of affluence, and let’s just say that people like this are used to being in control of their lives. They are not used to having very bad life-altering events happen to them. Hence, it was not too surprising to me to see that thousands of homeowners in these areas have joined lawsuits that have been filed against both entities (see this story on the San Jacinto lawsuit and this story on the U.S. Army Corps/Addicks and Barker suit).

Anyone who floods has my sympathy. I would not have gone out to clean out houses and give thousands of dollars of my own money to friends who flooded if I didn’t. I am not an attorney, but I will say that in the case of the Addicks releases, I did hear from a work colleague on Friday, August 25th that the U.S. Army Corps was planning on releasing water out of Addicks at 2:00 a.m. Sunday morning August 27th. I will say that the Dallas Morning News published a story that homeowners might have been spared ruin had they read the fine print on subdivision plats that stated that their neighborhoods could be used for dumping floodwaters in the event of a major disaster. There seems to have been a severe battle between developers who objected to the publishing of this information, and officials who wanted to warn future homeowners that they were in danger.

I’m not going to really take a side in this. I do realize there are many Houston-area residents that are not like me in that they did not grow up here, and have not lived here for decades. You can’t always expect everyone to have perfect information. However, I will say that developers building businesses and people buying homes right up against massive government reservoirs should have seen a big red flag before they decided to build and buy. If the lawyers representing the homeowners are going to try to argue in court that homeowners were subject to an inverse condemnation by the government for flood releases, and were by some fate to gain the upper hand in court (which is not likely), then if I were in the government’s shoes I’d go right ahead and give them both barrels. Forget about cries of preserving the neighborhoods exactly as they are. You’re the one who bought right up against the water! Either give them some money and tell homeowners they will build several feet up as a condition of staying, or give them a bigger check and tell them to get the hell out.

 

So, what to do about the future?

In my post last year on flooding, I strongly suggested that Houstonians needed to start building up. My original thought was that it didn’t hurt for all of Houston to build up. I don’t necessarily think any longer that all of the Houston metropolitan area should be built up. It wouldn’t hurt if all of Houston did, but that would cost a whole lot of money. Rather, what Harvey revealed was that much — but not all — of Houston’s flooding occurred in areas that were within 1/2 mile to 1 kilometer of Houston’s bayous, creeks, the ditches that feed into the bayous and creeks, as well as areas near the banks of the San Jacinto River and Addicks and Barker reservoirs. The watershed folks at Texas A&M university have suggested buying out 50,000 homes near Houston’s watersheds and using Houston’s bayous as the workhorses for getting the water out of Houston when the rainstorms come. That is not a bad idea, as it is clear that the current strategy of putting in detention ponds and basins here and there is not enough to handle an event like Harvey. Indeed Harris County judge Ed Emmett has stated that $800 million – $2.5 billion in buyouts are now on the table. I also stated last year that the price tag for stabilizing the Houston area at this point from future flooding is not going to be cheap, nor is it going to happen overnight, and the Texas A&M folks agree with me. It is either going to involve tens of thousands of buyouts of property owners in high-risk areas that have already built up, or it is going to require having property owners who live in those areas build up. The asking price for lifting houses already built on a slab 5-6 feet up is usually in the $50- $100 per square foot range, so lifting a 2,000 square foot house built on a slab is likely to cost $100,000 or more. That is not an easy decision to make, and for many people it is far easier to simply wag their fingers and blame those greedy real estate developers for their woes, or to not do anything on their own and instead to squeal for the government to fix the problem.

Current ideas for staging more floodwater include snapping up some golf courses for detaining water, in addition to the several thousand buyouts that Judge Emmett’s money can get him. Judge Emmett has also stated there is a possibility of building a new reservoir, but it is hard to envision where such a reservoir might be located with all of the sprawl. I would like to see the Addicks and Barker reservoirs strengthened and dug another 10-20 feet deeper, and for perhaps an additional half mile of land to be acquired around the reservoirs to act as a safety barrier in the event of future floods that may be too much for the reservoirs to handle. Another easy, low-hanging fruit idea would be to dig a large detention basin just off of South Braeswood at the 610 Loop, where there is a swath of open land available between South Braeswood and the southern side of Meyerland. I personally saw a vast pool of water there when I drove over 610 Loop during day three of Harvey to help a friend who had flooded. I have not carefully studied Project Brays, but digging a deep detention basin there would help bring some relief to the beleaguered folks in Meyerland. Any serious actions will require moving a lot of dirt around, but don’t look to the City of Houston for much help. The City of Houston is billions of dollars behind on pension promises to employees, and can’t do much of anything without needing to whack City residents for big tax hikes. Harris County does respond, but they will take a while. The Feds have allocated monies, but again any governmental action will take time. If anything, Harvey has shown the need for fiscal leanness and responsibility on the part of governments if anybody is going to expect government to do anything substantial after disasters, and the City of Houston has failed this test.

But when push comes to shove, when a big rainstorm hits, we need to let Houston’s rivers, ditches, creeks, and bayous do their work. That will require either giving them space to move the water (meaning buying out properties already built that are within 1/2 mile to 1 kilometer of them) or having property owners who live close to the water build several feet up. Houston needs a better slogan than the Houston Strong campaign being put on by the rah-rah civic cheerleaders. It’s time for harder thinking. A better campaign for Houston’s future would be: Houston: Build High –> Stay Dry.