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Sunday, September 03, 2017

Harvey will and should affect future individual and political decision-making on the Gulf Coast, but is no excuse for governmental mandates to preempt those processes

In response to my post from Friday afternoon regarding the long history of continuously on-going debates, going back to Houston's founding in 1836, about flood risks and flood control, commenter mg wrote:

So many places in America are built in flood zones. These places will continue to flood until they move.

Continuous rebuilding is insanity.

That's a succinct version of an absolutely valid and near-universal concern I'm seeing in both national and local media as a result of Hurricane Harvey. I certainly don't disagree with the assertion that continuous rebuilding can be, and often is, insanity. I do think it's important, though, to put that concern into its appropriate historical, economic, and governmental contexts.

Of course there is second-guessing, after a catastrophe like this one, of the recent and continuing choices made by people who choose to live in or around Houston, or in or around any similar coastal flood plain. And as this comment implies, some of them have certainly made, and are continuing to make, decisions that are comparatively riskier than other people could endure.

As long as the choices are fully informed ones, however, I'm generally okay with that. Flooding is only one type of catastrophe. Other Americans choose to live in places where there are frequent blizzards, or where there is a comparatively high risk of forest fires, or earthquakes, or mudslides — and yes, even volcanos. Mother Nature and her planet have a wide range of methods they can use to remind us, periodically but emphatically, of our limits and our mortality as a species.

In general, I much prefer that those choices be left to the lowest levels possible:

  • individual homeowners & businesspeople in the first instance, making free-market transactions whose terms reflect their respective evaluations of risks and benefits;
  • local and county governments and flood control & water districts interacting with those decision-makers to address problems of scale;
  • state government only becoming involved when problems of scale exceed those the smaller governmental units can handle; and
  • the federal government only on a few well-defined subjects with interstate or international ramifications (Army Corps of Engineers & FEMA being the obvious ones).

That pyramid of authority crowd-sources the decision-making; better ensures the transparency of those decision-making processes; allocates responsibility preferentially at the levels at which inadequate public servants are easiest to spot and replace; and preserves as much economic and personal liberty as possible consistent with collective public safety. And indeed, that's pretty much the model on which Houston and the rest of the Texas Gulf Coast generally operate. Harvey isn't going to change that much, although it might occasion some re-definitions of responsibility along the margins — and that's appropriate as we learn from every new challenge like this.

A friend of mine who lives in Fort Bend County was telling me about an internet debate going on among residents there on the county emergency management's website. Some homeowners were claiming to have been surprised, or even affirmatively misled, about the long-term flood risks of their subdivisions. One of the county officials pointed out that to gain physical entry to these subdivisions, anyone and everyone quite literally has to drive up, over, and down these same levies that are containing the Barker and Addicks Reservoirs. Those are the man-made structures intended, and now still serving, to contain, temporarily, the run-off from directly upstream of Houston. And thus they're the ones from which these "controlled releases" are being deliberately made — despite the grim and utter certainty that they will indeed flood a limited number of neighborhoods — to avoid Katrina-scale failures that would produce thousands of deaths. You can't fail to know that your subdivision faces potential flood risks associated with those reservoirs unless you drive home with your eyes shut.

But some people have nevertheless had their minds closed to that possibility, regardless of what their eyes were seeing, and they will now have had their literal and figurative viewpoints adjusted by this flooding. Some of them will indeed proclaim, "No more! ­­¡Nada mas!" Accordingly, they'll sell — into a real estate market that is now hyper-aware of these risks, so depending on their urgency, they may incur relatively greater financial losses — and they'll relocate. But in every market there are — grim pun warning! — bottom-fishers who will hope to profit from others' panicky decisions. There will be buyers who are as tickled to buy, at some price, as these sellers are to sell. Both will end up comparatively "richer," given his or her individual evaluation of both tangible and intangible components of being "rich," after the transaction, including the fellow who's been made poorer by Harvey's floods. Time will tell whether in any individual transaction, the buyer or the seller made the best deal, but that's true in all such transactions, hurricanes or no.

I'm likewise okay with that. My ex, whose house in Meyerland once again did not flood, despite being severely menaced by rising waters of not only Harvey but other recent flash flooding in the neighborhood (including the "Tax Day" flood), commented to me that now, if she wanted to sell her house, she can truthfully represent that it "survived Harvey untouched and unflooded," when others four blocks over didn't. Her house's value relative to others in her subdivision has just gone up, actually — although the whole subdivision's average and cumulative values have surely gone down, at least for the present. Yet the things that have caused property values to rise continuously in that subdivision — convenience to downtown and the medical center, some of the best public schools in HISD (including Bellaire High School, from which all four of our children graduated), and a congenial community of relatively well-educated and diverse residents willing and eager to support the neighborhood's merchants and services and restaurants — are still present. They'll continue to play a part in people's future economic and personal decisions. Flood risk versus being zoned to really good schools: There are subjective elements to that comparison, and objective elements that affect some people but not others, and therefore there is no one "right" answer, no one size or one discount rate or one set of calculations that would work equally well (or at all) for all potential actors.

Independent decisions whether to move into or out of Meyerland, or Cinco Ranch, or Rockport, or any other afflicted neighborhoods and towns throughout the Texas Gulf Coast, should now and hereafter factor in all of the data and experience generated by Harvey. Harvey will have affected the price-point at which those decisions should flip if people are making rational economic decisions. But those individual decisions will still vary widely depending on individual risk tolerance, and on individual assessments of the compensating benefits which might justify a knowing assumption of those risks.

And likewise, as part of that process, those decision-makers should factor in the possibilities and probabilities of further short-, middle-, and long-term flood control prospects to guard against future storms and floods. Some of the houses in Fort Bend County that have been flooded by the controlled releases actually demonstrated before those releases that nothing short of a storm like Harvey will flood them, which in turn suggests that they're at relatively low future risk during "ordinary hurricanes," if there is such a category. But the chance of eliminating the risks associated with living next to those reservoirs is zero in the short and middle term. In Meyerland, by contrast, there are surely already engineers and planners crafting and computer-modeling short- and middle-term civic improvements, ranging from minimalist but important ones (keeping storm drains righteously cleared) to big ones (constructing new drainage waterways or deepening existing ones). Houston and Harris County politics are about to get a lot more intense, and lots of people who've been ignoring them are going to now be watching them and, yes, more actively participating in them, and not just on election day.

I'm all in favor of continuing the continuing study of and debate about Houston's flooding problems; that's normal, natural, and essential, and it's a continuation of what we've been doing before, but now with additional data that must be accommodated and given due weight.

I'm not in favor of some sort of sweeping, top-down, and especially federally-imposed mandates that would preempt those normal economic and political processes. But I worry — because we live in an era in which many politicians and special interest groups insist that no big crisis should be allowed to go to waste (i.e., no opportunity to demagogue using people's misery should be missed) — that such mandates are exactly what some folks would like to see imposed. Some of those folks will be motivated by a belief that their decisions would be best for everyone, and others will be motivated more cynically, by the recognition of emotional vulnerabilities that can be tapped to raise money for favored causes and to elect favored candidates that have little or nothing to do with flood control or mitigation.

I'd likewise argue for the rights of those Americans who choose to live near volcanoes to make those choices for themselves, even though that's not a choice that I find either appealing or even tolerable for myself. But the ability to make free choices is essential if we expect people to take personal responsibility, and to make better decisions because they've undertaken that responsibility.

We're a better society, a freer society, if we do expect people to drive home with their eyes open.

Posted by Beldar at 02:40 PM in Current Affairs, Texas | Permalink

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Comments

(1) DRJ made the following comment | Sep 3, 2017 3:15:51 PM | Permalink

Well said!

But how could a Caprock native forget to mention people who choose to live in places with tornadoes?

(2) mg made the following comment | Sep 3, 2017 7:50:57 PM | Permalink

As always, Beldar, you bring out points I never thought about. Complicated as can be. The real estate market has to be turned upside down. In 1967 the Des Moines river flooded my hometown in Mn. The Army" Corpse" of Engineers had told the Mayor a few years before - Build some Dykes or you could be in for trouble. The mayor had it done and damage was far less than it could have been. And they are still in use today thanks to proper maintenance.

(3) mg made the following comment | Sep 3, 2017 8:02:29 PM | Permalink

I read somewhere that the lowest areas did not have the worst flooding. How do you plan for that in a once in a lifetime storm? So sad.

(4) DRJ made the following comment | Sep 4, 2017 9:43:44 AM | Permalink

I predict Houston will grow after Harvey. Most residents will return and new people will come who are inspired by the sense of community, the message of personal responsibility, and the opportunities to earn money as they help Houstonians rebuild.

(5) DRJ made the following comment | Sep 4, 2017 9:44:34 AM | Permalink

Good comment, mg. You can't plan for that.

(6) mg made the following comment | Sep 4, 2017 10:08:46 AM | Permalink

Houses on concrete pillars seem to do much better when flooding occurs. The army corp of engineers used to have a program where the govt. pays 70% of the cost.

(7) mg made the following comment | Sep 4, 2017 1:21:00 PM | Permalink

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/8/30/houston-hurricane-harvey-land-use
it happens to be the norm. turn it into a parking lot.

(8) DRJ made the following comment | Sep 5, 2017 10:37:08 AM | Permalink

Before and after photos of Houston, especially Meyerland, one week later.

(9) DRJ made the following comment | Sep 10, 2017 7:09:02 PM | Permalink

U think this author agrees with you.

(10) DRJ made the following comment | Sep 10, 2017 7:09:24 PM | Permalink

I think, not U think.

(11) mg made the following comment | Sep 10, 2017 7:42:48 PM | Permalink

Those before and after photos - whoa.

(12) mg made the following comment | Sep 10, 2017 7:58:24 PM | Permalink

My oldest daughter was home getting married in the back yard, yesterday. Flying back to St. Pete has been delayed, but her and my son in law are determined to get back as soon as possible.

(13) DRJ made the following comment | Sep 14, 2017 5:37:35 PM | Permalink

I like this. It strikes me as a smart way to learn from the past as opposed to compulsory government solutions.

(14) DRJ made the following comment | Sep 14, 2017 5:39:11 PM | Permalink

Congratulations on the wedding, mg! Florid a is lucky to have young folks like that who are eager to put down roots.

(15) reader made the following comment | Sep 15, 2017 5:17:11 AM | Permalink

This brings back memories of https://www.loonyparty.com/history-4/loony-archive/2001-general-election-manifesto/ from a time-honoured fringe party running in Parliamentary elections in the UK.

"ENVIRONMENT, TRANSPORT & REGIONS

"ENVIRONMENT

"Under a Loony government any prospective home purchaser be issued with a full description of such dictionary terms as ‘floodplain’, ‘coastal erosion’ and ‘exposed headland’. This will save time explaining why they have no house anymore after nature takes charge of the environment.

"In addition to this policy, building on floodplains in future will be restricted to large houseboats with recoiling tethers like dog leads. These houses will be able to float up with the floodwater and land safely again in the same place when the water subsides..."

(16) DRJ made the following comment | Sep 15, 2017 6:46:26 PM | Permalink

I know things are getting back to normal when rescuing turtles and tortoises (and knowing the difference) is the big local news story. HoustonStrong

(17) mg made the following comment | Sep 16, 2017 9:24:51 PM | Permalink

Thanks, DRJ. That couple is built to last.
Glad that horse was rescued, and all those lovely dogs.

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