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.
Friday, September 01, 2017
Flood risks and flood control aren't new topics of debate in Houston
Today's Wall Street Journal contains this article about a neighborhood very close to me, Meyerland, where my ex and two of my adult kids live: "Flooded Again, a Houston Neighborhood Faces a Wrenching Choice." The subhead reads: "After three floods in three years, Meyerland, a thriving community of 2,300 homes, weighs deep ties against risks of rebuilding." Many of the images of spectacular flooding last Saturday night and Sunday, before and just after Harvey first made landfall, were shot in Meyerland. A friend of mine on Facebook noted that the TV newscasters were jokingly referring to the freeway exit from Loop 610W onto Beechnut (which runs through Meyerland) as "The Beechnut Boat Ramp," because that was indeed where many rescue boats were being launched and recovered.
To its credit, this article avoids the flaw of most I'm reading in the national media now, and of even more woefully uninformed commenters from the public on social media and blogs — the assumption (or presumption, really) that everyone in Houston has somehow been caught off guard by the very notion of flooding during hurricanes and heavy storms.
It's annoying to me and many of my fellow Houstonians when outsiders don't credit us with having recognized our recurring flooding and drainage problems, as if Houston has just been blithely ignorant of them. In fact, people have been debating, and then acting upon, flood control/flooding issues in the public sphere pretty much continuously since the Allen Brothers founded the city on the banks of Buffalo Bayou in 1836. It's always been subject to flooding, with varying consequences.
And we certainly were aware of that little incident in nearby Galveston in 1900 — the one which still stands as the greatest natural disaster in American history, with 6k+ killed. That turned Galveston from a mighty port and leading Texas city into the much more modest tourist-focused place it is today, and it turned Houston's slightly inland location into an important comparative feature that worked to our frank advantage at Galveston's expense. We billed ourselves as "The City Where Seven Railroads Meet the Sea" — a major port that's nevertheless only connected to that sea by the Ship Channel, built out along Buffalo Bayou downstream from downtown. (That's why there's a railroad locomotive on the Official Seal of the City of Houston, by the way, and not a steamship.)
Flood risk, flood control, and the complications of both from further building and development, are all legitimate issues of public debate on which reasonable people can have, do have, and have always had legitimate grounds for disagreement. Obviously we have a bunch of new data to incorporate in those ongoing discussions and debates, political and otherwise; obviously this event is going to affect things like real estate prices and construction costs going forward.
But as Mayor Turner is correctly quoted as saying in this article:
"You cannot significantly mitigate flooding and drainage on the cheap," the mayor said. "And a lot of people don’t want to pay, but you’re going to pay sooner or later."
Who pays, how much, and for what: All of these are important questions — but they're not new questions, and while you may not like the results of the past debates, you can't deny that they've taken place.
These aren't simple questions either, nor are the answers unambiguous or clear. And the "right" answer for some places and some people isn't necessarily the "right" answer for other places and people situated cheek-by-jowl — although our situations are also certainly interdependent to a considerable degree.
Right now, the neighborhoods being flooded in west Harris County and Fort Bend County include new, affluent, and well-planned subdivisions that were built with full knowledge of the flooding and drainage problems of the area, and likewise in full knowledge of the continuing likelihood of further development that would affect all their assumptions. During the storm itself, despite record rainfalls, those neighborhoods fared quite well. The choices made by their developers were sound. What's now happening to them isn't the result of bad planning by the people who designed and built them so much as a black swan event — a flood so severe and widespread that as it drained toward the coast, the Barker and Addicks Reservoirs would be threatened with massive (Katrina-scale) failure, but for the "controlled releases" which have now been reluctantly decreed even though they are flooding those neighborhoods.
If Harvey had happened in a lot of other places that are less flood-prone (and flood-experienced) than we are, but that pride themselves on their civic order and zoning and whatnot, those places would assuredly have flooded too, and probably worse than we have, because (as this article reflects) we've been actively working to become less vulnerable because we are indeed so focused on these risks. My ex's house in Meyerland survived Harvey without flooding, just barely; but without the serious drainage improvements that had just been completed there within the last two years (some of them within the last six months), this storm would definitely have flooded her house.