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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. Seal_of_Houston _TexasWe 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. 

Posted by Beldar at 05:54 PM in Current Affairs, Texas | Permalink


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(1) DRJ made the following comment | Sep 1, 2017 8:08:33 PM | Permalink

This is what I love about really good blogs like yours. You provide a perspective and context that I haven't seen elsewhere and that certainly isn't covered in the traditional media.

I had an inkling about this because I am familiar with Houston, have had family there for decades, and briefly lived there twice. But it is good to see someone I trust address this topic. It's what I also like about communities that care about fixing things instead of fixing blame.

(2) DRJ made the following comment | Sep 1, 2017 8:16:03 PM | Permalink

It's clear that Houston and Texas learned a lot from Katrina and put most of what they learned to good use. There's more to learn and I'm confident Texas and its communities will learn from this, too.

But, as individuals, we also learned not to wait on government to act but to look out for ourselves and our neighbors. The commentators who think Texans will now look to government to take care of them have it completely wrong. We know (and this reinforces) that we, our families, friends, and neighbors are who we can depend on.

(3) mg made the following comment | Sep 2, 2017 5:13:58 AM | Permalink

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

(4) mg made the following comment | Sep 2, 2017 8:34:58 AM | Permalink

When I lived near Lake Travis I remember my friends kids saying a pledge for Texas. 1979.
Do they still?
More states should.

(5) DRJ made the following comment | Sep 2, 2017 8:24:35 PM | Permalink

I think there is a law requiring Texas schoolchildren say the American and Texas pledge each schoolday, unless their parents opt out.

(6) DRJ made the following comment | Sep 2, 2017 8:31:36 PM | Permalink

This isn't the same topic as the post but it's kind of related. Texas has a rainy day fund for unexpected expenses like Harvey. Heritage says most states don't, including the states but by Sandy. (See here: http://www.heritage.org/homeland-security/report/after-hurricane-sandy-time-learn-and-implement-the-lessons-preparedness). We Texans plan for our problems, instead of planning for the federal government to handle our problems.

(7) DRJ made the following comment | Sep 2, 2017 9:23:05 PM | Permalink

One more thought: Texas believes in empowering people, not government, so we don't need government to feed, clothe and shelter us in the long-term. The large grocery chains will restock their shelves in days without government help. Short-term government assistance is important but relying on government for the long-term is not wise.

(8) DRJ made the following comment | Sep 3, 2017 9:27:00 AM | Permalink

Here is another good rebuttal to the "Houston asked for this" theory.

(9) Beldar made the following comment | Sep 3, 2017 1:25:45 PM | Permalink

@ mg: I'm not sure about public schools reciting the Texas Pledge. I do know a couple or three state judges who begin their morning sessions with that. They use the AV gear in their courtrooms to project the words, though, because almost no one knows them.

Re people building & rebuilding in flood plains, I'm planning to write about that further in a new post today, so I thank you for the impetus.

DRJ, thanks for your comments and the links. Your comments often help me clarify my own thinking and I value them highly, always.

(10) DRJ made the following comment | Sep 3, 2017 3:00:01 PM | Permalink

That is very flattering, Beldar. Thank you!

I think they do say the pledge in many public schools, which is shocking to some out-of-staters. I don't know for sure that it is still the law but I think a law regarding the US and Texas pledges passed in 2007 or 2008.

(11) DRJ made the following comment | Sep 3, 2017 3:57:51 PM | Permalink


I meant to say this yesterday but I like the Lake Travis area. My cousin lived there in the 70s and 80s and I used to visit him when I was in school. You and I might have crossed paths!

(12) mg made the following comment | Sep 3, 2017 7:28:41 PM | Permalink

Perhaps at a Stevie Ray Vaughn gig in Austin. Or a Delbert McClinton show. Austin had the best music.

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