One of the more striking sights that greeted me during a quick holiday visit to Houston: folks doubling down on flooded bayou-side home locations by lifting their houses a full story off the ground.
Most of the debris has been picked up since Harvey inundated the city this fall, though old friends and I noted the empty first floors of apartment buildings and other more subtle signs of the storm’s passage, even in neighborhoods well-off enough to have largely moved on. But Harvey’s region-wide impacts brought to a head a lot of questions that have been brewing for the last decade or so – particularly for the thousands of homeowners that found themselves flooded for the second or third time in 3 years.
Harvey thrust Houston’s development history and notorious sprawl into the national spotlight. Houston is called the Bayou City for a reason, though the city’s relationship with its extensive network of wetlands and waterways over the past 18 decades has vacillated among relying on them, trying to control them, trying to ignore them, and being forced to periodically rethink them.
While so-called “100-year” or “500-year” flood events are always possible in any year, at what point do multiple years in a row of them raise enough alarms to warrant a large-scale change in flood planning? At what point do planners need to consider higher floodplains and heavier rainfall the new norm? I’ve touched before on some of the reasons that it’s hard to say definitively from a scientific standpoint that, for example, weather patterns have changed – but from a risk management perspective, the big question is “How certain do we need to be before taking drastic action to prevent future damage?”
As more and more acres of once-open land upstream of the city have been paved over and converted to sprawling suburbia, the entire region’s hydrology has changed in ways researchers and city planners are still working to fully understand. Proponents of current development norms will correctly point out that Harvey’s torrential rain totals were unusually, ridiculously high compared even to Houston’s recent run of major rainstorms. They argue that any region as flat as Houston would have flooded under similar circumstances, even without miles of pavement speeding rainwater toward areas further down the watershed (which may then flood much more quickly).
But isn’t that inevitability – the fact that major flooding was unavoidable for many people in this scenario – all the more reason to earnestly discuss what risk Houston’s homes and structures really face? To make proactive choices about how much potential damage the city and its people are willing to accept, particularly as new structures are built that could alter those risks? Many homeowners near the Addicks and Barker dams, for example, had no idea their properties were inside the footprint of major flood reservoirs – reservoirs which had never before filled up to the levels that Harvey caused, and which were in the middle of undeveloped prairie when they were originally built. Elsewhere, flood control projects that might have reduced Harvey’s impacts have been considered, but currently lack funding. If Harvey isn’t a good reason to talk publicly about what flood risks are reasonable, and about how and whether to prioritize new rules and mitigation projects, then what is?
The growing consensus in recent conversations around the city’s flood issues seems to line up with what I learned as a geology major in college: It’s better to work with Nature than against it. Buyouts are being discussed once again in Harris County, to remove at least some of the homes that have flooded again and again. New flood control projects have already been trending for some time toward reshaping the city’s bayous back into more natural-looking systems meant to slow and retain water, as opposed to the straight-cut concrete chutes characteristic of many Army Corps of Engineer projects in the 1950s and 60s. Some of Houston’s new parks double as stormwater reservoirs, with recreation structures designed to flood; the areas along many of the bayous are partway through their decade-long conversion into a system of green trailways.
Meanwhile, the hard-hit Meyerland neighborhood is one of many Houston communities that knows the next flood is likely a matter of when, not if. I have family friends and acquaintances in the area whose homes were basically destroyed by Harvey; others have cleanup and restoration down to an art at this point, and have already completed their latest round of renovations.
In these neighborhoods, and dozens of others around the city, the question of whether or not to move away lingers in the background of any conversation about the storm and recovery. Doing so means not only weighing risks to a financial investment, but uprooting from a community; from a life among neighbors now bound more strongly than ever, perhaps, by their shared trials. What is it worth to hold on to that?
For some, it’s worth redoing the downstairs sheetrock for the third time. For some, it’s evidently worth the cost of tunneling beneath a house and lifting it 10 feet into the air. Other families, in Meyerland and all over the city, are surely unable to afford the price they would be willing to pay.