Houston's Flooding Problem Reflects Shortfalls In City Planning

Aug 31, 2017
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

No city could have withstood Harvey without serious harm, but Houston made itself more vulnerable than necessary. That is the conclusion of a piece out today in Bloomberg Businessweek. One of the people who wrote the piece is Peter Coy, and he joins us now to talk about what Houston, a city that Coy his colleague Christopher Flavelle write has an attitude of grow first; ask questions later, could have done better to prepare. Welcome to the show, Peter.

PETER COY: Thank you.

MCEVERS: So what are the things that Houston did or did not do that contributed to the extensive damage of this hurricane?

COY: Well, as I say in the article, Houston has been wet since as its birth...

MCEVERS: Right.

COY: ...In the early 19th century. And yet Houston overcame its hydrological limitations to become what's now the fourth biggest city in the U.S. It's thrived in many ways with this can-do spirit, and yet that doesn't always work so well when it comes to environmental limitations because kind of Mother Nature doesn't really care if you don't care. And we saw in this hurricane and tropical storm, nature must have its due.

MCEVERS: So let's talk about this grow-first-ask-questions-later attitude that you talk about. What is it...

COY: Well...

MCEVERS: ...That - yeah.

COY: Yeah. Houston is the only major U.S. city that does not have a zoning code. Literally you could just say you want to put up a skyscraper, and you can put it up anywhere you want in Houston. And sometimes they go up right next to split-level houses. And again, that kind of attitude works pretty well if you want untrammeled growth.

What's happened with Houston is that its growth has outpaced the capacity of the environment. So to be specific about that, flooding, which has always been endemic to Houston, has been getting worse. More and more of the land is paved over. So when rain hits, you already have a clay-like soil which doesn't retain water well. And now it comes flushing off all the pavement and concrete and so on, and it just goes right into the streets. The streets fill up with water. And then as we see now, in a severe flooding, the whole city fills up. And, OK, any city in the U.S., no matter how careful, would have suffered severe damage from Harvey. What we're talking about here is Houston probably made matters worse than they needed to be.

MCEVERS: I mean yesterday the mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, tweeted, zoning wouldn't have changed anything; we would have been a city with zoning that flooded.

COY: Yeah, well, that's the argument. I just think that there are a lot of people who have looked at this very closely who would disagree with him. And look. I got an email from a reader who said that he actually agreed with the point of the story. He just felt like it was a little too soon when they're still finding bodies, still doing search and rescue. And the last thing they want is any kind of news coverage that seems to be blaming the victims. I sympathize with that attitude.

MCEVERS: Right.

COY: So there's a natural tendency to just back up and say, we didn't do anything wrong here. But there are some things that it's pretty clear are probably going to need to change for Houston to avoid catastrophic storm damage like this in the future.

MCEVERS: You write that there is a chance that Harvey could lead to some kind of detente between environmentalists and Trump administration officials who are in charge of disaster response. How?

COY: Well, that goes back to reporting by my co-author, Chris Flavelle, who did some excellent work talking to the administrator of FEMA and officials in the state of Texas. And what the administrator of FEMA told Chris is fascinating. He said, look; maybe what we need is a system where there's sort of a deductible. If you don't want to have tough building codes, OK, you don't have to. But the federal government is not going to come in with so-called first-dollar aid in an emergency. The state or the communities are going to have to put up a whole lot of money of their own money before the feds will consider contributing.

MCEVERS: Right. Because it's taxpayer money that keeps paying to rebuild the same homes over and over and over again.

COY: Exactly.

MCEVERS: Is there a sense in particular in Houston that once this is all over, that things are going to change?

COY: I mean obviously I hope so. But the concern is that once the storm is over, once people's houses start to dry out, they're going to sort of forget about this. They're going to - what they'll remember is how much it costs to change things. I mean it costs a lot of money, for example, to put a house up on stilts. It costs a huge amount of money to take an area that's built up and return it to pastureland or something so that it can absorb water. These are things that you have to really be serious about. And there's an opportunity here, but it's also an opportunity that could be missed.

MCEVERS: Peter Coy, economics editor at Bloomberg Businessweek, thank you so much.

COY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.