Science 7 min read

Repetitive Loss Properties: What we Didn't Learn From Hurricane Harvey

Houston-area neighborhood post Hurricane Harvey | MDay Photography |

Houston-area neighborhood post Hurricane Harvey | MDay Photography |

Hurricane Harvey was devastating to Houston, and many wonder why the city was not better prepared.

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, it hit hard, and being right in the middle of it my heart was warmed to see my compatriots at Edgy Labs do their best to share their experience in this article.

Now that most of the flood waters have receded, it’s time to use the power of hindsight to find out how we could weather another oppressive storm like Harvey. There are many questions on everyone’s mind, but the biggest one I see is this:

Did too much urban development exacerbate the damage from Harvey?

The amount of rain was unprecedented. However, many are commenting that Houston’s rampant urban development and lax flood-protection codes made the flooding much worse.

Did urban development make Harvey flooding worse for Houston? #thedebateisonClick To Tweet

Houston has Always Been About Erasing the Ecosystem

Since Houston was founded in 1836, (originally known as Allen’s Landing), its residents have treated it much like the first U.S. residents of what is now coastal Louisiana. That is, this particular part of the Gulf Coast was a sticky, mosquito-infested swamp that needed to be dredged and dried out.

Much of this was done to increase economic viability, of course, as dredging of the Houston area began in the late 1870s when the U.S. Congress was convinced Houston should be a major port.

By World War II, Houston was the third-largest port in the U.S. It boasted nine oil refineries, and the foundation for being the energy capital of the future U.S. was laid. These days, the Port of Houston is home to 30% of the nation’s oil refining capacity.

What’s key here is that Houston’s environment has had to be drastically changed in order to support a fast-growing human economy. More than any other city in the U.S., Houston is a manifestation of human influence on the environment.

Covering up Wetlands and Avoiding Regulations

If you’ve ever lived in a place like Houston, you’ve probably avoided the natural wetlands. These are areas that are typically swampy, infested with mosquitos and other pests, and are not very conducive to social gatherings.

Houston prairie wetlands being encroached upon by urban development | Andrew Spiocz | TPWD

However, wetlands are the primary areas where flood waters can be absorbed back into the ground. Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, lax regulations and rampant development have allowed for wetlands to be covered up by residential neighborhoods, roadways, and other concrete-covered infrastructure.

In fact, according to research from Texas A&M University, from 1992-2010 the White Oak Bayou watershed, which accounts for much of Northwest Houston, lost 71% of its wetlands to development.

Over the last 25 years, the city as a whole has lost almost 50% of its wetlands.

Even if you don’t see the development of impervious surfaces as a catalyst for flooding, Houston has, in fact, prioritized development over flood protection. According to ProPublica and the Texas Tribune, over 7,000 residential buildings have been built in FEMA-designated flood zones since 2010 in Harris County alone. This is exacerbated by the fact that the FEMA floodplain maps are based on outdated flood statistics.

A 2015 analysis by Texas A&M and non-profit group HARC went over Houston-area development permits issued from 1990 to 2012. The research discovered that fewer than half of the developers submitted complete paperwork. What’s worse, they found no documentation of wetland loss mitigation.

Then, the same two groups focused on 12 projects that were granted permits and noted that only two of them had taken steps to offset wetland destruction. Seven projects were somewhat successful and the rest were complete failures.

The burden of poor planning is often thrust on the taxpayer, too. The federal government, through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, has subsidized several low-income housing projects on 100-year floodplain land. When those developments are destroyed, the rebuilding cost falls again to the taxpayer.

With $325 billion USD in projected residential damage, Houston will surely protect against repeating the same mistakes twice, right?

Actually, no. President Donald Trump signed an executive order 10 days before Harvey struck that rescinds federal flood protection standards put in place by the Obama administration. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and FEMA, the agencies responsible for distributing rebuilding funds, would have been forced to rebuild under safer, flood-protecting building codes. Not anymore.

If past Houston development has shown us anything, rebuilding will likely be completed as fast as possible with the least regard for flood protections–just in time for the next major storm.

“What’s likely to happen is we’re going to spend tens of billions of dollars rebuilding Houston exactly like it is now, and then wait for the next one,” said Rob Moore, a senior water issues analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Arguments Against “Green Spaces”

On the other hand, some wish to remind us that Houston is a heavily populated city. Most of the concrete you see on an overland map is there to support a building or a road.

Daniel Herriges believes that it would be counterproductive to force developers to add more green space to their buildings and roads. Herriges holds a Masters degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Minnesota.

According to Herriges, more green space would increase commutes and spread out development even more, requiring more asphalt to cover the longer distances between living and work areas.

Thomas Debo, a city planning professor at Georgia Tech told The Atlantic that “we focus too much on impervious surface and not enough on the conveyance of water. It’s like taking an aspirin to cure an ailment.”

Debo argues we should instead focus on water conveyance–which is a more complex issue. Read more here.

U.S. Government Can’t Take the “Higher Ground”

Almost 20 years ago the National Wildlife Federation released a report on the U.S. government’s abysmal flood insurance program. It asserted that the government made catastrophic events worse by encouraging developers to build and rebuild in flood-prone areas.

Just two percent of the government program’s insured properties studied received 40 percent of the damage claimed. A highlight of the report was a house that flooded 16 times in 18 years, netting its owners more than $800,000 USD despite being valued at just over $100,000.

The #NFID insured a house that flooded 16 times in 18 yearsClick To Tweet

It should be no surprise that home was located in Houston along with over half of the worst “repetitive loss properties.”

The National Flood Insurance Program is almost $30 million USD in debt and hasn’t changed much since the 1998 NWF report. Despite its obvious flaws, cities like Houston and New Orleans continue to sprawl into their floodplains, encouraged by cheap, federally subsidized insurance.

Something Must be Done

With all of these obvious flaws in the way the Houston has prepared for floods and handled the rebuilding process after communities are devastated, we wonder if anyone should have been surprised by the magnitude of Hurricane Harvey’s damages.

While much of the City of Houston will rebuild and move on relatively scotch-free, the poorest communities will likely struggle to repair just in time for the next devastating storm.

Floods are strengthening and flood-protection regulations are weakening.

How could Houston solve these critical issues and help its communities move into the future with some sense of security against catastrophic weather events? 

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  1. Mike October 22 at 5:42 pm GMT

    Or as I would like to say…when you steer into an oncoming iceberg, don’t act surprised when your ship sinks.

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