So what now, America?
by David Zetland (originally published at Aguanomics)
So what now, America?
I was going to call this post “I told you so, America,” but I want to change people’s perspectives and motivate action more than be right.
First of all, let’s all agree that the flood damages to Houston were worse due to poor planning that paved wetlands and allowed the city to sprawl into flood plains.
Second, subsidized flood insurance (or the lack of a requirement for insurance) means that many people fail to consider the risk of flooding when choosing where to live. (Me complaining about this 10 years ago, an update 5 years ago, and my student this year.)
Third, climate change means that many models and assumptions are wrong. Houston has experienced three “500-year storms” in the past 40 years, and the number of storms is increasing, worldwide:
Fourth, people and cities around the world are going to experience greater damages as climate change (emphasis on change) raises sea levels, redirects ocean currents and increases storm strength. Greater threats to weaker populations (Bangladesh just flooded) will result in economic loss, political instability, forced migration and many other impacts that will spill over to countries that are not immediately affected by climate.
Fifth, there’s no need to spend €2-3,000 to get access to “expert opinions” at Stockholm’s World Water Week (it ends today). The right actions are obvious:
- Stop subsidies for living in risky places
- Restore the buffers that can protect cities from floods
- Build more absorption/storage capacity into systems to cope with flood — or drought!
- Plan for the next 50-100 years, not the next election cycle
These costs may bother people, but we’re talking about investing $ today to save $$$ in the near future. (NYC decided to not build flood defenses just before Sandy hit.)
What will that future look like? Check out my project — Life plus 2 meters — to read some visions of how we might (not) adapt to climate change. I bet that some people in Houston would have wished they had read the book… and planned for a future that arrived a little sooner than expected.*
Bottom Line: Make sure that your city has plans — and is taking actions — to cope with living in a climate-changed world. You can do that by pressuring politicians to plan for the long term and supporting spending that will realize those plans.
Efforts in Houston have been stymied by a belief that free enterprise always does the right thing. It has not over the years and urban sprawl has taken over the land which may have relieved the pressure on the environment caused by hurricane Harvey. president Obama attempted to start Houston on a path to resolve some of those issues only to have Trump reverse Obama’s attempts.
The orange-haired boy who would-be President reversed an Obama Executive Order to wipe clean Obama’s legacy. Trump made a big show out of erasing this one order as something which will thwart development with delays and road blocks. While that Executive Order would have done little to save Houston weeks and days before Harvey. it would have put Houston on the a path requiring developers and companies to plan, build, and rebuild for 100 and 500 year events as needed. Three 500-year flooding events in a row for Houston is no longer random occurrence.
“In January 2015, Obama issued Executive Order 13690, which established the new Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS). In brief, this standard called for a more cautious approach to construction at the boundaries of flood hazard zones. The approach was flexible and didn’t even require an admission of climate change as being the cause—just more caution.”
This is no different than what I have done while sitting on a Planning Commission reviewing development plans of builders and requiring set backs from rivers and wetlands, swales and retention areas, and green space to compensate for impervious areas and water runoff. Hopefully, a blend of new development and natural areas not impeding of valuable water areas which also supply drinking water.
Senators from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, and Missouri (some of the largest net recipients of NFIP funds), including John Cornyn, sent a letter opposing the new planning tool saying it was an impediment to new development. Mississippi received $5.60 in NFIP disaster payouts and Louisiana received $3.82 for every dollar in premiums its residents paid. A great deal for states, which choose not to master plan for development and put in place ordinances protecting wetlands, rivers, and natural areas for water runoff.
Of course, developers lose the ability to 100% pack an area with homes and businesses and therefore some profit; but after they leave, communities are not left with paying for issues arising from natural events. Three major flooding events in three years is no longer random and neither is it natural. In any case, Houston will be rebuilt in the same manner it was previously without regard for the causality of their haphazard and purposeful rebuild in the same areas.
Public officials can be sued for malfeasant actions and should be in the case of Houston.
A lot of people might nod in agreement–until they realize that their taxes would increase, or their homes might lose value, or they might not be allowed to own waterfront property, or any of a thousand other petty reasons. Most Americans refuse to accept the idea that their are natural limits. They proved that by voting for snake oil salesman Reagan over two candidates who tried to level with them back in 1980, and have been aggressively doing so ever since then.
The cost to do Obama’s Executive Order was .75 of 1% to 1.25% of building cost. The developer looses in that they can not pack a plot of land with all concrete and buildings. There must be pervious land, swales, and retention basins to slow water runoff. Your house may go up in cost; but, it will not wash away or cause issues down stream with water runoff or pollution..
On the issue of insurance flood insurance is a lot like earthquake insurance (again most folks in Ca don’t have earthquake insurance and earthquakes are specifically excluded along with floods from ordinary homeowners insurance). In both cases folks look at the risk reward, and decide the the premium costs more than the risk. In one sense it is the same argument that younger folks make about not buying health insurance, the risk is worth it, since we no longer jail folks for debt. For example the house I used to live in and own in Houston went 39 years without flooding (don’t know about Harvey yet). At a $400 year that is over 15k of premiums. So the expanded flood insurance could in theory be self insured. So the issue is more does the mortgage lender require more extensive flood insurance. For example if you own your house outright (no mortgage) you don’t have to have homeowners insurance that is your choice.
A large part of the issue is the amount of risk a person is willing to take versus insurance.
On another point the 50 inch rainfall in the Houston area represents an event that currently appears to have a .0025 % ( 1n 40,000 chance)chance of occurring per year, Which is about 10 times the chance of insuring against a Yellowstone super eruption (.0006%)where all the insurance companies would go belly up (just as many did in 1906 in San Francisco).
A 500 year flood event has happened 3 times in three successive years; “Tomball, Texas, Public Works director David Esquivel told a local paper there this year that the Houston area had “two 500-year storms back to back”: over Memorial Day weekend of 2015 and early April 2016. That means that Hurricane Harvey constitutes the third “500-year” flood in three years.” You do not self insure for 3 consecutive events of living in a flood plain of sorts in a city which has over built the prairie which could have mitigated much of the damage.
1. You plan for these events as I explained below.
2. You do not build in flood plains.
3. You build accordingly to what Is necessary to withstand a 100 year event which sound more like drizzle now.
4. Give the circumstance and the flawed reasoning of the climate change naysayers, it appears the climate has worsened beyond the 39 years in an exponential manner.
I will say the same to Texans as I would to youth who believe they are invincible. We (I) should not have to pay for your gambling with life or flood or hurricane. You choose to go without or build in a bad area, it is on you. Furthermore, the state of Texas places the whole nation in risk through its weak zoning laws for petro and chemical plants also. This will cost way more than a cleanup in aisle 5 in Texas. Texas laziness just cost the nations billions in higher cost.
Here’s an article on the explosive population growth in Houston from a few months ago: http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-houston-diversity-2017-htmlstory.html According to the article, the city has more diversity than any other city in the US.
Pew indicates that 575k of the metro area’s residents are undocumented. That’s out of about 5.6 million people (again, greater metro area).
This article (http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Harris-County-drops-to-No-2-nationally-in-11024290.php) says Harris county (which includes Houston) earlier this year dropped to second nationally in population growth. In other words… they slowed down enough not to be the fastest growing city in the country again this year.
Every environment has a carrying capacity. That carrying capacity can be stretched if the growth is slow enough to allow for planning, or if the increase in population comes in the form of wealthy newcomers who can afford the high cost required to mitigate their impact. Neither of those conditions is true for Houston, from what I can tell.
Given that the west coast, Charleston, Sc and Se Missouri areas are earthquake prone do we require earthquake insurance there? I could see a no flood insurance no aid law but it would never pass. I read that banks etc got sloppy on flood insurance and did not continue to check that places in the 1% flood plain continued there insurance as the mortgages were sold and resold. Now one can argue that the 1% limit is to low and you should go to either .2% or .1% but that is the status of the law, just get fannie and freddie to change their rule
The old time rule of let the buyer beware does apply here. In Tx as I understand if your house ever flooded you have to tell the buyer.
You know what? The difference is a man made catastrophe as opposed to an act of nature. You do not build in a flood plan. You do not make the entire city of impervious material. You do not build up potential flood plains. Banks do not control zoning. Banks do not do master plans. Banks do not determine flood plans and set backs. Communities do this and they chose commercial development over the welfare of the constituents and the nation.
Houston with its lackadaisical manner has threatened the nation’s security and economy.
Re the growth rate of Harris County, the metro now extends about 15 mi into Fort Bend County, and the Woodlands is in Montgomery county also. So the numbers should be on a metro area basis. (In fact the homes flooded along the Brazos river are all in Fort Bend county)
The other reason for the slowdown is due to the oil bust which meant that new jobs were not growing as fast in that industry. (During the 1980s Oil bust Houston stopped building houses for about 7 years as it was the foreclosure capital of the country at the time. It became a nicer place to live as infrastructure caught up with population)
And those who made fun of Jimmy Carter and his cardigan.
i think you are backing a lame horse if you expect private insurance to solve the problem
or, as I am sure Sammy would point out, even liberals pave their driveways.
related to this in an obscure fashion is the fact that while “the young” do not have the same risk of health care expenses as the old… while they are young…
the young will become the old, and it would have been a whole lot smarter of them to pay a little more for insurance when they were young and working so they wouldn’t have to pay so much more for it when they are old and sick and not working.
as far as I can see this is too much for ordinary people to understand (even I would not have “understood” it when I was young) so the only way it could be made to work would be mandatory government insurance. (essentially Medicare).
the same is probably true for insuring property from floods (and earthquakes)… maybe the cost of insurance could be built into property taxes, but my guess is even that won’t work. as two or three five hundred year floods in a row would bankrupt even “government” insurance… unless it is imposed upon people who do NOT live in danger zones. and they would not put up with that.
and poor people have no choice about where they live.
Related to this issue is a state and a city acting in the most hazardous of fashions in regards to its own health of state, city, and constituent. Its claims of being the most prosperous state and city in the nation are built upon false convictions and a precarious notion nothing will happen to it so it can reap the hopeful rewards of successful businesses. Those rewards come at a far greater cost. This is no longer a 500 year event and is a common event in the state of Texas and the city of Houston. Three years in a roll does not constitute a random 500 year occurrence and Texas, Houston, and its constituents should stop gambling with federal funding. Rebuild in a fashion paying attention to natural flood plains that are now built up and with the much needed precautions for catastrophes occurring near oceans. Obama put this in place and Trump reversed it.
As a city and township planner, we certainly would not allow a chemical business, business, or housing to build in a wetland, flood plain, or river bank prone to flooding. The insurance is too costly to do so, allowing such rebuild with insurance does nothing to prepare for the next event, and neither does insurance prevent loss of life. Once the local and state zoning and land use laws are in place, banks will not loan money and insurance will not insure. Sound planning and zoning must be done.
The claimed prosperity of Texas is a hoax.
i am pretty sure I agree with you entirely about this.
my “related to” argument was meant to suggest similarities between the flooding problem and some other problems that cannot be solved at all by private enterprise, and only solved with difficulty and careful understanding of causes and human nature by government… which we cannot count on.
thing is, we could get by with crackpot solutions to the retirement insurance problem… only the poor would suffer. but the flooding problem is beginning to look too big to solve at all. at least i don’t see any way to move millions of people out of “flood zones” or pay to rebuild after every “event.”
Yea, you can and it has been done in the Midwest around Chicago. The state said we will no longer build in the Salt Creek flood plains or allow rebuilds. The issue has to be forced, the funds from the disaster used to rebuild elsewhere, and the area returned to flood plain, etc.
A building may not be in a flood zone when it is built, and find itself in a flood zone at a later point. As I’ve noted in posts, I saw this a fair amount in South America where municipal governments often had the clever idea of paving over dry riverbeds. Its a cheap way to build a highway. Once you had a road on what used a riverbed that only saw water every few years or even every few decades, houses started cropping up nearby. Eventually you had entire cities. And then one day there would be heavy rains and everything was underwater. Anything that had previously existed near the paved over river bed, and which had had no flooding problems in the past, was, from that point forward, compromised.
My understanding is that Houston topography has been similarly transformed, and much of what used to be spongy ground in which water could seep in is now asphalt, cement and concrete.
I was curious whether the Arkema plant in Crosby had been there before this whole process of paving over began. If so, I would have more sympathy for them. If not, I’d be less inclined to cut them slack.
In any case, I found this filing (https://www.tceq.texas.gov/assets/public/comm_exec/agendas/comm/backup/Agendas/2007/6-27-2007/1910air.pdf) from 2006 so its been around at least that long. How long, I don’t know.
Chicago was a marsh before it was Chicago. Place of wild onions.
I beilieve you can make and enforce building codes and wetland set-asides (as should be done anyway.) I don’t believe you can move the population of Houston and New Orleans and most of South Florida.
This is not a discussion point. Three 500 year events in a roll. Do you need more logic why something needs to be done?
Here is a link to a map that shows what parts of houston flooded:https://apps.texastribune.org/harvey-fema-damage-analysis/?_ga=2.222911899.1651541107.1504494030-1382531303.1503929414
Note that it was largely along the bayous. With areas near the drainage divides between them not so much affected.
Now today if you took this map and overlaid it on google earth you could provide a nice tool to give folks an idea of what flooded. Also note that most of the town did not flood (there may have been water in the streets, but due to the 3 foot or so typical slope from the street to the house and the requirement in Houston that the slab be 1 foot above the 100 year flood plane water did not get in the house (may have been close however)
In the old days it would have take perusal of topo maps, but today google earth can give you a good view in particular if you look at the elevation numbers in the bottom banner.
Someone should put together a presentation on how to use google earth and other parts of the web to determine for yourself if a place is likley to flood and not believe the interest conflicted real estate types. (There were folks who said their real estate agent said oh no you don’t need flood insurance)
This is what I wrote on September 1:
What you are suggesting or have pointed out is what Obama’s Executive Order called for in rebuild. Unfortunately, the homes and businesses which flooded are more-than-likely grandfathered into the prior law and would follow that law rather than the 1-3 foot high rebuild you have pointed out that did not flood inside the house. Where I live and helped plan, we go further having gone from 50 foot setbacks to 100 foot setbacks with no disruption of natural vegetation within that restrict and no building within that area either. There is also a minimum requirement on pervious areas required to compensate for water runoff from impervious areas. You can not build in or fill in flood plans as Chicago suburbs learned with Salt Creek having moved residences and businesses away from it.
Nicely said Lyle.
i never said nothing needs to be done. I said I didn’t think private insurance would work. And I am not sure government insurance will work.If we have more of these 500 year floods every decade it is unlikely that anything can be done…. area, current state of build, size of population.. are too big.
maybe this is not a discussion point for you. but if we’ve got a problem we need to get a handle on what we need to do to fix it. maybe we can all move to higher ground.
I will say it again three 500 year floods in a row each year. That is not long a random occurrence. The cost of Harvey will more-than-likely surpass $100 billion federal dollars. Yes you can move people and you can enforce what Lyle has said and Obama’s executive order.
Note that governor Abbot suggested mitigation during rebuilding and got shot down big time by the developers and real estate interests. He was told to shut up and since these are the real powers in Tx politics he had not choice but to do so. So I do think that with the web public education could help, but you are also flying against the desire of many to live near water even if it is a concrete lined ditch. But teaching folks how to 1 read the current flood maps and where they are on the web as well as how to tell which areas are near the flood areas with tools like google earth could help. Note that Houston did require slabs to be 1 foot above the 100 year flood plain. In Houston whether you flood or not is a matter of a couple of foot in elevation, so you can’t see it when driving around. (3 foot per mile is not detectable without serious instruments, or google earth which is better than the topomaps at 5 foot contour levels.
btw Google earth has images dated aug 30 of houston so you cane at least where some of the flooding was.
i don’t know why you want to disagree with me, or even why you think you are disagreeing with me. but say it again if you want. i agree with you. just don’t think insurance is going to solve global warming, and moving a couple of million people may not be as easy as you want to think.