August 27, 2017

DISASTERS ARE MAN-MADE:

Boomtown, Flood Town : Climate change will bring more frequent and fierce rainstorms to cities like Houston. But unchecked development remains a priority in the famously un-zoned city, creating short-term economic gains for some while increasing flood risks for everyone. (Neena Satija for The Texas Tribune and Reveal; Kiah Collier for The Texas Tribune; and Al Shaw for ProPublica, December 7, 2016)

"More people die here than anywhere else from floods," said Sam Brody, a Texas A&M University at Galveston researcher who specializes in natural hazards mitigation. "More property per capita is lost here. And the problem's getting worse."

Why?

Scientists, other experts and federal officials say Houston's explosive growth is largely to blame. As millions have flocked to the metropolitan area in recent decades, local officials have largely snubbed stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater. That has led to an excess of floodwater during storms that chokes the city's vast bayou network, drainage systems and two huge federally owned reservoirs, endangering many nearby homes -- including Virginia Hammond's.

On top of that, scientists say climate change is causing torrential rainfall to happen more often, meaning storms that used to be considered "once-in-a-lifetime" events are happening with greater frequency. Rare storms that have only a miniscule chance of occurring in any given year have repeatedly battered the city in the past 15 years. And a significant portion of buildings that flooded in the same time frame were not located in the "100-year" floodplain -- the area considered to have a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year -- catching residents who are not required to carry flood insurance off guard.

Scientists say the Harris County Flood Control District, which manages thousands of miles of floodwater-evacuating bayous and helps enforce development rules, should focus more on preserving green space and managing growth. The City of Houston, too. And they say everyone should plan for more torrential rainfall because of the changing climate. (A host of cities in the U.S. and around the world are doing so.)

But county and city officials responsible for addressing flooding largely reject these arguments. Houston's two top flood control officials say their biggest challenge is not managing rapid growth but retrofitting outdated infrastructure. Current standards that govern how and where developers and residents can build are mostly sufficient, they say. And all the recent monster storms are freak occurrences -- not harbingers of global warming or a sign of things to come.

The longtime head of the flood control district flat-out disagrees with scientific evidence that shows development is making flooding worse. Engineering projects can reverse the effects of land development and are doing so, Mike Talbott said in an interview with The Texas Tribune and ProPublica in late August before his retirement after 18 years heading the powerful agency. (His successor shares his views.)

The claim that "these magic sponges out in the prairie would have absorbed all that water is absurd," Talbott said.

He also said the flood control district has no plans to study climate change or its impacts on Harris County, the third-most-populous county in the United States.



Posted by at August 27, 2017 3:24 PM

  

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