Houston’s Harvey response predictable and disastrous

Houston's Harvey response predictable and disastrous

Houston’s approach to rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey is both predictable and disastrous. And it illustrates the problems that many of our coastal cities large and small will face as the growing storm of climate destruction bears down on the United States.

The Washington Post reports:

A city chastened by disastrous flooding just months ago is trying to balance the need for new construction in a region short of housing with the civic fear that Houston is returning to its freewheeling ways.

The construction in northwest Houston, which serves as something of a post-Harvey starting gun, is being built to new, stricter standards. Planners say those rules reflect both the local government’s commitment to avoid repeating mistakes and new federal weather predictions that anticipate even more severe periods of rain here for decades to come. In the short term, forecasters say this year’s hurricane season, which begins June 1, could be even worse than last year’s.

Notice a couple of key points here. On the positive side, the city is finally starting to use stricter flood standards. And they are doing so in explicit recognition that the findings of climate scientists are trustworthy and present the urgent need for response, if the city is to minimize future losses of life and property. At the same time, there is a hint here of tension: “the need for new construction in a region short of housing.”

Part of the city’s response is a request to the federal government to use yours and my tax dollars not simply to buy out damaged property, but to rebuild new housing there that will meet the city’s stricter standards. Currently, federal money can’t be used to rebuild a home in a flood plain. The property must be kept as open green space. Here’s why that’s an issue for the city:

The problem for city planners, not to mention neighbors, is that the policy creates checkerboard neighborhoods where houses stand next to vacant lots along once well-planned streets. Property values for those who remain tend to plummet, as does the tax base.

This is going to be a problem all along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. If cities, states and the federal government wish to avoid a growing fiscal crisis of flood-damaged property caused by rising sea levels and more extreme storms, they will have to prevent rebuilding in flood zones. But taking that sensible step for the future leads to a declining tax base now, as people who lived in those ruined homes are forced to move, and those who stay suffer reduced property values. And a declining tax base means cities won’t be able to pay for all the services people expect, including recovery help in a future with ever worse flooding. Something will have to give. And it’s not likely to be longtime homeowners:

“What are we going to do in these neighborhoods that people just don’t want to leave?” said Stephen Costello, Houston’s chief resilience officer, whose task is to balance development and flood protection as the city recovers.

Houston's Harvey response predictable and disastrous

And so we are on a collision course: the great storm of destruction is going to grow more powerful over the next several decades, and then really pick up speed in the second half of the century. That is reality, and we cannot stop basic physics. We have two ways to respond: mitigation (weakening the growing storm of destruction by rapidly phasing out our use of fossil fuels), and adaptation, and a wide array of combinations of those two. The more effort and money we put into mitigation, the less we will have to put into future adaptation.

The economists who have studied this will tell you the mitigation-focused approach is by far the cheapest in the long run, not to mention the morally correct, pro-life choice. But our federal government and many state governments are controlled by the one major political party in the world that denies sea levels are rising (or suggests farcical causes such as falling rocks), that has banned official reports from stating this reality, and has been trying to stop the military and other federal agencies from even studying the issue. All this makes our nation a global pariah for its refusal to lift a finger to address its role in creating the most dangerous situation human civilization has ever faced, and it forces most of the mitigation efforts down to the state and local levels.

A number of cities and states are taking action by imposing their own fossil fuel restrictions, but it won’t be enough to come close to meeting the problem. So, that means adaptation. But as we can see from Houston, the economic and political pressures on city officials make it nearly impossible to do what’s necessary for adequate adaptation to what is coming. They inevitably are taking half-measures that are very expensive and yet only pass the buck a couple of decades ahead. And in a couple of decades, when extreme weather will be causing a growing number of expensive catastrophes all across the nation–from hurricanes to intense spring flooding to wildfires in an increasingly parched West, with all the lives lost and crops and property destruction–there will be ever less federal, state and city money to go around for emergency relief.

To sum it up: as a nation our leaders’ wasting of three decades of time in which we could have been moving away from fossil fuels has left us with almost no window left for adequate mitigation. And at the state and local levels, our powerful tendency to do the bare minimum to push the problem a little further down the road will lead to disaster in this case, because what is coming is going to grow beyond what local, state and federal governments can afford to fix.

We have put ourselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place: we have delayed so long and taken such inadequate steps that we have effectively chosen to neither mitigate nor adapt in a way that future generations will find remotely acceptable. We are bequeathing them a bitter legacy.

By the end of the century as many as four million Americans along the coasts will be flooded out by rising sea levels. So, to answer the Houston official who asked this question: “What are we going to do in these neighborhoods that people just don’t want to leave?”

We have left the future with just one option: Those people and neighborhoods will be abandoned to their fates.

Photo: Houston, Texas, August 30, 2017; Creative Commons license; credit J. Daniel Escareño

About the author

David Backes

I have always been drawn to where the wild things are: the natural world around me, and the wilderness within. As a writer, speaker, and university professor, I have for decades focused on this combination of nature and the human spirit. In recent years, my spiritual journey has added another lens: social, environmental and intergenerational justice. Put it all together and you’ve got The Earth Keeper, a blog of integral ecology and the prophetic imagination. The Earth Keeper may at times make you feel hopeful or inspired; it may make you feel uncomfortable or defensive or even angry. I hope it often will be challenging, and always interesting.

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