When a major American city is under eight feet of water, it’s a distasteful time to play politics. That hasn’t stopped multiple media commentators looking for the “hot take” from claiming that Houston’s approach to building-construction regulations have made the damage worse than it could have been.
One pointed to Houston’s “impervious cover” (i.e. pavement), noting that “If water could easily sink into the ground, there would be less of it ripping down Houston’s rivers that just a week ago were overcrowded streets.” Another lamented how Houston’s expansion has meant a reduction in wetlands that could have absorbed the rains.
These objections are purely rhetorical. Houston is built on a plain based on Coast Prairie soils, which are mostly clay. Clay has poor permeability, meaning water mostly flows off due to gravity just like it does from the pavement, rather than sinking into the ground.
Unfortunately, Houston and its surrounding areas are flat. So there is little natural drainage (much of the area’s drainage is in fact provided by pavement, like the freeways that are designed as emergency drainage channels). The undeveloped prairies to the west of Houston are suffering just as bad flooding, if not worse.
Nor is flooding a new problem. As George Mason University historian Phil Magness points out, Houston has suffered significant flooding at least once a decade for more than a century. The flood of 1935 saw the water at Buffalo Bayou higher than it is today. Those floods have had a tendency to stick around – the docks were closed for 8 months in 1935 – simply because of the topography and lack of permeability in the area.
Conserving wetlands have not have helped much, either. As the author of the piece on wetlands admits, Houston’s lost wetlands would have added only 4 billion gallons of extra absorbency. The city and its surrounding areas have received 19 trillion gallons of rainwater over the course of the storm.
Yet Houston does actually have a potential problem with building regulations. As my colleague Marc Scribner noted, the city “imposes minimum lot size requirements on single-family homes, minimum off-street parking requirements, and other regulations that encourage outward urban growth and impermeable pavement coverage.” So, even if the city’s regulations didn’t make the disaster worse, they probably could get in the way of appropriate rebuilding.
If anything, they probably need to be relaxed in the rebuilding process. People and businesses who have seen their property damaged will want to rebuild in a way that adds resilience, and a lack of form-filling and regulatory costs would mean that they can do so faster and more affordably.
Houston’s leaders should also work on investments in flood mitigation infrastructure, such as cisterns, that previously didn’t happen at pace with the city’s rapid growth. Tellingly, this approach was supposed to be part of the deal with the federal government subsidizing building in flood-prone areas with its flood insurance program.
Now the flood insurance program will have to pay out a huge amount of money to people who might well have chosen not to build in the area if they couldn’t get subsidized flood insurance. It is especially worth noting that the program serves as a subsidy to the best-off people who tend to own coastal properties.
With the program $25 billion in debt and up for re-authorization by Congress next month, the time for reform is now. Taxpayers will have to bail out the fund, as the insurance it provides is contractual and has to be paid out, but it should be reformed so as not to encourage rebuilding in areas that are likely to suffer damaging floods again, to encourage investment in infrastructure, and to lessen the exposure to taxpayers.
That would mean that Houston’s rebuilders would need to seek insurance in a private market that is currently undeveloped owing to the presence of the government program. If Houston’s rebuilding allows just such a market to develop, then people will have a clearer idea of the costs of living in flood-prone areas.
They might even be encouraged to preserve wetlands.
Originally published to Washington Examiner.