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Thread: Hurricane Harvey: Thoughts from a Houston planner

  1. #1
    Cyburbian
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    Hurricane Harvey: Thoughts from a Houston planner

    Hurricane Harvey is turning into one of the biggest, costliest natural disasters in U.S. History. We received record rainfall (over multiple counties) combined with an inability to retain and release the water at a controlled rate. We have some of the worst clay-based soils and decades of development sited in 100 year and 500 year flood plains. We have not set enough park and open space throughout greater Houston. Our lack of zoning allows residential densities of all types in all areas, which creates more surface runoff.

    I've been aware of these issues for years, continuing to design sprawling master planned communities and subdivisions. I've not done anything wrong or illegal. I've met market demands for single-family residential land uses, and I will continue to be an advocate for these developments. I have not done anything to infringe on the health, safety, or general welfare of my communities and am not in violation of my Code of Ethics. It's a personal preference, although definitely not a popular one in the planning community at large.

    I've spent the past 4-5 days braving Hurricane Harvey. My 40 year old apartment backs onto the Buffalo Bayou. Three days ago, two reservoirs were released upstream to control water flow towards downtown Houston. As a planner who designs roads and detention I KNEW that there was no way in hell that this water release would remain controlled. I packed up my belongings and drove over to my office a few miles away (incidentally both my apartment and office are still dry although my home still doesn't have power 3 days). After I set up my sleeping bag, canned goods, clothing, I crashed on the floor and looked up at the great expanse of land plans hanging around my office. There were town centers, subdivisions, low impact development subdivisions, strip malls, master planned communities, and equestrian communities. I have no regrets for the work that I've done or that's been built. I've designed quality communities that people call home. There is "enough" paving and there is "more than enough" areas for storm water and detention.

    Houston has welcomed hundreds of thousands of residents and workers over the past couple of decades especially during nation-wide recessions when other states saw population declines. Our land is still cheap and abundant, we have good roads and the schools (well so,so for a native Chicagoan). We keep the American Dream alive, for better or worse (that's why I came here 6 1/2 years ago). But this is our third major storm event in 3 years. The second flood drove enough homeowners away just after they finished repairing their homes the first time. I can't imagine what this will do for the third flood today. Is this the new normal?

    People want to blame someone or something for this mess. Blame it on climate change? Okay, sure. Blame it on politicians? Done. Blame it on Melania's stilettos and Joel Osteen? Sure, and then some. Planners have a huge role to take for this mess, myself included. I take the blame but I also don't have regrets for my decisions. Had there been no hurricane, we would probably continue doing what we are doing. What type of solution, if there is a solution, can be done to fix this mess from happening again? These issues are not going away and they are not unique to Houston. I'd like to hear your thoughts about what can be done (big and small, ridiculous and practical) to fix Houston's terrible planning situation.
    "This is great, honey. What's the crunchy stuff?"
    "M&Ms. I ran out of paprika."

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  2. #2
    Cyburbian Doohickie's avatar
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    I've got no answers, but I'm genuinely curious about where the discussion will go.

    I had a discussion on Facebook that mentioned this. I think something needs to be done, not sure what it is. I read an article that said $25 billion would be needed to tackle the issue, and Houston spends about $80 million per year on flood control, so it would take about 400 years before Houston could handle today's flooding problems. I think planning is very much a major contributor to the problem, but I also understand your "no regrets" assertion: You're merely executing policies as set forth by the city/county. When I say planning is a contributor, I would say it's not so much at the execution level but at the policy level. Any real change needs to happen at that level.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian dvdneal's avatar
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    People who know more about the situation can yell at me, but this is just my half baked uniformed thoughts:

    It's not the individual projects that are causing this. Houston needs to take a regional look at who they will handle flooding. This disaster was going to be a disaster no mater what. We're talking 500+ year storm here. It's the annual flooding that goes past the floodplains that should be a red flag. I would think a strategic preservation of bayous and prairies would be a good start. Maybe remap the floodplains with updated rainfalls and data. Maybe even go as far to up the storm water controls from 20 to 50 year storms or whatever level storm they design for. How to fix the downtown and the older parts, no idea. It's a lot of retro fit kind of stuff that we all know is incredibly expensive and takes forever, but at least come up with a plan.
    I don't pretend to understand Brannigan's Law. I merely enforce it.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian AG74683's avatar
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    How do you even plan for this? I mean if you require such stringent standards for flood prevention on residential projects, the costs would increase astronomically and property would become unaffordable at that point. Obama's mandate that all federally funded projects needed to be secured against a 500 year flood was wise, but unfortunately Orange Cheeto in Chief axed that provision.

    You could have put every tested and proven flood prevention infrastructure in place for this storm, and you still wouldn't have stopped this from happening. You may have slightly reduced the magnitude of damage, but we'd be talking 140 billion to repair rather than 160+. Sure, Houston/Texas has planning issues but this is far greater than that.

  5. #5
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    Glad to hear you're safe & sound.

    Drop 5' of rain on any of the cities held up as pinnacles of sound planning and tell me how it goes. I am curious to see whether this gives developers themselves some pause in how they select sites. This, combined with other recent events, is significant enough to alter the entire market approach.

    A good friend of mine posted this regarding Houston, and I think he nailed it rather well:

    I realize people can't help being ideological, and I get the need to want to strike when the iron is hot, but to my point of absurdity.... To suggest, as many have, if only the storm water system could have handled a few more inches of rain, is silly.

    No responsible designer would design a drainage system in a city like this for the 500-year event. Where do you even drain such a thing? And if this amount of rainfall had landed in a dry and sandy desert, there would still have been monumental flooding.

    And getting to the ideological bashing, the smug seem to be suggesting that a lack of zoning and regulation has caused this. People who say Houston has no zoning don't understand, and have never been, to Houston (whose suburbs, BTW, are indistinguishable in development pattern from Portland and Seattle's suburbs).

    Here's an article: Houston's flooding shows what happens when you ignore science and let development run rampant. https://qz.com/…/hurricane-harvey-ho...oding-made-w…/

    In that article, they suggest that the filling of wetlands by developers was a cause of the flooding, something in line with what Many are suggesting. Here's the quote:

    "Altogether, the region lost the ability to handle nearly four billion gallons (15 billion liters) of storm water. That’s equivalent to $600 million worth of flood water detention capacity, according to the university researchers’ calculations."

    Yeah, they lost 4 billion gallons of storm water capacity, which would be a really important factor in a localized flooding event for a 5-year or 10-year event and elitists would have a right to be smug about Houstonites whining about their plight.

    Harvey has dropped 40 TRILLION gallons of water on Houston. That lost ability from wetland fill amounts to 0.01% of the storm. That's what I mean by absurd.

    The scale we are talking about here -- the volume and the intensity -- defies permeability calculations. The people making these arguments have an ideology they are pushing, not any valid insight. If they are claiming the mantle of science, they do science an injustice.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

  6. #6
    Cyburbian Doohickie's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by AG74683 View post
    How do you even plan for this?
    Quote Originally posted by dvdneal View post
    It's the annual flooding that goes past the floodplains that should be a red flag.
    I think the answer to the question is to attack the part you can reasonably do something about. If each part of Houston could easily handle the annual flooding, it would help to minimize the effect of major storms. So maybe instead of taking $160 billion of damage maybe it's more like $100 billion. It's not that you can expect to eliminate the damage, but maybe you can knock it down by a third or half, Put in those terms, $25 billion towards flood control sounds like a bargain.

    I acknowledge Suburb Repairman's point, but maybe the answer is to mandate new development handle a 100 year/500 year (whatever) event, and local areas remediated over time to go from 5 year to 10 year to 100 year, etc.

    Obviously you can't get there in a single step, how much you can reasonably do is limited, but the important thing may be to establish a roadmap toward improvement and stick to it.
    Last edited by Doohickie; 31 Aug 2017 at 11:59 AM.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian dvdneal's avatar
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    I have to agree with everyone that this is the unusual event. We didn't cry about planning on the Jersey coast when Sandy hit. Good or bad you just can't handle it. I'm more annoyed about the annual flooding and smaller events. I'd take the approach of reengineering your flood maps with updated rainfall totals, etc. to make sure you have the most accurate maps. Limit or improve standards in those areas to handle the 100 year storm at least. Let's say a development is designed for 20 year storms as reasonable. If it's in the area that should be floodplain but isn't then it's screwed.

    Nobody talked about it and I don't think it's a big issue with Houston, but I hope they have the critical facilities out of the 500 year flood rule. Just a little extra protection.
    I don't pretend to understand Brannigan's Law. I merely enforce it.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    Yeah this cracks me up every time I hear victim blaming on the flooding front: i.e. you shouldn't have lived in the flood basin area. Okay - so where do you want people to build, the mountains??? That has it's own problems, not the least is environmental impacts and infrastructure costs. Of course, there's other components to think about in a situation like this and it does present an opportunity to shift paradigms/policy: should we be building standard SFH subdivisions? Maybe that's what defines 'the american dream' in Texas, but damn is it a poor choice for the long haul. And then there's real estate market: market rate housing attracts people (generally lower income) to flood basin housing - that's why housing is cheaper in those locations and thus that's where low income people can buy a home. I mean, damn, I live in a flood basin right now (because it's more-affordable housing!). As a child, I even watched this area get flooded due to a levee break, but when it comes to dollars and cents, I just couldn't/wouldn't stretch myself so thin on a mortgage that I got myself trapped by a house. So I took a bet that it's pretty rare this area will see a 100+year storm event and cause flooding, but I also carry flood insurance (required by FEMA, though I would anyways). Anyways, it's an unfortunate situation caused by an Act of God and made (slightly) worse by people trying to buy/sell the American Dream. In reality, I don't blame planners/engineers/politicians/developers - they all were filling a market need they didn't create. I blame you, me, and us for our collective lack of vision.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Hawkeye66's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by mercdude View post
    Yeah this cracks me up every time I hear victim blaming on the flooding front: i.e. you shouldn't have lived in the flood basin area. Okay - so where do you want people to build, the mountains??? That has it's own problems, not the least is environmental impacts and infrastructure costs. Of course, there's other components to think about in a situation like this and it does present an opportunity to shift paradigms/policy: should we be building standard SFH subdivisions? Maybe that's what defines 'the american dream' in Texas, but damn is it a poor choice for the long haul. And then there's real estate market: market rate housing attracts people (generally lower income) to flood basin housing - that's why housing is cheaper in those locations and thus that's where low income people can buy a home. I mean, damn, I live in a flood basin right now (because it's more-affordable housing!). As a child, I even watched this area get flooded due to a levee break, but when it comes to dollars and cents, I just couldn't/wouldn't stretch myself so thin on a mortgage that I got myself trapped by a house. So I took a bet that it's pretty rare this area will see a 100+year storm event and cause flooding, but I also carry flood insurance (required by FEMA, though I would anyways). Anyways, it's an unfortunate situation caused by an Act of God and made (slightly) worse by people trying to buy/sell the American Dream. In reality, I don't blame planners/engineers/politicians/developers - they all were filling a market need they didn't create. I blame you, me, and us for our collective lack of vision.

    The Mountains are no guarantee either. We seem to never learn that building near water, any kind of water is a risk. It happened in 1889, and in 2017

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnstown_Flood

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