The flooding in Houston from hurricane Harvey was according to some, a 1000-year event. Scientists, experts, and policy makers however, have been warning about the damage a storm like Harvey could do. In 2016, ProPublica published a three-part story on why Houston is especially vulnerable to catastrophic storms and flooding. The problem is inadequate urban design and policy. Poor design has contributed to worsening flood conditions and put more people at risk.
Urban sprawl, and developer free-for-alls with little regulation or enforcement, has limited Houston’s ability to deal with floodwaters.
“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.” – ProPublica
While the prairie seems “empty” to developers, it’s a critical part of nature’s own flood-absorbing infrastructure. The root systems for these grasses grow up to 15 feet deep, which essentially turns the land into a sponge during flooding.
Since 2010, over 7,000 homes have been built in 100-year flood zones. Developers claim that they can compensate for the loss of flood-absorbing land with man-made infrastructure, like retention ponds to catch runoff and elaborate pumping systems–which require repair and upkeep.
“[T]he fundamental problem is that Houstonians have assumed they can simply engineer their way out of flooding. In allowing developers to build houses on risky land and build infrastructure to compensate for natural floodplains, the city is essentially in denial about what infrastructure can do. Extreme weather is becoming more frequent, and while cities can’t control when and where a hurricane or storm strikes, they can impact how quickly they rebound; that’s the very definition of resiliency.” – ProPublica.
With updates to the Comprehensive Plan in progress, critics have claimed that the new way forward will in many ways be repeating the geodesign mistakes seen in Houston–increased development along coastal areas, loss of Seaside protections and overdeveloping the flood plains.
Causes and blame aside, coastal communities must be prepared to deal with effects of a changing environment, and devise sustainable ways forward that promote intelligent urban design. The ability to adapt will rely heavily on geodesign, and will need to leverage ‘big data’ and models, using resiliency tools such as the Coastal Resiliency App, the RAFT Tool.
Cape Charles recently participated in a RAFT Tool workshop. The Mirror has received and is reviewing the latest draft of the workshop report. The final report may be completed in the October time frame.