Houston was one of the fastest growing cities in the US thanks to its liberal building regulations. But heavy, once-unprecedented storms are set to occur more frequently – and claim more victims. John Dyer reports from Boston.
The fourth largest city in the United States, Houston has long expanded while remaining a relatively affordable place to live thanks to its lack of zoning codes that would otherwise designate residential, industrial or green spaces.
But last week, that lack of zoning has also resulted in thousands of kilometres of paved roads channelling Hurricane Harvey’s flood waters through neighbourhoods unprepared for the 127 centimetres of rain that fell on the Texas city for four days.
Houston is not prepared
“Houston is not designed to handle this kind of rainfall,” said Texas A&M University Urban Planning Professor Sam Brody. “The storm water system has never been designed for anything much stronger than a heavy afternoon thunderstorm.”
35 people have died in the disaster, a number that surely will rise. Based on costs of Hurricane Sandy in New York and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, rebuilding the centre of the American energy industry will cost tens of billions of dollars.
The city with no limits
Proud of its nickname “The City With No Limits,” Houston controls growth indirectly. Properties usually include deed restrictions, or legal covenants mandating that only a home, store or factory can replace current properties.
The city also has guidelines on parcel sizes, parking and similar rules that have created a vast, suburban-style car-dependent city.
Voters have repeatedly rejected adopting a zoning system in citywide referendums.
The Wild West of development
“Houston is the Wild West of development, so any mention of regulation creates a hostile reaction from people who see that as an infringement on property rights and a deterrent to economic growth,” Brody said.
Responding to criticism about the lack of zoning, Houston’s mayor Sylvester Turner noted that other cities like Atlanta and Los Angeles have also experienced chaotic sprawl despite their urban planning efforts.
“Zoning wouldn’t have changed anything,” Turner tweeted Wednesday. “We would have been a city with zoning that flooded.”
Building over flood protection
Houston’s population jumped 25 per cent between 1995 and 2015, according to the U.S. Census. Harris County grew 42 per cent to 4.4 million people. Around 30 per cent of its coastal wetlands were lost in roughly the same period, according to Texas A&M University.
In the last seven years, around 7,000 houses and apartment buildings have gone up in Houston and surrounding Harris County on land that the U.S. government has designated within a 100-year flood plain, according to a Washington Post investigation.
Not the first storm
Houston has suffered from strong rains and flooding in the past. Last year, storms flooded 1,000 homes, killing eight and causing $5 billion in damages. In 2015, seven died in a storm that dropped 30 centimetres in 10 hours.
In January, the city appropriated $10 million to improve drainage in three bayous – a drop in the bucket for what experts say is actually needed.
“There could have been ways to have more green space and more green infrastructure over the years, and it just didn’t work that way because it was fast and furious,” said Phil Bedient, an environmental engineer at Rice University in Houston.
“It’s been known for years how to do it. It just costs the developers more money to do it that way.”
Too few are insured
The legacy of Houston’s growth will take its toll on people for years to come.
Less than 16 per cent of residents have signed up to the National Flood Insurance Program, the federal agency that provides the only flood insurance in the US. The insurance costs around $660 on average a year.
Many others are hoping that President Trump will come through on his promise to help the city.