Houston Flooding and Zoning and Development

by on September 1, 2017 at 7:23 am in Current Affairs, Economics, History, Law | Permalink

A lot of nonsense has been written about the causes of flooding in Houston. Anti-immigration people blame immigration. Anti-development people blame development. Anti-Trump people blame Republicans.

The truth, however, is that Houston has flooded regularly since it was founded. Moreover, unlike Katrina, the flood systems have mostly worked as they are supposed to–diverting water to the highways, for example. The problem has been that there is just a lot of water.

In a superb post, Phil Magness has the details. From here on in this is Magness. I won’t indent.

————

We’ve seen a flurry of commentators in the past few days attributing Houston’s flooding to a litany of pet political causes. Aside from the normal carping about “climate change”… several pundits and journalists have opportunistically seized upon Houston’s famously lax zoning and land use regulations to blame Harvey’s destruction on “sprawl” and call for “SmartGrowth” policies that restrict and heavily regulate future construction in the city.

According to this argument, Harvey’s floods are a byproduct of unrestricted suburban development in the north and west of the city at the expense of prairies that would supposedly absorb rainwater at sufficient rates to prevent natural disasters and that supposedly served this purpose “naturally” in the past.

There are multiple problems with this line of argument that suggest it is rooted in naked political opportunism rather than actual concern for Houston’s flooding problems.

First, as we’ve established in the preceding history lesson, flooding has been a regular feature of Houston’s landscape since the beginning of recorded history in the region. And catastrophic flooding – including multiple storms in the 19th century and the well-documented flood of December 1935 – predates any of the “sprawl” that has provoked these armchair urban designers’ ire.

Second, the flooding we saw in Harvey is largely a result of creeks and bayous backlogging and spilling over their banks as more water rushes in from upstream. While parking lot and roadway runoff from “sprawl” certainly makes its way into these streams, it is hardly the source of the problem. The slow-moving and windy Brazos river reached record levels as a result of Harvey and spilled over its banks, despite being nowhere near the city’s “sprawl.” The mostly-rural prairie along Interstate 10 to the extreme west of the city recorded some of the worst flooding in terms of water volume due to the Brazos overflow, although fortunately property damage here will be much lower due to being rural.

Third, the very notion that Houston is a giant concrete-laden water retention pond is itself a pernicious myth peddled by unscrupulous urban planning activists and media outlets. In total acres, Houston has more parkland and green space than any other large city in America and ranks third overall to San Diego in park acreage per capita.*

But even more telling is a 2011 study by the Houston-Galveston Area Council that actually measured the ratio of impervious-to-pervious land cover within the city limits (basically the amount of water-blocking concrete vs. water-absorbing green land). The study used an index scale to measure water-absorption land uses. A low score (defined as less than 2.0 on the scale) indicates a high presence of green relative to concrete. A high score (defined as greater than 5.0) indicates high concrete and low levels of greenery and other water-absorbing cover. The result are in the map below, showing the city limits. Gray corresponds to high levels of pervious surfaces (or greenery). Black corresponds to high impervious surface use (basically either concrete or lakes that collect runoff). As the map shows, over 90% of the land in the city limits is gray, indicating more greenery and higher water absorption. Although they did not measure unincorporated Harris County, it also tends to be substantially less dense than the city itself.

Does this mean that impervious land uses are not a problem and do not contribute to floods in any way? No. But to cite them as a principle cause of the destruction witnessed in Harvey is purely a political move aimed at generating support for a long list of intrusive regulatory policies.

Houston’s flood problems are a distinctive feature of its topography and geography, and they long predate any “sprawl.” While steps have been taken over the years to mitigate them and reduce the severity of flooding, a rare but catastrophic event will unavoidably overwhelm even the most sophisticated flood control systems. Harvey was one such event – certainly the highest floodwater event to hit Houston in over 80 years, and possibly the worst deluge in its recorded history. But it is entirely consistent with almost 2 centuries of recorded historical patterns. In the grander scheme of causes for Harvey’s flooding, “sprawl” does not even meaningfully register.

Read the whole thing for more historical background.

*  Earlier version said second which was a typo as source reports third; other sources can differ depending on year and what exactly is counted.

1 Dick the Butcher September 1, 2017 at 7:58 am

If you’re in Nassau County, Long Island, NY you can bring storm supplies to St. Mary’s Church, corner of Park Blvd. and Monroe, Long Beach, NY. They will truck it to Texas. All US helped us in 2012. As they say, “Pay it forward.”

It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.

2 Student September 1, 2017 at 9:59 am

Thank you Dick. Disasters happen. Much could/should/will be said about all the things Tyler writes of. We can talk about zoning and insurance and climate change and all those things. Shit happens though and it always will. What makes human beings so successful in this universe is that we are a group. We are rational beings, we have the capacity for empathy and forgiveness. And most (except for narcicists like Ted Cruz that only care about helping people when they or their tribe are on the receiving end… hahah sorry but I just had to) people understand that when someone is in need, it is right and proper to help them out, even if they brought it upon themselves. That is the virtue of humanity. We are social creatures that succeed when we look out and take care of one another. Empathy, the sign of the divine in the human soul.

3 Student September 1, 2017 at 10:55 am

*Alex writes of….

4 GoneWithTheWind September 1, 2017 at 11:04 am

Hospitals, fire stations, schools and public building that could be used to shelter or support people in the event of a flood should not be built in the flood plain and/or below flood level. It would be an easy thing to by design and the use of fill to build these essential infrastructure above flood level. The same could be said for major highways. It would be easy to keep the entire highway above flood level so that emergency services can get in and flood victims can get out. This takes planning and forethought and to that end it takes zoning.

5 Harun September 1, 2017 at 11:25 am

Notice how Dick’s plea didn’t include

“Also donate cash for Alaska fisheries. And money to repair my winnebago in Utah. And mortgage payments for my second home for the year 2025.”

That’s why Cruz didn’t vote for Sandy “aid.”

The fact that you don’t understand this, suggests you’re the narcissist.

6 Student September 1, 2017 at 11:54 am

Was there excess in that bill, sure. Will there be in the Harvey bill? Probably.

But I bet he would have been a yay if it if the sandy bill had some goodies for him and I bet he is a yay for Harvey even if there is some pork in there too.

Can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

7 Student September 1, 2017 at 11:57 am

One can always come up with some reason to be selfish.

8 TMC September 1, 2017 at 3:53 pm

Whoever wrote the Sandy bill sure did. +1 Cruz to get rid of the diversion of funds from actual storm damage.

9 Student September 1, 2017 at 11:59 am

Care to place a bet (on the honor system) that the Harvey bill has similar amounts of pork in it and that Cruz turns a blind eye this go around?

10 Al September 1, 2017 at 11:05 am

Agreed that charity is the correct human response to this tragedy.

11 Vivian Darkbloom September 1, 2017 at 7:59 am

This article misses the most important point. The thesis is that Houston’s flooding problem is not zoning or development, but that it has always been prone to flooding:

“The truth, however, is that Houston has flooded regularly since it was founded….First, as we’ve established in the preceding history lesson, flooding has been a regular feature of Houston’s landscape since the beginning of recorded history in the region. And catastrophic flooding – including multiple storms in the 19th century and the well-documented flood of December 1935 – predates any of the “sprawl” that has provoked these armchair urban designers’ ire.”

I doubt that many care whether an uninhabited prairie is periodically inundated by flooding. The fact that urban development is cited only as a contributing, rather than “principle” (sic!) cause *of flooding* is woefully beside the main concern. The main concern should be that development within a zone that is well-known to flood has been the principal cause of billions of dollars of economic *flooding damage*.

12 Just Another MR Commentor September 1, 2017 at 8:09 am

+1 Houston is just a shithole for poors who can’t afford proper real estate in NYC or SF and the rest of us are subsidizing these people.

13 prior_test3 September 1, 2017 at 8:14 am

SF (and LA) will get their turn, though flooding won’t be what destroys them. And if SF is any guide, it will be rebuilt anyways.

14 sometimes death September 1, 2017 at 11:25 am

sad and narrow commentary, just another MR commentator. especially given that nyc and sf have both benefited from public and private subsidizing after natural and man-made disasters. and… the poor have always been subsidized throughout history. that’s not even an argument for one to make. the only question is where that subsidization comes from.

15 Careless September 1, 2017 at 3:22 pm

In case this got linked somewhere and we have people unfamiliar with the territory: JAMRC is a (bad) troll/parody account

16 Ray Lopez September 1, 2017 at 8:17 am

@Vivian Darkbloom- you have lost your bloom my dear girl. With your priors, Phoenix, Arizona would not exist (not enough water, and piping it in via the Hoover dam et al is not proper according to you since not natural), likewise Los Angeles would not exist (Colorado River aqueduct is the reason LA is not dry), likewise Miami would not exist (since the extensive draining of swamps in the Everglades is the only reason it is not underwater), likewise most of Florida would be undeveloped (Everglades again) and indeed, Washington DC would not exist, since Foggy Bottom and Georgetown were one big swamp before they were drained, ditto the Meadowlands, NJ (they were a meadow and swamp before being drained). Downtown San Francisco was also a bay that was drained, and probably about 20000 other places in the USA were engineered by humans to make them more habitable.

Bonus trivia: most of Pennsylvania waterways were extensively damned by small artisans and farmers by the time Ben Franklin was a boy, as a source of power.

17 prior_test3 September 1, 2017 at 8:44 am

That is not true about Georgetown – ‘Situated on the fall line, Georgetown was the farthest point upstream that oceangoing boats could navigate the Potomac River. In 1632, English fur trader Henry Fleet documented a Native American village of the Nacotchtank people called Tohoga on the site of present-day Georgetown and established trade there. The area was then part of the Province of Maryland, an English colony.

George Gordon constructed a tobacco inspection house along the Potomac in approximately 1745. The site was already a tobacco trading post when the inspection house was built. Warehouses, wharves, and other buildings were then constructed around the inspection house, and it quickly became a small community. It did not take long before Georgetown grew into a thriving port, facilitating trade and shipments of goods from colonial Maryland.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgetown_%28Washington,_D.C.%29#History

18 Pshrnk September 1, 2017 at 12:21 pm

So there is stupid development in many places. We should still try not to be stupid.

19 Mr. Econotarian September 1, 2017 at 12:27 pm

When Washington, DC was initially designed, the land currently known as West and East Potomac Park was a tidal wetland known as the Potomac Flats. Solid ground basically ended at the Washington Monument, everything west of that was flats and then the Potomac River.

Of note, in February 1881 a huge snowfall melted causing the Potomac to flood down the paved over Washington City Canal (formerly Tiber Creek, now Constitution Avenue) across the Mall to the National Botanical Gardens at the base of the Capitol.

From 1882 to 1890, the channel of the Potomac was dredged, and the soil was used to create about 628 new acres of land, now West & South Potomac Park.

20 Floccina September 1, 2017 at 9:26 am

Where would like the people now in Huston to live?

They made a gamble living in a flood zone but I am not sure that it was a bad bet.

21 Vivian Darkbloom September 1, 2017 at 10:45 am

Unless a better solution is found, perhaps somewhere outside the highlighted areas on this map.

https://storms.ngs.noaa.gov/storms/harvey/index.html

It would have made a lot of sense to have made this area parkland (and perhaps it still does). Houston could then legitimately claim to be number 1. But, where those acres of parkland are is just as important has how many acres there are.

If you’ve ever visited Valencia, Spain, you can see that they made a very nice park on what was previously a river bed surrounding the old city. They diverted the river because of disastrous flooding. A good move for all concerned.

http://www.metropolismag.com/cities/landscape/how-valencia-turned-crisis-river-into-park/

It’s never too late to learn from one’s mistakes.

22 Vivian Darkbloom September 1, 2017 at 10:56 am

Of course, if anyone wants to live in that highlighted area, I’m fine with that, too—so long as they fully absorb the cost of insuring themselves against the risk of flooding.

23 Pshrnk September 1, 2017 at 12:19 pm

@Vivian Darkbloom You are polite. I would just say the article was BS.

24 Dale Lehman September 1, 2017 at 8:10 am

Does anyone care about facts any more? I did not collect the data so perhaps it is wrong, but the excerpt cites Houston as “second to San Diego in park acreage per capita.” The link takes you to the City of Houston website which makes a similar claim, citing a study by The Trust for Public Land. I went to their website and they do not report acreage per population. They do however rate cities on the basis of the parkland (using a number of dimensions). Houston ranks 81st on the list. In terms of parkland as a percent of the urban land area (arguably more relevant than overall rankings to the issue of runoff), Houston ranks 22nd. Mood affiliation anyone?

25 Just Another MR Commentor September 1, 2017 at 8:12 am

Mood affiliation only applies to people who question Tyler/Alex

26 Ray Lopez September 1, 2017 at 8:36 am

+1 to Dale Lehman, the truth is somewhere in-between

From the sources cited by the GMU historian and economist Phil Magness:

https://www.tpl.org/sites/default/files/2016%20City%20Park%20Facts_0.pdf

HIGH-DENSITY CITIES 2015
Parkland includes city, county, metro, state, and federal parkland within the city limits. Adjusted city area subtracts airport and railyard acreage from total city land area.
Washington, D.C. 38,955 8,525 21.9% [FIRST for high-density cities, thank Rock Creek Park!]
New York 187,946 39,615 21.1%
New York 187,946 39,615 21.1%
San Francisco 29,980 5,693 19.0%

MEDIUM-LOW-DENSITY CITIES
Fremont 49,516 18,633 37.6%
Albuquerque 116,051 27,438 23.6%
San Diego 205,918 45,392 22.0%

Houston 370,271 52,912 14.3% [9th out of 36 cities]

MEDIUM-LOW-DENSITY CITIES
Parkland per capita (page 10 of report)
San Diego is fourth, not first, and Houston is tenth out of 36 such US cities

You will note that Houston is not ‘second to San Diego’ in per capita parkland but 10th out of 36 (San Diego is fourth out of 36).
But the author Magness makes good points, however, he seems to overstate his case. Houston is “not bad” when it comes to parkland, compared to other US cities in the Medium-to-Low density range, and is in the upper one-third of such cities. So you cannot blame urban sprawl more than an Act of God for the flooding.

27 dave September 1, 2017 at 10:24 am

What is more important, it seems to me, is parkland ratio relative to the risk of flooding. Even if Houston had the most parkland per area of all cities in the US, that wouldn’t mean that it had enough.

28 Phil Magness September 1, 2017 at 10:48 am

The rankings cited are raw numbers of acreage (and per 1000 residents) within comparably sized US cities, which would seem to be the most pertinent metric when asking questions about permeable ground space

If you weight cities to compare them in various ways to low density cities with 1/3rd or 1/10th the population as Houston, will it drop? Absolutely. I hear Anchorage, Alaska is a lovely and very green place to be in the summers. If you weight them based on how many tax dollars a city spends on park space will it also drop? Absolutely. Seattle spends extravagant amounts of money on park amenities. But we aren’t comparing park quality, park accessibility, park spending, park amenities, park aesthetics, and park proximity to residents here – we’re simply asking about what Houston looks like in terms of actual permeable land acreage, of which parks are one component.

29 Dale Lehman September 1, 2017 at 1:41 pm

It is not clear that either of the metrics you cite are the important ones. Population should have little to do with it, so the acreage per capita is not very useful. Total acreage is flawed by the fact that city sizes vary enormously (if you take Anchorage as an example, it is huge, but much of it is uninhabited mountains). The general picture that Houston ranks fairly well may, in fact, be true, but that does not make the measures you have chosen the right ones.

30 Ray Lopez September 1, 2017 at 2:15 pm

@Dale Lehman who says: “It is not clear that either of the metrics you cite are the important ones. Population should have little to do with it, so the acreage per capita is not very useful” – I disagree. The reason “per capita” is important is because if you have a lot of people, that means a lot of parking lots, so it’s useful to compare how much parkland per person a city has. Put another way: if ten people live in Anchorage, Alaska, and they all build concrete parking lots 1 mile square each, the ten square miles of impervious parking lot will not matter much since Alaska has so much parkland it never floods. Besides the fact it probably doesn’t get warm enough for the snow to melt except a few months in the summer. So I think Magness made good points.

31 Careless September 1, 2017 at 3:25 pm

The rankings cited are raw numbers of acreage (and per 1000 residents) within comparably sized US cities,

Which is what, Jacksonville? Houston is the second largest city in the country by area by a substantial amount.

32 byomtov September 4, 2017 at 2:57 pm

Ray Lopez,

But why get at the parking lot business so indirectly? There is nothing special about lots for these purposes. They are paved ground.

33 Pshrnk September 1, 2017 at 12:29 pm

+1

34 byomtov September 4, 2017 at 2:54 pm

What is more important, it seems to me, is parkland ratio relative to the risk of flooding. Even if Houston had the most parkland per area of all cities in the US, that wouldn’t mean that it had enough.

Exactly.

Magness begins by describing Houston’s high vulnerability to floods. But then forgets about that when it comes time to explain how much parkland it has and why not having enough didn’t really matter.

35 TMC September 1, 2017 at 4:03 pm

Good link Ray, but studies should really use MSAs. Everytime I see cities proper it really looks like someone is trying to skew the numbers.

36 Ray Lopez September 1, 2017 at 7:39 pm

Yeah probably. Draw a 100 km circle around the center of a city and expand out. By that metric, I think Manila, PH has one-third of the PH population of 100M, and so does Tokyo (33% live within 100 miles or km of Tokyo center). Same with Athens, Greece. Same for Seoul, S. Korea. The ‘one-third’ rules scales pretty well (even for spread out USA, many people are found in the NE corridor between Boston and DC).

37 prior_test3 September 1, 2017 at 8:12 am

‘A lot of nonsense has been written about the causes of flooding in Houston.’

Like this article, from the start of 2017? – ‘Houston will flood again, like it always does.

Rain will back up storm drains, bayous will overflow, water will wreck thousands of homes and people may die. There will be calls for drastic action, but time will pass, and the urgency to respond will fade.

Then Houston will flood again, like it always does.

But the solutions are out there.

“We literally know how to eliminate flooding,” said Wayne Klotz, a veteran Houston flood engineer and past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The problem, said Houston flood czar Steve Costello, is that the public’s zeal for protection – and the hefty investment it would require – only thrives while the destruction is fresh.’ http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/How-to-fix-the-Houston-floods-10826834.php

‘a rare but catastrophic event will unavoidably overwhelm even the most sophisticated flood control systems’

You mean like in 2015 and 2016? Here is some reporting – ‘Rescuers used military-type vehicles and boats to remove more than 50 senior citizens from two assisted-living facilities in Houston.

“Never in my life,” resident Nina Pena told CNN affiliate KPRC-TV.

“I was watching all the water on the streets and never had seen that before.”

In north Harris County, rescuer Chris Westfield told CNN affiliate KTRK-TV on Wednesday that he was conducting house-to-house searches on a pontoon boat for residents who had refused to evacuate a day earlier.

“You have a lot of critters that come out, that want to get into the dry spots, into the higher elevations,” he told the station. “Gators, snakes. We’ve seen it all … over the last couple days.”

As parts of Houston begin the recovery from paralyzing flooding, officials seem cautiously optimistic.

“We’re certainly past the worst of this,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said at a news conference on Wednesday. “Now we just need to make sure we do the recovery right and then get people the help they need as soon as possible,” he said.

The catastrophic flooding has already killed eight people, flooded more than 1,000 homes and caused more than $5 billion in damage, officials said.’ http://edition.cnn.com/2016/04/20/us/houston-texas-flooding/index.html Do note the date of 2016 – of course, that flooding only involved 1 foot of rain in 24 hours.

‘In the grander scheme of causes for Harvey’s flooding, “sprawl” does not even meaningfully register.’

So, the reason to build out a major metropolis in such an area where ‘flood problems are a distinctive feature of its topography and geography, and they long predate any “sprawl”’ would be what? To prove Bastiat wrong?

38 Bob from Ohio September 1, 2017 at 12:13 pm

Wayne Klotz is delusional. You can mitigate the effects or prevent some flooding, you cannot stop it.

You can certainly not stop all flooding after the kind of rain Texas just got.

Houston flood czar Steve Costello is of course merely a bureaucrat who wants the biggest budget for his office.

39 prior_test3 September 1, 2017 at 12:35 pm

‘You can certainly not stop all flooding after the kind of rain Texas just got.’

Of course not – but then, Houston did a poor job with the flooding in 2016.

And 2015.

From that Houston Chronicle article written at the beginning of 2017 – ‘Decades of decisions created this problem. By the time planners made maps in the mid-1980s to show that low-lying areas beside waterways were prone to flooding, those areas were full of buildings and inadequate drainage systems.

Until the 1980s, engineers designed pipes and roadside ditches to capture a “three-year flood,” a relatively modest storm, said Andres Salazar, managing director of water resources at Walter P. Moore and Associates, an engineering firm that designs drainage projects for the city.

Today, engineers design for the 100-year flood – about 13 inches of rain over 24 hours on any spot in Harris County – which they calculated by running statistical analysis on about 150 years of rainfall data.

But once-in-a-century storms have hit eight times in the last 27 years. Rainfall in the northwest part of the county on Tax Day 2016 qualified as a once-in-a-millennium storm, according to statistical models.

Virtually none of Houston’s old pipes meet even the 100-year standard. As the city grows denser, the drainage system falls further behind.’

Houston is a remarkably poorly planned city, even by typical American standards. And notice how the once every 3 year storms since 1990 actually represent the previous standard for once every hundred years.

It isn’t as if much of Houston has not experienced one flood or the other in the past couple of decades – but somehow, it just seems easier to try to prove Bastiat wrong, and keep rebuilding in the same places.

40 Ray Lopez September 1, 2017 at 2:18 pm

“Never in my life,” resident Nina Pena told CNN affiliate KPRC-TV. I was watching all the water on the streets and never had seen that before.” – yeah but probably she’s from the dry desert of Mexico and she says that every year… a good “man in the street” type ignorant eye witness that TV news thrives on.

41 TMC September 1, 2017 at 4:06 pm

They had to save 50 people out of 6 million? That’s a major storm?

42 Smash September 1, 2017 at 8:16 am

It seems a little tough to compare the 1935 event with Harvey since flood control infrastructure has changed with development and sprawl. In the 90s our northwest Houston neighborhood frequently had significant flooding events but this past week the rain barely breached the curb. This is mostly thanks to a detention pond dug out to collect all that precip ten years back.

43 Phil Magness September 1, 2017 at 10:39 am

This is a fair concern with any historical comparison, but I think it actually speaks to an important point: Houston today is substantially *better* at floodwater mitigation than it was in 1935. Remember that the main claim of the sprawl argument is that Houston’s floods are becoming exceptional and worse over time because of the destruction of the prairie, too much pavement etc., which supposedly causes the “natural” solution of undeveloped land to cease to function.

The point of 1935 is that the “natural” solution was abundant in 1935…and yet the city still catastrophically flooded. As did the county, even though it was mostly farmland back then. We are indeed better today at managing this problem due to technology and almost a century of improvements to the drainage problem. Retention ponds, levees, drains, dredging and the sort have made it possible to absorb more severe levels of flooding than the city could withstand 80 years ago when almost all of the “natural” prairies were all intact.

Of course there are also upper limits to what can be prevented, and if you dump enough water to raise the Great Lakes by a foot in the course of a weekend, it is probably going overwhelm even the most comprehensive flood plan. And “natural” prairies would not make even a noticeable dent on that – just as they did not when rural Harris County flooded in 1935, or when rural Austin County flooded last weekend.

44 Smash September 1, 2017 at 11:12 am

That all makes sense and your post was a good read. I think the prairies are useful when precip per hour is low-medium, but at high rates water doesn’t have time to infiltrate the soil and runs off. I’m not sure if areas around Houston were farmed in the past with row crops, but the erosion/runoff potential for bare and tilled soil would differ a lot from prairie/pasture.

45 peri September 1, 2017 at 12:06 pm

I guess it makes sense, if you consider it in this light: the recently-developed areas are doing double duty – they’re places for water to go, and they’re also places for people to live in! Problem is, they don’t do both those tasks well at the same time.

46 Pshrnk September 1, 2017 at 12:37 pm

And the wisdom of continuing to build in flood plains?

47 Ray Lopez September 1, 2017 at 2:22 pm

It is very wise to build in flood plains. Keep in mind most buildings have a useful life of 50 years (even if concrete), and floodplains are near water, which is how bulk stuff is cheaply transported and life is easier than in the mountains. Prehistoric man, before the end of the Ice Age made the seas rise, built near “floodplains” and the Great Floods as memorialized by Sumerian/ancient East tales like Noah’s Ark made many such sites go underwater. In fact, the best sites for stone age man are now about 10-30 feet underwater, archeologists will tell you. Let it pour I say…

48 Tim September 1, 2017 at 7:31 pm

+1

49 Bill September 1, 2017 at 8:20 am

I have taken to reading articles that purport to be objective by conducting a word count of loaded words.

From this post here is my list:

“nonsense” ” furry of commentators” ” litany of pet political causes” “carping” “pundits” “naked political opportunism” “pernicious myth peddled by unscrupulous urban planning activists”

“Does this mean that impervious land uses are not a problem and do not contribute to floods in any way? No. But to cite them as a principle cause …”

50 Bill September 1, 2017 at 8:22 am

Well, this simply means that Houston should not be asking for any federal funds to construct storms sewers or retention ponds because that money would be wasted.

Please tell Ted Cruz.

51 Lanigram September 1, 2017 at 11:07 am

+1 They can build all they want in Houston, just don’t make us pay for it. They can take the risk or transfer the risk to a private insurer – a voluntary transaction between parties.

52 Pshrnk September 1, 2017 at 12:38 pm

Correct.

53 Borjigid September 1, 2017 at 8:30 am

Somebody needs to start thinking at the margin . . .

54 derek September 1, 2017 at 9:07 am

Indeed. It is best to be as far away as possible from what you are thinking about. It makes all the solutions seem reasonable and possible.

Personally I start from the assumption that Urban Planners are about as useless as Criminologists.

55 celestus September 1, 2017 at 9:21 am

The optimal number of U.S. cities which flood when they receive 50 inches of rain is not zero.

56 dan1111 September 1, 2017 at 9:55 am

+1 there is too much reasoning from an extreme outlier event going on here.

57 Pshrnk September 1, 2017 at 12:39 pm

True. But Houston floods frequently.

58 Borjigid September 1, 2017 at 10:42 am

The issue is less that Houston flooded after receiving 50 inches of rain, and more that the damage bill is going to be well into nine figures.

The optimal number of US cities which incur nine figure damage bills when they get 50 inches of rain is probably zero.

59 dan1111 September 1, 2017 at 11:02 am

Beneath this is a cost-benefit issue: what is the optimal size of flood to be prepared for, based on the cost of flood prevention and the likelihood of very large storms happening?

It’s quite possible that Houston’s flood preparation was insufficient. Not preparing adequately for rare, large-magnitude disasters is a very common failing. But I don’t see many people making serious arguments about this.

60 Borjigid September 1, 2017 at 11:42 am

Fair points.

61 Ray Lopez September 1, 2017 at 2:26 pm

Well yeah, true, the average discount rate for ‘high-risk’ or ‘uncertain payoff’ projects is about 18%/yr, or it should pay for itself in four years. So a 100 year flood falls outside that window. It’s the same reason nobody cares to invent a flying car, a cure for cancer, or a pill that will make you live forever: likely somebody else will rip you off, and it’s better to let some idiot savant or autistic person do it for free and free-ride on their efforts (that’s the traditional way, think Issac Newton, who almost certainly was autistic).

62 msgkings September 1, 2017 at 3:31 pm

Man this post is dumb even for you, Ray. Not a single sentence is correct.

63 Careless September 1, 2017 at 5:52 pm

9 figures? That’s trivial.

Of course, the actual estimate is in the 11 figures

64 Jeff R September 1, 2017 at 9:24 am

In Baltimore, “smart growth” just pushed a lot of development up into Southern PA, around Shrewsbury, York, etc.

65 Johnny A September 1, 2017 at 9:34 am

Why is climate change in quotes?

66 dan1111 September 1, 2017 at 10:21 am

“sprawl”, “SmartGrowth”, and “naturally” are also in quotes. I think he is just using it to indicate these are claims other people are throwing out there. Perhaps this is slightly grammatically dubious, but I don’t think he is using scare quotes to indicate that climate change is fake (if that is what you had in mind).

67 The Other Jim September 1, 2017 at 3:05 pm

Although it is fake.

They can’t tell you whether Irma will hit the US or not next week, because then atmosphere is far too complicated to model.

But they have no problem telling the temperature of the atmosphere to within 0.1 degree in 2100 AD… because of their models.

Which have been nothing but wrong for thirty years now.

So yeah. Blatantly fake.

68 Lanigram September 1, 2017 at 5:57 pm

+1

“The Limits of Predictability” – Ed Lorenz

Yet modelling climate puts food on the table, so they keep doing it. GIGO. “Journalists” then eat this sh$t and spoon feed it to the public, which is now in a trance. While the public hallucinates the politicians siphon money out of their pockets. The state of CA has perfected the scam so hypnotized residents happily hand over money to carbon credit millionaires. As the Dalai says, it’s all a dream. Ommmm…

69 Enquiring Mind September 1, 2017 at 9:43 am

Eppur si flood

70 The Other Jim September 1, 2017 at 10:17 am

>Anti-immigration people blame immigration.

This is Alex’s first thought on the matter? Dear Lord.

I’d love to tap into his brain so that I can see all these “anti-immigration” people that haunt him so. Because outside of the two dozen people that show up to neo-Nazi or Klan rallies, they do not exist.

71 msgkings September 1, 2017 at 12:36 pm

Only in the sense that no one truly ‘exists’, and that the material world is an illusion as the Buddha taught us.

72 Lanigram September 1, 2017 at 5:59 pm

Ommmm…

Reality is an illusion…

73 Li Zhi September 1, 2017 at 10:34 am

I stopped reading with the second point. Total park area, rather than as a % of city area – given that for US cities of over 500,000 Houston (2 million) ranks just under Jacksonville (800,000) and Oklahoma City (600,000) in area. (I note some inconsistencies in Wikipedia data: (US Census) claims area of both 600 mi² and 640 mi².) Author is less than honest here. OK for a proponent, not OK for an objective analysis.

74 Floccina September 1, 2017 at 10:34 am

There has got to be a cheaper way to keep water out of homes.

75 Lanigram September 1, 2017 at 5:59 pm

Live in boats.

76 KevinH September 1, 2017 at 10:37 am

Lol. so covering up 66% of the land with concrete is consider low? This is a poor testament to marginal thinking. There are costs and benefits of land use. Perhaps a city where flooding is a “distinctive feature of its topography and geography” should use a slightly different cost benefit analysis than say, Denver.

While hindsight is 20/20 and you can certainly over-analyze Houston, I think the furor from some over Houston comes trying to use it as an example of what should be obvious to everyone: good regulations save money and lives. There really is a strain of thought in America, especially in Texas that “regulations are The Problem” and believe that is a monotonic function. There really is no counterpart on the left who think that regulations form a monotonic function with the opposite derivative. I think there’s plenty of debate about exactly which regulations would be net-beneficial, but I think it is also pretty damn clear that the mindset of the leadership in Houston prevents that discussion from even happening.

77 peri September 1, 2017 at 11:27 am

Well and simply stated.

Moderates, this is your moment.

78 msgkings September 1, 2017 at 12:39 pm

Finally! It’s 1956 again!

79 Ricardo September 1, 2017 at 11:58 am

“good regulations save money and lives”

You make it sound like it’s a coordination problem… as if we all want the same thing but cannot figure out how to achieve it, and so the regulator helps us out.

But we do not all want the same thing.

80 dan1111 September 1, 2017 at 12:20 pm

Flood control is a coordination problem to a significant extent, isn’t it? Whole neighborhoods and even a whole city may need to be built in a coordinated way to handle flood waters in the region. And individual freedom can harm others–for example, your neighbor can build or landscape in a way that causes your own property to flood. This is often a very real issue.

I favor limited regulation, but I think this is a classic example of an issue where some government regulation may be needed, because of the possible need for large scale coordination (in some cases) and because nobody else has the authority to stop individual actors from inflicting harm on others.

Whether the level of regulation in Houston was too low is another matter. I haven’t seen convincing arguments that this is the case.

81 prior_test3 September 1, 2017 at 12:39 pm

Regulation? Who knows?

Completely inadequate flood planning, and a distinct aversion to deal with that lack of planning? Definitely – see the information from the Houston Chronicle above about how well Houston planned for floods in the past.

82 dan1111 September 1, 2017 at 12:14 pm

Where is the cost-benefit analysis showing, prospectively, that additional flood-prevention regulation would have saved “money and lives”? Was this really a no-brainer (absent the knowledge that an extremely rare storm was going to happen)?

83 prior_test3 September 1, 2017 at 12:43 pm

‘additional flood-prevention regulation would have saved “money and lives”’

Do not build in a flood plain? Do not rebuild a house in a flood plain after a flood? Increase rules along the lines that say instead of one foot above an anticipated flood crest, make it three feet when rebuilding a flooded house.

But this, to me, is planning, and not regulation essentially.

84 dan1111 September 2, 2017 at 5:15 am

What you call it “planning” or “regulation”, my point is that any government action in this area has a cost, and you have to weight that cost against the benefit. It is not clear that something like requiring houses to be built two feet higher is actually a good idea, unless you run this calculation.

I do think it is pretty obvious that the optimal level of government planning/regulation/etc. for flood control is greater than zero. But Houston already has plenty of government involvement in this area. I don’t think it’s obvious that they have too little, without actually attempting to run the numbers.

85 peri September 1, 2017 at 10:43 am

No, Tyler, many reasons and many inches of rain don’t equate to no reason, however much you want it to be so. Starting with the absurd premise that the city of Houston is the relevant unit is to show your hand right away. For parkland and open space, the comparison to be made is not city-to-city but between the metropolitan area and something like New Jersey. And talk of Euclidean zoning evades much more important planning issues.

“Rural prairie flooding” (by which he probably means pasture, very different in its absorption, coastal prairie is now rare) is exactly what you should want to see more of. That’s one of a prairie’s jobs.

“Of the 10 largest pools that have accumulated in the reservoirs, nine have occurred since 1990 and six of those were since 2000,” ProPublica wrote last year. Barker and Addicks were built in the 40s.

You probably missed an illustrative comment on an earlier post from “Jim”:

“I live in a Houston suburb. My house has never flooded, but here’s some of our nearby creek’s history. 1994 – a 500-year flood. 2001 – a 50-year flood. 2016 – a 50-year flood followed 6 weeks later by a 100-year flood 2017 – only a 100-year flood. It missed the 500-year mark by less than 2 inches despite having 29.4 inches of rainfall in 4.5 days.

That’s two 50-year floods, two 100-year floods and one 500-year flood in 23 years. Something tells me that we won’t have to wait 500 years for the next 500-year flood.”

“Freeboard” is a new word I learned this week. It’s one reason why my parents’ flooded 1960s street, downstream of the dams, and of the most recent development, was further inundated well after the rain had ceased, and they thought they were out of the woods. Far too much was built in the past 30 years behind and alongside the dams, and in the path of release.

Runoff from pavement moves a hell of a lot faster than it did through the Katy Prairie, or even the ag land that largely replaced it. And Harris County was still overwhelmingly ag land when I was a kid.

This is not a philosophical debate, and to the extent that it’s a story about the “Texas miracle,” it does not yield the conclusion you want to draw from it.

Incidentally, the Texas legislature, in its miracle-working wisdom, elects not to give counties any land-use power.

https://www.propublica.org/article/boomtown-flood-town-text

86 Dallas Weaver Ph.D. September 1, 2017 at 12:00 pm

If you have high clay soils, the rate of water penetration is so slow that the difference in runoff rates from concrete surfaces and clay soil surfaces are the same and all the “planning” activities by activists who don’t understand basic hydraulics are just BS. A high clay soil with grass at a high rain input rate is not significantly different than a parking lot.

87 peri September 1, 2017 at 12:14 pm

I am sure you’re right, though I can amuse myself during a drought by turning the hose on and pouring water into a cracks in my limestone-decayed clay soil and darned if I couldn’t fill that crack for hours if not confronted in this idiocy by my husband.

But the comparison should be between impervious cover, and clay, and clay with a sparse Bermuda grass cover, and clay filled with the deep roots of prairie grass, which increases clay’s porosity.

Look to what nature wants to do in a given area. In an area with infrequent or seasonal rain, it makes trees. In an area where water is never in short supply, the storage system is prairie.

88 Michael Cain September 1, 2017 at 12:47 pm

So now explain the American Great Plains with that theory about rainfall.

89 peri September 1, 2017 at 1:07 pm

Is it definitely a problem with my theory? I looked up Kansas – the average annual precipitation rain and snow together is 50-54 inches? Houston’s avg. annual precip. is (was?) 50 inches. In Kansas it appears to rain 3 to 5 inches in the months April to October, and then it snows about 5 inches Dec., Jan., Feb.

90 Careless September 1, 2017 at 5:59 pm

It’s drier in the plains than the old forests to the East.

91 TMC September 1, 2017 at 4:14 pm

….darned if I couldn’t fill that crack for hours……

It was going down to the drain tile around your house and out to the sewers. You can’t count on this during a storm.

92 peri September 1, 2017 at 4:16 pm

This is out in the middle of the yard. What is a drain tile?

93 peri September 1, 2017 at 4:23 pm

The developer definitely didn’t drain the yard …

94 mulp September 1, 2017 at 12:59 pm

In other words, the land has always flooded regularly, so the solution is always build elevated well above flood high water. Including parking spaces, unless the highway vehicles are always amphibious.

Otherwise, everything is disposable with short lives that can only be bought with cash.

Basically, mortgages on built property in the Texas coast is like mortgages for buying and using toilet paper.

95 Bob from Ohio September 1, 2017 at 12:06 pm

“The problem has been that there is just a lot of water.”

Yes, record amounts. So there is record flooding.

Any other explanation is just seizing a crisis to push a pet project.

96 prior_test3 September 1, 2017 at 12:44 pm

Never move to Houston and buy a house that has been flooded in 2016 and 2017 could be a pet project for the more foresighted.

97 mulp September 1, 2017 at 1:01 pm

Issuing mortgages in the Texas coast is like mortgages for buying and using toilet paper.

98 Ryan T September 1, 2017 at 5:32 pm

“Normal carping about climate change.”

I’m not sure why he’s taking a shot at anyone who’s curious about a possible connection between a massive flood and climate change. It seems like an obvious and understandable question any observer would ask after looking into humanitarian concerns.

If anyone here is looking for a pretty solid discussion of climate change in relation to Harvey, I recommend David Roberts’ piece at Vox, entitled “Climate change did not ’cause’ Harvey, but it’s a big part of the story.” Here: https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2017/8/28/16213268/harvey-climate-change

99 Thanatos Savehn September 1, 2017 at 6:25 pm

After hurricanes Rita and Ike I considered buying a big natural gas generator that would power everything the next time a hurricane came through. The cheapest estimate was about $16,000. I decided against it. It was the right decision as it would have gone 9 years without being used (other than to power on and off automatically from time to time to self-test) and I’d have incurred significant additional maintenance bills along the way. This time around the problem is water and while my house didn’t flood the poor bastard at the end of the street (nearest to the creek) did; and what flooded along with his house? His generator.

So my take on these comments is that the musings of armchair generals who strategize about the causes and tactics of the last war would better spend their time pondering the next one instead.

100 prior_test3 September 2, 2017 at 1:43 am

In places like Galveston, New Orleans, or Houston, thinking about the next hurricane/massive rainstorm is never an example of fighting the last war. As you undoubtedly know, considering how major the flooding was in Houston in 2016, if not necessarily in your area.

101 Trevor H September 1, 2017 at 6:40 pm

I live about a mile from the Brazos in southwest suburban Houston. The Brazos most definitely is in the midst of the sprawl as it cuts right through Fort Bend county with its population over 700,000.

I see a lot of comments pertaining to the water absorbing powers of less pavement as if it’s relevant to Harvey. Anyone done the math? You double the greenery, add what maybe 10 billion gallons of absorption? How does that matter when 10 trillion gallons of water get dumped on the area?

We know the city chose to invest in light rail and not better drainage. There are bound to be plenty of other mistakes that will hopefully be corrected. 50 inches of rain will cause catastrophic flooding in any major city in the world.

102 Phillip Magness September 2, 2017 at 2:32 pm

The Brazos’s path is mostly rural until it gets to the very end of its run. It touches the southwest Houston suburbs in Fort Bend County, and then the city of Freeport where it dumps into the gulf. Look at Austin County though, which is almost entirely rural or small towns. It’s well upstream from you and had devastating flooding due to Harvey.

103 peri September 2, 2017 at 2:38 pm

How many of the 29,000 people in Austin County were displaced?

104 Trevor H September 5, 2017 at 8:33 am

I should have mentioned the only reason Fort Bend county did not suffer more disastrous flooding is the millions of dollars spent on a very extensive and high quality levee system through the Sugar Land and Missouri City areas. So in this particular case, the sprawl helped contain the flooding.

105 jorod September 1, 2017 at 9:46 pm

For millions of years, storms have been flooding southeast Texas. It feeds the regional aquifers. The real problem is urbanization in tropical areas. Like New Orleans, people need to migrate. Why not build the refineries further inland?

106 Henry Armijo September 1, 2017 at 10:20 pm

Provide a citation or link for a single article claiming that anything other than Hurricane Harvey was a “principle cause” of the floods in Houston, please. Thanks.

107 prior_test3 September 2, 2017 at 1:39 am

That is not how the Bartley J. Madden Chair in Economics at the Mercatus Center does things.

108 dux.ie September 2, 2017 at 3:26 am

Yes. All those alleged causes of Houston flood are nonsense without talking about the root cause which trumps them all.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Houston#Geography

“””Downtown stands about 50 feet (15 m) above sea level,[50] and the highest point in far northwest Houston is about 125 feet (38 m) in elevation.”””

With only 50 feed above see level, there is a limit on the gravity fed runoff rate. With the reported 58 feet flood level above the rivers there is simply no where for the water to flow to. Period.

109 paul e September 2, 2017 at 1:12 pm

“superb post” says the glibertarian manbaby who lives nowhere near the disaster zone. Shameful.

110 byomtov September 4, 2017 at 3:06 pm

In total acres, Houston has more parkland and green space than any other large city in America and ranks third overall to San Diego in park acreage per capita.*

As others have mentioned, this is not a “superb” point, it’s an irrelevant and deceptive one. Houston is geographically large, so it has a lot of parkland in absolute terms. Big deal. How do percentages compare, and how does the city look in terms of parkland when we consider how flood-prone it is?

111 Dan Greenberg September 4, 2017 at 5:13 pm

I was brought up on a barrier island in NJ – I know a little about storm flooding. I also knew that Houston is dozens of miles inland but only 80-100′ above sea level. Coupled these together, it was clear from the storm track before it hit that this was going to be bad.
1) The low elevation relative to distance means drainage to to the sea is slow.
2) Storms rotate counterclockwise. That means a storm South of Houston blows up Galveston Bay and into the Houston Ship Channel. That exacerbates 1). It also tends to trap the water at high tide, created a sort of invisible dam. (On my barrier island, the worst floods were *always* caused by this effect, tapping water in the bay.)
3) Storms rotate counterclockwise. That ensured that a storm a little South of Houston would suck moisture out of the Gulf and dump it on the city.
4) Note that 2) and 3) only get worse if the storm stalls, like Harvey. That was bad luck.
5) Note that none of this has to anything to do with pervious/impervious ratio.

Yeah, I also predicted the gratuitous grandstanding about global warming and over-development. (sigh)

Ultimately, given that storm path, the die was cast. Let’s all help Houston’s people rebuild. The next unlucky ones could be us.

112 Robert Weldon September 5, 2017 at 10:42 am

Another “economist” view of things. Lots of great detail, then some quick legerdemain in the argument:

<>

The “conservative canard” is obviously ridiculous. No particular blizzard or flood gives evidence for climate change. What’s important is whether the climate has changed and statistically blizzards or floods happen more or less often and whether or not physical mechanisms can be proposed for the observed change in event frequency.

Climate scientists claim that Houston will see more flooding more frequently, they make no claims whether a flood will hit in June, 2018, or a drought in Winter, 2019. And the evidence supporting this claim is increasing.

113 Robert Weldon September 5, 2017 at 10:43 am

Another “economist” view of things. Lots of great detail, then some quick legerdemain in the argument:

” Aside from the normal carping about “climate change” (which always makes for a convenient point of blame for bad warm weather events, even as environmentalists simultaneously decry the old conservative canard about blizzards contradicting Al Gore),”

The “conservative canard” is obviously ridiculous. No particular blizzard or flood gives evidence for climate change. What’s important is whether the climate has changed and statistically blizzards or floods happen more or less often and whether or not physical mechanisms can be proposed for the observed change in event frequency.

Climate scientists claim that Houston will see more flooding more frequently, they make no claims whether a flood will hit in June, 2018, or a drought in Winter, 2019. And the evidence supporting this claim is increasing.

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