If Houston and Harris County are to ever get the upper hand on our flooding problems, it will take a big, bold new way of thinking according to several experts who’ve studied the issue for decades.
“Problems can’t be solved by thinking the way we were thinking when we created those problems,” said Rice University Professor Jim Blackburn, quoting Albert Einstein.
There’s no question the 50 inches of rain Harvey dumped on Houston would have battered any city, said Blackburn and other Rice professors. But when the region suffers three destructive floods in three years, they said there’s also a man-made factor that’s made Houston more vulnerable.
“We ought not be shy about admitting maybe what we were doing wasn’t right,” Blackburn said.
What wasn’t right was responding to new-home demand by building in flood-prone areas, said two Rice University professors of architecture.
“We cannot do business as usual...to build the way we’ve been building, which is to build in the wrong place,” Albert Pope said.
Another architecture professor, Jesus Vassallo, added, “I think we need to be much much smarter about where we build.”
KHOU 11 Investigates mapped subdivisions built in the past decade and found thousands of homes built in flood-prone areas, where rainwater runoff becomes a major concern. (Tap/click here to view the map of developments over the past 10 years and the county floodplain).
And even more construction is in the works, because Harris County engineers and elected officials keep approving it. In fact, just three days before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, they greenlit new subdivisions, including one entirely in a 100-year floodplain that backs up Langham Creek in Northwest Harris County.
‘Rampant development’ to blame?
But County Judge Ed Emmett calls it, “an overstatement that rampant development has caused this.”
Emmett said the county has checks and balances to ease flood hazards in new developments, including requirements for detaining storm water.
“We have detention rules. Everybody said those detention rules are okay,” Emmett said.
But not everyone says it’s OK. Phil Bedient, who runs Rice University’s storm prediction center, is one of them.
“Clearly, it’s not doing the trick, and that was proven, I believe, from the floods of 2015 and 2016,” Bedient said.
He said Harris County’s development requirements for detaining storm water are just not enough and more land should be dedicated to holding storm water.
He pointed to one reason that rules haven’t been toughened.
“Developers run the city, all right, they run the city,” Bedient said. “The development keeps on going, and it just always keeps on going.”
A third reservoir
New development has been hardest hit by flooding in neighborhoods that back up to the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs, which spilled over the first time in history during Hurricane Harvey.
That turned into a domino effect when engineers released water from the swollen reservoirs into Buffalo Bayou, flooding even more homes.
“I think there are a lot of people now who recognize that, you know, what is the definition of an insane person is to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result, well we can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result,” said Mary Anne Piacentini of the Katy Conservancy.
But the risk to those homes could be greatly reduced if officials act on a report from 2015 calling for a third reservoir in Northwest Harris County, an area hit during Harvey and previous floods.
“We can’t wait. We shouldn’t wait,” Piacentini said.
The plan would create a berm under Cypress Creek and extend the Katy Prairie by thousands of acres. It could potentially hold water for days in what’s known as the overflow zone, instead of sending it down creeks, into the Addicks Reservoir, and ultimately into homes.
“If we can hold back that water for a while and not allow the overflow to go in, we can protect as many as 18,000 acres in the overflow zone from flooding,” Piacentini said.
‘More opportunities than funding’
But the price tag on the project – $400 million – has been a roadblock for the Harris County Flood Control District, said executive director Russell Poppe.
“With the district, unfortunately, we have more opportunities than funding,” Poppe said.
However, few hundred million dollars pales in comparison to the billions it will cost to recover and rebuild from Harvey alone, and “somebody needs to step up,” said Rice professor Blackburn.
Professor Blackburn said it’s time to take a page out of Einstein’s playbook.
“We’ve got to do things differently than we did when we created these problems,” Blackburn said.