In the wake of Harvey’s destruction, we have heard so much from the national media about the ways Houston has screwed up—how our lack of zoning resulted in over-eager developers building in flood plains, how the Katy prairie, which once acted as a huge sponge, is now almost entirely paved over. How our city, state, and federal governments all have missed multiple opportunities to protect us from a storm like Harvey. How we failed to pull together the budget—and the political willpower—to build the large-scale infrastructure projects that are just sitting there, designed and waiting to be executed. As 100-year storms become annual occurrences around here, we’ve been lambasted around the country for being too late, too slow, and too pro-development-at-all-costs to think of our long-term health as a city. Fine; guilty as charged.
But here at the Department of Optimism, we’ve decided to look on the bright side of disaster. After all, the best of our city was also on display across the nation—our Texan resourcefulness, which allowed so many lives to be saved, coupled with our Houstonian spirit of entrepreneurship, generosity, and genuine kindness, which helped so many get back on their feet after their homes and lives were upended.
This storm, which resulted in the highest rainfall totals in U.S. history but is likely not the last of such magnitude, affected so many people of different neighborhoods, parts of town, socioeconomic classes, nationalities, and races, that we are choosing to believe Houston will do the right thing this time and heed some of the great advice we received long before Harvey came along. Remember, Houston’s home to some really, really smart people who have been thinking about solutions to these problems for years.
First, we’ll get out the maps—an important first step, according to Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters center (SSPEED) at Rice University. Blackburn, an environmental lawyer and flood expert, has studied flooding in Harris County since the 1970s. “I’m feeling like we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he says. “Our community has to really roll their sleeves up and make some hard decisions. But there are a number of things we can and should do.”
The maps hold the key, according to Blackburn. Areas that flood repeatedly—something that will likely continue to happen, no matter how hard we try to mitigate it—will be marked as buyout zones, especially areas near bayous that we know will top their banks again. The folks who own homes there will get compensated fairly, and move to regions on the map that haven’t flooded, building on what Blackburn calls “the spine” of new growth for the city.
Then, the buyout zones will be returned to something close to their native state, with tall prairie grasses that can absorb eight feet of water in the event of a storm. Trails and green space similar to what has transformed Buffalo Bayou will also increase Houstonians’ access to parks, making our city even more beautiful.
At the same time, we’ll also build a large-scale project, like the Ike Dike or the Galveston mid-bay gate, which will protect us from storm surges that we haven’t yet experienced but know are coming. We’ll buy up land and follow through on county plans, based on a study done in 2015, for a third reservoir northwest of the Addicks and Barker dams on what’s currently mostly undeveloped land—but won’t remain so for long. That third reservoir will not only take pressure off our two 70-year-old dams, which are considered to be among the most dangerous in the U.S. because of their potential to cause catastrophic flooding if they fail, but also preserve some of the prairie held by the Katy Prairie Conservancy, which has been advocating holding on to what prairie we’ve got left since forming in the ’90s.
Mary Anne Piacentini, the Conservancy’s director, says that there is a way to continue to grow the city—something that’s been a major sticking point when it comes to following through with the flood-mitigation plans that we so desperately need—but not without keeping our climate in mind. “I think if we all put our heads together, we can make a Houston that’s still verdant, still economically viable, that people want to come here and stay here,” she says. “But for that to happen, you want to feel like there is a quality of life you can expect, and that it will continue to be there.”
In order for all this to work, the average Houstonian will have to buy in. Residents of Harris County will vote for an additional flood tax, realizing that the money for these vital projects—so necessary for protecting our city—has to come from somewhere. And although we love our lack of zoning, the city will also tighten up its codes to forbid developing in flood plains—especially low-income housing. Then, for God’s sake, we’ll rip out our bayous' ill-conceived concrete walls, which only serve to speed water to already flooded areas.
We’ll start considering our climate when we build our homes and subdivisions. We’ll find a mix of native grasses that look respectable—not the tallgrasses of the prairie, but something that would hold maybe two inches of water, compared to the average turf grass’s half-inch—and plant our yards and parks with that. And we’ll heed the knowledge of Houstonians past and build our homes on pier-and-beam foundations, because that’s just the smart thing to do in a city that floods.
In the early 1900s, when the Bayou City was a Podunk town 50 miles from the bustling port of Galveston, a group of prominent Houstonians had the foresight to envision the city as a metropolis. They secured federal funding to dredge the Ship Channel by raising half of it themselves. We’ll need plenty of that same Houstonian spirit to gather the money, the political willpower, and the follow-through to get Houston to its next phase of growth while working with nature, instead of against it. In the process, we’ll save lives and livelihoods.
We will see all of these ideas through, against all odds, and after many failed attempts to get them off the ground following devastating storms like Ike and Allison. We’ll do it because it’s the right thing to do—and, hey, we never said this was the Department of Realistic Expectations.