Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Forget the Ike Dike - love will save us from a hurricane

Over the years, I've noticed a phenomena that maybe you've noticed too: some issue becomes the "hot" issue of the moment (terrorism, Ebola, etc.) and then people jump on the bandwagon for that issue by trying to link it to whatever their pet issue is, no matter how tenuous the connection may be. "If you support my pet issue X, it will reduce the problem of hot issue Y." If they can successfully link the issues, maybe public support (or, better yet, taxpayer dollars) will swing behind their pet issue.  Sometimes the connection gets stretched so far as to become utterly absurd.  And that brings me to Exhibit A: this op-ed in the Chronicle ("How to protect our city against storms? First, make it lovable. Dikes and levees are secondary. What they protect matters more.") saying the key to our hurricane resilience is not something so pragmatic as a dike, but really about making our city more walkable and lovable.  Wait... what?  Really?  Evidently, New Orleans' big failure with Katrina had nothing to do with being a city below sea level with substandard levees, but it wasn't walkable and lovable enough. Uh-huh...

Let me address some of the specific arguments in the piece:
  • Levees can fail: Sure, anything can fail, but how many times have levees and dikes successfully protected New Orleans or the Netherlands vs. the number of times they failed?  Does one failure mean dozens of other successful protective events don't have value?  And the nice thing about Houston over New Orleans is that we are *above* sea level, so if there is a failure, it will just drain right out as the tide recedes, as opposed to stagnating in the big bowl of below-sea-level New Orleans.
  • Levees cause stuff to be built where it shouldn't: Sorry Netherlands/New Orleans/Houston, you built stuff where you shouldn't have because once a decade mother nature is going to come at you with wallop.  Rather than protecting yourself, you really need to just shut it all down and move somewhere else - nevermind the trillions of invested infrastructure.  Wait, you say, it's kinda hard to operate a port without being connected to the ocean.  Well, I'm sure you'll figure it out.
  • The key is lovability/walkability: I'm pretty sure New Orleans had that in spades, and it doesn't seem to have saved them from Katrina.  Nor did it help the quaint walkable sections of Galveston during Ike.  And I'm sure the Dutch will be disappointed to learn they could have saved billions on dikes over the years if they had just loved their country more, maybe with just a good handholding and kumbaya singing session every time the North Sea threatened?
  • His calling out of my op-ed with Joel Kotkin: "Walkability is not some concept being forced down our throats by elitist planners from the East Coast, as some suggest. (See, for instance, "Economic diversity helps Houstonians live well" by Joel Kotkin and Tory Gattis.)" Actually, if you look at the stated goals of those smart growth planners, they *are* trying to force dense urbanism down our throats, and they specifically call for restricting or eliminating suburban development.  We are not opposed to walkability and walkable development like town centers, but we are opposed to forcing it on people by restricting other forms of development which leads to unaffordable housing, widening inequality, reduced opportunity, and a weakened middle class. I totally agree that some people love walkability (including myself), and we need to loosen any regulations that make it hard to develop (agreement with him on this point), but let the market decide how much demand there is and how much and where to build - not central planners.
  • "People in Houston currently spend as much on transportation as they do on housing. " Lies, damn lies, and statistics.  As I've pointed out here before, when you have affordable housing like we do in Houston (albeit rapidly getting less so), people tend to splurge on very luxurious cars, trucks, and SUVs - but that does not mean that's the cost of transportation here.  Everybody can get around Houston quite affordably in a Honda Civic, Toyota Prius, or plenty of other cars - they just choose not to.  The 2013 C2ER ACCRA Cost of Living index takes this into account, and rated Houston 95.6 for transportation costs where 100 = the national average, so we're 4.4% below the national average.  New York is at 110, Chicago at 124, DC at 106 - so much for dense transit cities reducing transportation costs.
  • "Spending less on transportation would mean you could afford more durable construction." While I agree we should have strong construction standards for wind, how does one build more durable construction for a tidal wave surge of water?  Should we build everything on stilts?  How incredibly expensive and inconvenient would that be, not to mention not very walkable?  Maybe we should, um, build a dike so we don't have to worry about the surge in the first place and can build simply at ground level?
  • "Walkability means you might see your neighbors more often. Knowing who your neighbors are is a key element of resilience. Social capital is the glue that holds communities together, and places that have it back from catastrophe much faster." Does anybody else remember all the stories in Houston after Ike of people helping each other out and throwing block parties to grill meat before it spoiled in unpowered fridges and freezers?  Does anybody remember our amazing response to the Katrina refugees?  I think we're doing pretty well on the social capital front.  And I'd like to point out that the most dense and walkable city in America, New York, is not exactly known for its friendly "social capital".
  • "Many people in New Orleans died because there was nowhere to run in a vast unbroken sea of single-family homes" Actually, the people that were stuck in New Orleans for Katrina where the ones without cars who relied on transit and walking.  Just about everyone with a car got out successfully.
To sum up, walkable development is great, and we should certainly enable and encourage more of it, but it is absolutely no substitute for protecting our region from a direct hurricane hit with a strong physical barrier.  Let's not mix up our priorities here.  We know what we need to do - we just need the political and financial will to do it (and here's how to pay for it).

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1 Comments:

At 9:54 AM, November 12, 2014, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

There are about 6.3 million people in metro houston. The vast majority of Houstonians are not at risk of storm surge. An ike dike would protect about 600000 from the single peril of storm surge. If the dike is over-topped then the dike would expose about two to three million more Houstonians to flooding because a dike will prevent storm and surge waters from receding as quickly as they would in the absence of an ike dike. Thus a dike would actually increase the risk of flooding for a subset of Houstonians.
The 600,000 who are most exposed would be better served by more stringent building codes and increased elevation on all new construction. Increased flood rates which properly reflect the flood risk in surge prone areas are also in order. Ship channel area property owners would be better off constructing their own surge mitigation measure. I am both a property owner and insurance agent in the Bay area who actually has skin in the game.

 

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