Sunday, September 17, 2017

Great excerpts from Hurricane Harvey coverage

Apologies for the very long gap time since my last post - vacation, eclipse totality, and Hurricane Harvey (with many national journalist phone interviews, including these at WSJ and NYT) followed by a hurricane-level wave of work has kept me more than fully occupied. But I have accumulated a great set of Harvey-related links and excerpts I've been wanting to share for a while. I know this is very long vs. my usual post - just consider it making up for the lack of posts over the last many weeks, so dig in and please enjoy.
"And yet, this week I suspect we’ll mostly see another side of Houston: its scrappy sense of humor, and its extraordinary and very Texan largesse. Houston responds to disaster with fortitude: the city absorbed two hundred thousand Vietnamese refugees in the nineteen-seventies, and it currently resettles twenty-five of every thousand refugees that the United Nations resettles anywhere—that’s more than any other city in America, and more than most countries. After Hurricane Katrina, Houston took in a quarter of a million evacuees, and, aided by Mayor Bill White’s multimillion-dollar resettlement program, as many as forty thousand people stayed... in Houston, Harvey is already showing how an individualistic work ethic and a spirit of collective generosity can and have to coexist."
"Nationally, Houston has a lousy reputation. It's too hot, too humid, and too, well, too sprawly. It is all of those things. And don't tell the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau I said this, but it's not a great city to visit. There isn't much to do here that's touristy, especially during our sultry summers. But here's a little secret: Houston is a great place to live. It's the opposite of, "It's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there." Rather, Houston may not be a nice place to visit, but you would want to live there. I do."
“If Harvey happened in 1850 instead of today,” added historian Phil Magness on Facebook, “the results would be nearly identical in terms of land flooded…No zoning law or ban on parking lot construction would ever have ‘fixed’ anything about that.”
Magness later added a video from Texas Archive showing Houston’s central Buffalo Bayou after a 1935 flood, at a higher level than it is now, despite the city having far less impervious surface back then."
"Myth #1: Better land-use planning could have significantly alleviated this flooding.
Fact:  50 inches of rain would have devastated any city. Even this article acknowledges that the loss of wetlands from 1992 to 2010 accounted for about 4 billion gallons of lost capacity to absorb storm water. Harvey had already dropped 15 trillion gallons as of two days ago. The total is certain to be far higher."
"And if the region begins to put stricter regulations on building, there is a chance that one of Houston’s great lures — affordable housing — may disappear. This is a concern for Joel Kotkin, the urban theorist and author who has been a great champion of Houston’s lax regulation policies. 
“If you put the kind of super-strict planning shackles on Houston, that would be
the way to kill it,” he said. “Why would you live in a hot, humid, flat space if it was
Like many others, he was quick to praise Houston’s energy and optimism, and said the city would recover. The Texas author Larry McMurtry, a former Houston resident, agreed. 
“Houston will accept anybody who’s got hustle — it respects energy more than
any place,” he said. “Houston is a very resilient city, and it will overcome.”
"And yet, the pundits have largely given up on casting blame for the disaster — with a few exceptions, of course. And the reason is simple: The example set by both Houston's leaders and its people has been too inspiring. 
Houston has always been underrated. It's the energy capital of the United States, the most international metropolitan area in the country and, as we've all now seen, the kind of place where hundreds of people will naturally respond to a major catastrophe by, for example, rescuing random strangers, using their rowboats."
"When a storm of this size hits such a large city — the fourth-largest in America — the financial cost will always be extraordinary. But the courage, neighbourliness and generosity that Texans have demonstrated in recent days are no less so. Nature’s fury may be awesome, but mankind’s resilience is greater still. That ought to be the real lesson from Houston."
"If there’s one lesson I’ve learned as an outsider looking in, it’s that there’s a sense of purpose to these people like I’ve never seen. A central passion runs through Texans unlike any other American identity. Pride percolates here. It’s something people who aren’t from Texas just can’t grasp. We may have a docile sense of civic pride for our hometowns, but nothing like this state demands of its residents.
That sense of purpose and absolute unwillingness to bend in their pride is why Texas will only become stronger in the wake of Hurricane Harvey."
"We are a great nation. We forget. But what happened in Texas reminded us. It said: My beloved America you’re not a mirage, you’re still here."
"Beyond not segregating uses, Houston’s approach to planning is unique in that it doesn’t artificially limit densities or throw up barriers to dense urban redevelopment. This is generally good if you care about housing affordability or racial segregation, since it keeps NIMBYs from blocking new multi-family housing. Unlike San Francisco or Boston, Houston lacks a lot of the discretionary reviews and “neighborhood vetoes,” making it much easier to convert single-family homes in high-demand areas into apartments or townhouses. This also makes dense infill redevelopment much easier, which allows cities to grow up and become more dense. Where the zoning in most cities pushes new development out into the suburbs, Houston keeps it easy to add more housing in desirable urban neighborhoods. Ironically, if we are concerned about destructive greenfield development, Houston’s lack of zoning almost certainly helps more than it hurts."
Actually, I've got even more, but I'm going to cut it off here and save them for next week.  We're also working on a COU briefing on Harvey lessons which I will share as soon as it's published.

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At 1:47 AM, September 19, 2017, Anonymous Mike said...

"Magness later added a video from Texas Archive showing Houston’s central Buffalo Bayou after a 1935 flood, at a higher level than it is now, despite the city having far less impervious surface back then."

This is because the reservoirs had not been built yet.

At 8:38 AM, September 19, 2017, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, but the point is that Houston's clay soil sheds water rather than absorbing it, so even well before the sprawl when there were tons of undeveloped wetlands, it still flooded. Their absorption benefits were minimal.

At 12:25 PM, September 19, 2017, Anonymous Mike said...

I understand the basic point, but let's not exaggerate it. Yes, it flooded then and it always will, but our soil absorbs some water, and implementing projects like the reservoirs helped a great deal. Also, while nothing could have prevented flooding in Harvey, having three years of consecutive 100/500 year floods is something that did not happen in the past, and likely a significant reason for that is the loss of soil absorption and wetlands.

All the people saying that Harvey was caused by overdevelopment or global warming are wrong, but the people acting like nothing we've done has made a difference are also wrong. I'd like to hear this blog talk about modest things we can do to reduce the impact of future disasters.

At 1:54 PM, September 19, 2017, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Fair points and agreed. We're working on a COU briefing with recommendations, which I hope I can post and discuss here in the next couple of weeks.

BTW, I was discussing the 100-year flood probabilities with someone the other day, and we wondered if that's sort of an independent "dice roll" for each watershed each year (rather than one "roll" for the whole region each year), or even for areas smaller than a watershed (like an individual floodplain). Considering that Houston has over 22 watersheds - and many more floodplains than that - even a 1% chance for each means pretty decent odds of a one-hundred-year event somewhere in the region every year.

At 2:38 PM, September 19, 2017, Anonymous Mike said...

I agree that you can't say that "multiple 100 year floods" have happened if they happened in different locations. Some commentators have said, "We've had five 100-year floods in the Gulf of Mexico since 2010!" as proof of global warming. But if we are looking at Houston's watersheds, I am fairly certain that both the Buffalo Bayou and Braes Bayou watersheds experienced these conditions in all three floods since 2015. I am not as familiar with other waterways, but I know that Cypress Creek experienced 100-year flooding in at least two of the three years.


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