Lessons From Houston

I wonder if we will learn anything from the pictures of devastation coming from Houston.

Leave aside the contentious arguments over climate change, and the degree to which it contributed to the severity of the storm. There were other omens even denialists should have been able to appreciate. Last year, for example, a ProPublica/Texas Tribune investigation found that officials charged with addressing Houston’s obvious susceptibility to flooding had discounted scientists’ warnings as “anti-development.”

That reaction was so typically Houstonian.

For years, Houston has reveled in its “freedom” from “onerous, unnecessary regulations.” The city has no zoning, and its building codes are lax. As Newsweek has reported, Houston is “drowning in its freedom.”

The feeling there was that persons who own real estate should be free to develop it as they wish…In less-free cities, the jackbooted thugs in the zoning department impose limits on the amount of impervious cover in a development.

Houston’s allergy to “jackbooted thugs” like city planners and its preference for “freedom” over strict building codes is a longstanding feature of its politics. Whether that city’s powers-that-be will moderate their distaste for regulations that would mitigate future disasters remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the federal government–under our “pro-business” President– is moving away from prudence and toward Houston’s free-wheeling approach.

As Vox explains,

Since 2015, infrastructure projects paid for by federal dollars have had to plan ahead for floods and water damage. But when Houston and surrounding towns start to rebuild after floodwaters recede from Tropical Storm Harvey, they won’t be required to plan ahead for the next big storm.

That’s because on August 15, President Trump rolled back the Federal Flood Risk Mitigation Standard, an Obama-era regulation. The 2015 directive, which never fully went into effect, required public infrastructure projects that received taxpayer dollars to do more planning for floods, including elevating their structures to avoid future water damage and alleviate the burden on taxpayers.

Trump characterized his move as repealing an onerous government regulation and streamlining the infrastructure approval process. But he was criticized by both environmental groups and conservatives, who said it made sense to try to protect federal investments.

Between 2005 and 2014, the federal government spent an estimated $277 billion dollars responding to natural disasters like Harvey.

Obama’s flood risk mitigation regulation was intended to reduce those sorts of expenditures by prescribing certain standards for newly constructed infrastructure. Adhering to those standards might cost more money upfront, but requiring such flood mitigation measures would save taxpayers far more in the long run. According to experts, flood mitigation has a 4-1 payback.

No federal projects were ever built with the new standards, because it took years to go through the required public comment process before the rules were finalized. As federal agencies like FEMA and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development were waiting for final approval, Trump nixed the standards. And without that final approval, the agencies won’t be able to act on any of Obama’s recommendations.

“Had those regulations been finalized for FEMA and HUD in particular, they would have ensured that all the post-Harvey rebuilding complied with those standards, helping ensure that we built back in a way that was safer,” said Rob Moore, senior policy analyst at the National Resources Defense Council.

When the floodwaters recede and Houston looks toward repairing and rebuilding its damaged infrastructure, there very may well be state and local officials advocating for more mitigation projects. But there will be no incentive from the Trump administration to do so.

In fairness, Trump didn’t invent this “penny wise, pound foolish” mindset. It is part and parcel of the anti-government rhetoric that is carefully nurtured by politicians who would never conduct their personal affairs in a similarly imprudent manner.

It will be interesting to see what lessons–if any– the anti-regulation, anti-government, anti-science zealots take from the disaster that is Houston.

37 thoughts on “Lessons From Houston

  1. IMO, if they build it back the way it was, paying no attention to good sense, then there should be no federal dollars spent to help them do it. Same would apply to NY/NJ, etc.

  2. IMO no, they will not learn the lessons this horror should teach. During the last 5 years they have had 3 one hundred year floods. They didn’t learn from that; why would we think they would learn from this? Hopefully, other parts of the country will learn these lessons, because this is just the beginning of global warming disasters.

  3. Rebuild with only one reg: 1 story house to multi-story apartment must be built on stilts 15′ high. Floods can just flow beneath

  4. “Government can’t solve your problems. Government IS the problem”. This lie has been perpetuated by Republicans for nearly 40 years now and it has become gospel in their false narrative that good may only come from individual (meaning corporate) enterprise.

    I wrote the FB post below in response to this narrative and the related one perpetuated by the press, even MSNBC, that Houstonians should be lavished with praise because they are taking care of each other. There are no soubt thousands of good people out there ferrying people to safety in their boats, or helping out at a shelter, but it’s actually a very small part of what is really going on:

    “I’m ALL for showering the residents of Texas affected by Harvey with love, prayers, hope and especially admiration for taking care of themselves and each other and providing any help we can directly. ♥️

    But we currently have a President, and Texas has a Governor, who both got elected on an extremist platform that supports the complete deconstruction of our federal government.

    So, here’s also a shout-out to the 8,500 employees of the US federal government, who are getting NO support from their chief executive, but are quietly doing their jobs to help their fellow citizens get out of this horrible mess as soon as possible. ♥️”

    http://m.govexec.com/management/2017/08/8500-federal-employees-are-aiding-harvey-responseheres-what-theyre-doing/140581/

  5. Every square foot of concrete keeps water on the ground surface instead of in the ground. Every square foot of concrete contributes to flooding. No crayons should be needed to understand that.

  6. From the Washington Post:
    Climate change and ocean research would suffer sharp cuts in the Trump budget proposal for the Commerce Department, which aims for a reduction of 16 percent, or $1.5 billion, much of that targeted at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

    The Commerce cuts would eliminate $ 250 million in coastal research programs that prepare communities for rising seas and worsening storms, including the popular $73 million Sea Grant program, which works with universities in 33 states.

    The Trump budget document asserts that these programs “primarily benefit industry and State and local stakeholders,” making them a “lower priority.”

    He’s a genius.

  7. 45 is fixated on destroying anything that Obama has accomplished, no matter what the stakes are.

  8. Come on folks, contractors make a lot of money rebuilding damaged structures. Mitigation removes a funnel from the federal budget into private pockets. Nixing mitigation makes sense in transferring wealth from average tax payers to rich folks.

  9. “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
    ~Isaac Asimov

  10. It doesn’t matter how an opportunity presents itself. Trump will monetize anything for personal gain. He’d probably sell tickets to his mother’s funeral, to make a buck. So it’s no wonder he’s against spending anything to prevent another tragedy.

  11. I so agree that the infrastructure of this country needs to be taken care of first and foremost!
    Just as any city or town in these United States!
    But getting the Mayor, Governor, or President to do this is like pulling teeth until there is a great disaster.
    The other problem is that there is not enough money in these United States to protect all of the coastal cities from this and there are always going to be nature’s worst possible storms.

  12. I have to wonder if Texas state law even enables Houston to have zoning ordinances with any teeth. What a heartless, pennywise-pound foolish state.

  13. I keep wondering if the Bush family; Texans deep in their hearts, are doing anything to aid fellow Texans, many of whom are still trapped by floodwaters. I haven’t seen their names mentioned; guess they are safe and that is all that matters to them.

  14. As you say Sheila, for now putting aside Climate Change, the McMega-Media has carefully avoided mentioning the lax to non-existent zoning and flood risk mitigation in Texas, that has amplified Harvey’s damage. What we are witnessing with all this destruction is the result of Steroid Capitalism. Steroid Capitalism eliminates or neuters any regulations.

    I worked in the financial industry during my working career so I have knowledge of insurance issues. Insurance companies will mitigate their exposure by excluding wind or hail damage or utilizing high deductibles. I suspect the vast majority of people in the area that Harvey struck have no flood insurance, which under normal conditions must be purchased separately. Flood coverage is expensive and will have high deductibles.

    There is an excellent article in the Guardian today: The real villains in Harvey flood: urban sprawl and the politicians who allowed it. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/31/real-villains-harvey-flood-urban-sprawl

  15. By the time Republicans have torn down everything that Democrats have built the country into they will realize why they shouldn’t have.

  16. The problem with this shortsightedness is that we all correctly feel sympathy for the folks in Houston whose lives are disrupted by this disaster, and we all want to do something about it. This usually results in the federal government spending billions on disaster relief. So the developers in Houston get to develop all they want without absorbing the cost of proper risk management, and we taxpayers from other states, we taxpayers who would rather pay to plan ahead properly, we have to foot the bill.

  17. Today’s headlines from Texas concern a chemical plant that is going to burn, explode, or both, because the chemicals had to be kept cold to prevent them from degrading. When they degrade, they become unstable and explode or burst into flames. When the power failed, the initial cooling system went down. The back up system also failed, along with the tertiary back up, so people and businesses within a 1.5 mile radius must stay clear until the fires and explosions subside. There is a fire now, the extent of which can’t be ascertained. Due to flooding, they couldn’t send in a robot. No one knows when the risk will end, but today, 15 fire fighters went to the hospital after inhaling fumes. It was decided that no one else will go near the place, even to check on whether the fires have burned out, until they’re certain there’s no further risk: that’s a date uncertain for the simple reason that no one ever did any foreseeability planning or risk mitigation. Them damn regulations! They cost money.

    My question is this: how on God’s green earth should it be allowed that this plant would ever go back on line? They should be forced to move further away from the Texas coast, where the risk of future floods and hurricanes is less. Admitting that this is likely to happen again is a tacit admission that there is global warming, and that this sort of disaster is foreseeable. We know that unless the plant owners want to move, it won’t happen. So far, it’s sheer luck that no one was killed in the fire, but luck runs out eventually.

  18. Natacha; one report I read, an interview with the plant owner, said that MOST of the chemicals will burn off but not all. What doesn’t burn off will be dispersed into the water; no report on how dangerous that will be or what effects it will cause or if any damage to the area will be hazardous to the environment or for how long. The list of what they do NOT know seems longer than the short list of information they passed along to us.

  19. Each time I read about catastrophic flooding along the Gulf Coast, the Eastern Seaboard, or in Indy’s own Ravenswood area, I’m always left scratching my head in wonder why anyone would build a home or a business in a known flood plain. Consider that New Orleans is a major city that was built ‘below’ sea level. What do the residents and business owners in New Orleans expect to happen when the weather turns bad?

    What do the residents in the Indianapolis community of Ravenswood expect to happen when the White River rises beyond its flood level with great regularity? How long must the rank and file Indy resident fork over tax monies to assist those folks who insist on living in Ravenswood despite its being in a flood plain?

  20. JoAnn: I also saw that interview: did you see where the reporter pressed the company president as to whether the fumes were toxic. He kept dodging the question, saying that everyone knows that smoke is irritating to breathing passages. He tried to compare it to the smoke from an ordinary camp fire, but these are concentrated chemicals used in plastic manufacturing. The fire chief also said the same thing. You’d need an independent chemist to tell whether or not the fumes are toxic, as opposed to just irritating, but now we know that even with 2 back up systems, when there is a flood there is a risk of explosion. That’s why the plant should be moved further inland.

  21. The Corporate World is downplaying the effects of the explosions and fires at the Texas Chemical Plant. Remember how the Government rallied to down play the effects of the Twin Towers collapsing in NYC.

    As usual the Corporate interests have their puppets in action:
    Downplaying Risks, Texas Sheriff Says Inhaling Chemical Plume Like ‘Standing Over Campfire’
    (Side Bar a Texas Sheriff tells us OK to inhale. So maybe the Sheriff should go breathe in the fumes on live via Facebook or something.)

    When pressed by reporters, Arkema executive Richard Rennard refused to affirm Gonzalez’s assertion that the fumes and smoke the plant is emitting are not toxic.

    “Toxicity is a relative thing,”
    (Side Bar, yes toxicity is relative, I understand Badgers in Africa have an immunity or high tolerance to Cobra bites, which they hunt. Humans of course do not. So yeah it is all relative.)

    https://www.commondreams.org/news/2017/08/31/downplaying-risks-texas-sheriff-says-inhaling-chemical-plume-standing-over-campfire

  22. Natacha; YES, and I saw him turn and walk away while still being questioned about the situation. That was before the explosions and fires started; he said they were certain to happen, as if that explained everything.

    I live one block from the Raytheon facility; what hazards would we face in this area under disaster conditions of any kind? This area is a mix of residential and business with Community East Hospital a few blocks west of Raytheon; would the hospital be beneficial or would it have to be evacuated due to hazardous emissions from Raytheon?

  23. JoAnn, with tongue in cheek, perhaps you’d prefer the Raytheon facility be closed or perhaps you’d prefer that you and your neighbors be moved to Tipton or Sheridan, Indiana, where there’s little chance of flooding or little chance of being poisoned by toxic fumes from any nearby plant or facility.

    Seriously, what is the purpose of your scary scenario?

  24. Jo Ann Green, I’m neither a Democrat nor a Republican but your comment about the Bush family made me curious. I googled ” Bush family Harvey Houston” and there were several clickables that appeared to be articles about their responses, all favorable including a financial commitment.

  25. Forget about the small-time looters that may be roaming Houston in an effort to steal a few valuables.

    It is the big-time looters, like land and building developers, that end up costing everyone in the country money. The developers and builders must be chomping at the bit just thinking about how they can loot the taxpayers during the rebuilding of Houston.

    Privatized profits and socialized losses.

  26. I don’t think there is anything new to be learned from this disaster. They have known about the dangers for decades and chose not to make corrections because the people who fund the campaigns for members of Congress and state legislatures will put an immediate stop to their re-elections if the leaders would choose to do the right thing.

  27. Nancy, playing the Devil’s advocate and engaging in a bit of curiosity, what would you have done differently in the Houston area had you been a member of the legislative body or a Congressperson representing Houston?

  28. BSH – I saw a civil engineer interviewed on tv yesterday who said that Houston has been told multiple times over the past decades of rapid development to stop building so much without including the necessary green areas that could absorb the water that was being dispersed by so much concrete. They chose to ignore the warnings in favor of immediate profits.

    In answer to your question – I would have demanded that the recommended green areas be included in any developments and I would have been sure to explain the reasons to the general public so they would havebeen aware of the dangers of not doing so. Then I would have most likely been thrown out of office by the corporate opposition.

  29. BSH; seriously…what WOULD happen if there was a disaster such as a tornado which tore open areas of the huge facility where hazardous materials…or explosives are stored? Over the past 3-4 years they have erected probably more than 20 wooden outbuildings behind the main brick facility. I have never been able to learn exactly what this Ratheon location does; not even a response from Raytheon Watch. My friends whose back yard abuts their property said they frequently see emergency vehicles with lights flashing, speeding through the grounds. No sirens; that would alert the neighbors.

    Tongue in cheek – there are a few vacancies in here, interested in being my neighbor?

  30. Yesiree! We Republicans know how to save money, though it’s going to cost the country four times what it would have cost if we had done the mitigation thing. Brilliant, Don! Toss out some more burdensome rules and regulations so when the big water comes we can all be washed to the Azores. Oh yes, Don, and rid the country of those burdensome and anti-business banking regulations and what’s left of Dodd-Frank so that we can all be penniless while drowning in the marshlands and bayous. Sure is good that we have freedom. Thanks, Don.

  31. Nancy, thanks for your recommendations had you been a member of the Texas legislative body. Actually, your input would have amounted to about as much as those legislators who make laws for those living in the coastal areas of Southeast Virginia. Each year, Virginia spend millions and millions of taxpayer dollars to replenish sand that is lost from the beaches via natural events, during natural events that would never have been so costly had the residential dwellings and the commercial building (i.e. hotels and condos) not been built beyond the primary dune line.

    Year after year, Virginia and North Carolina attempt to fight Mother Nature via sand replenishment activities paid for by taxpayers who do not live anywhere near the coastline. Seems that no legislative body has the courage to halt all development beyond the primary dune line in either coastal Virginia or coastal North Carolina. Everybody wants a house directly on the beach, every hotel wants to boast about direct and immediate access to the beach. Nevermind the consequences when the inevitable hurricane strikes and FEMA must step in to rescue and renew the areas where no house or no hotel should ever have been constructed.

  32. JoAnn, I know little to nothing about your neighborhood and the only thing I know about Raytheon is gained from the Indianapolis Business Journal from a June 11, 2016, article https://www.ibj.com/articles/58971-wwii-era-navy-plant-modernizes-expands.

    Before purchasing a residential property anywhere at any time, I’d advise all buyers to adhere to the old Latin phrase, “Caveat emptor.” Let the buyer beware…meaning the buyer assumes the risk in any transaction.

  33. BSH; interesting article, thanks. Larry Gigerich appears to have gotten fat and bald since I left the City in 1994.

  34. Wingnuts and their quaint ideas about regs and saving korporate Amerika some bucks reminds me of my late FIL and his ideas about fixing fences. We would have cattle get out of the pasture and into crop fields not yet harvested. Long story short- he never had time to fix the fence right, but we always had time to do it over and over.

  35. Dear Ms. Kennedy,
    I really fear that they have not seen enough yet to cut through the fog of money over mind and reason to get the message this is not the only time this is going to happen – possibly more yet this year! We humans tend to live on our scale – not on the scale of what is going on in the bigger picture. And now days with most people living on a 3×5 screen… it has tentacles out to what ever they wish to find out or what ever they wish to post about their friends or whatever – but it locks the eyes on the picture they want you to see, while you walk happily into the oncoming traffic…

  36. I find it fascinating that the same people who hold “government” is such high esteem…AT THE PRESENT TIME DENIGRATE IT. Perhaps they should qualify their support to be government that they agree with.

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