Analysis: Four things Houston-area leaders must do to prevent future flooding disasters

Restrict development in floodplains and buy flood-prone homes
Buildings continue to go up in vulnerable floodplains all over Harris County. A few years ago the city of Houston tried to ban new development in the most flood-prone areas. But developers sued, and the policy was severely weakened by the city council. Although some have chosen to elevate their lots to protect homes and businesses from rising floodwaters, that strategy may only increase the flood risk for those around them.  

Local officials also have pursued some buyouts — purchasing homes that have been badly damaged by floods or that are known to flood repeatedly. But Harris County hasn’t done enough. The county will need a lot more money to buy out more homes, and local owners will have to be willing to move.

Plan for climate change
In planning for flooding from future storms, local officials largely look to past rainfall totals and weather patterns. But climate change will heighten the risks that the region already faces. That’s particularly true because it sits so close to the Gulf of Mexico, where sea levels are rising and waters have been warming as the planet gets hotter. Warm water means more evaporation and more water vapor in the air — so when a storm comes along, there is more water to pick up and dump on nearby land. This is exactly what’s happening with Tropical Storm Harvey.  

“The exact same storm that comes along today has more rain associated with it than it would have 50 or 100 years ago,” renowned climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe told The Texas Tribune last year. Hayhoe said Houston needs to plan for more frequent and intense rainstorms, just like many other cities in the country. But local county officials have previously said they have no intention of doing so.

Educate the public
Hundreds of thousands of people have moved to the Houston area in recent decades; it is consistently ranked as one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities. But people who move to flood-prone areas are often unaware of the risks. They purchase homes in low-lying areas and assume that if they’re not in the 100-year floodplain, they won’t flood. But homes often flood outside floodplains in Houston — and realtors do not always tell homebuyers that.

Some past efforts the city made to educate Houstonians have been met with pushback. A few years ago, government officials put up visible flood gauges in low-lying coastal areas meant to show how the high water could get during hurricanes, but real estate agents revolted and the signposts were removed. Local officials need to be willing to tell their constituents some hard truths. 

Kiah Collier reports on energy and the environment for the Tribune.Neena Satija is an investigative reporter and radio producer for the Tribune and Reveal, a public radio program from the Center for Investigative Reporting. This story is published courtesy of the Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.