Post-Harvey reconstructionWhat lessons will Houston-area officials learn from Harvey? History gives us a clue

By Neena Satija

Published 11 September 2017

As Houston begins to recover from Harvey, a growing chorus of voices is calling for big policy changes to reduce flood damage from future disasters. Local officials haven’t said much about what they might pursue, but history offers some clues.

A growing chorus of voices — from scientists to some government officials to members of the public — say big policy changes need to be made in the Houston region after Hurricane Harvey dumped a record amount of rain there and swamped thousands of homes.

With the recovery process just getting started, local officials haven’t said much about what those policy changes might be. And in a statement to the Texas Tribune, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s spokesman said Harvey would have flooded the “relatively flat city that is crisscrossed by waterways … regardless of what planning and land usage regulations were in place.”

But the Bayou City has been here before. The worst rainstorm to befall an American city in modern history before Harvey was Tropical Storm Allison, which dumped more than 40 inches of rain on Houston in five days, flooding 73,000 residences and 95,000 vehicles. Allison caused $5 billion in damage to Harris County alone — and Harvey’s cost is expected to soar well past that level.

Houston and Harris County officials pursued a number of major policy changes after Allison. Some of them had modest success; some were abject failures. Many are likely to come up again after Harvey, on an even bigger scale than before. Here are the big ones:

Buying out homes most likely to flood again
Just months after Allison, Harris County began to pay people to leave their homes, ultimately spending hundreds of millions of dollars of mostly federal money. The county targeted thousands of families who suffered flood damage and lived in 100-year floodplains — areas with at least a 1 percent chance of flooding in a given year. The idea was that it would be cheaper to pay residents to live elsewhere than to constantly pay out flood insurance claims.

Experts say the program was a good one but didn’t go far enough. Since Allison, the county’s flood control district has purchased about 2,400 homes, but a recent study said that at least 3,300 more should be targeted for immediate buyouts. Even if those homes were bought out, that still leaves tens of thousands in the 100-year floodplain.

Local officials will surely ask for more money to buy out homes after Harvey. But they’ll have to depend largely on the generosity of Congress — and if they get more moneythey’ll have to convince many Houstonians who haven’t been willing to take the money and move after previous floods.