Why Hurricane Harvey Was a Predictable Disaster

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PennDesign's Billy Fleming talks about the consequences of poor city planning.

The devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey has brought attention to the massive urban sprawl in the coastal region of Houston. With 6.7 million residents, Houston is the fifth largest metropolitan area in the United States. It also faces a problem typical of large cities around the globe: the environmental impact of development. The paving over of large tracts of natural habitat often means draining wetlands, building impervious surfaces and generally reshaping the landscape. Scientists and urban planners say this very human activity can worsen natural disasters and make it more difficult for cities to recover.

Billy Fleming is a research coordinator for the Ian L. McHarg Center at PennDesign pursuing a doctorate in city and regional planning from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-founder of DataRefuge, a research and advocacy group making copies of environmental data at a time of climate change. He also worked on the White House Domestic Policy Council during President Barack Obama’s first term. Fleming discussed the problem of urban sprawl recently on the Knowledge@Wharton show, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: It seems that there is a lot of concrete in Houston. That played a role in the flooding after Hurricane Harvey. When you have that much concrete, there’s nowhere for the water to flow when it rains.

Billy Fleming: Exactly. In the case of Houston, that’s one of the world’s most predictable disasters. When a storm like this comes through, and you’ve spent the better part of 20 years building highways and roads and low-density development to become one of the world’s geographically largest cities, there’s nowhere for that water to go.

The primary outlet for Houston when all that stormwater hits — whether it’s from a storm like Harvey or whether it’s from a summer shower — is to eventually get into Galveston Bay. When a storm like Harvey comes in and pushes a little bit of surge into that bay, it pretty much closes off its only real outlet.

Without all the natural systems that were there before the highways were built, without all of those green systems that have been replaced by strip malls and tract housing, that water doesn’t have anywhere to go.

“In the case of Houston, that’s one of the world’s most predictable disasters.”

Knowledge@Wharton: There are also houses built behind the city’s reservoirs. Why would you put houses there if, on the off chance that the reservoirs go over the limit, that water is going to end up in people’s yards?

Fleming: Flooding is not a new phenomenon in Houston. The unfortunate part of all of this is that Houston gets held up by a lot of folks as the model of what a deregulated land market can look like, of how to become an affordable city in an otherwise unaffordable environment for most folks in the U.S. There’s a lot that you can say about that that’s good. But the reality in a place like Houston is that the most vulnerable places, those places along the edge of the reservoir or along the coast, the places that are going to flood no matter what, that’s where we shuffle all of our lowest-income families. They move into the cheapest homes we can provide, and we tell them they’re on their own after that.

Knowledge@Wharton: You talk about regulation and zoning. Most likely, not enough was done to protect the city and its people. Obviously, you want to see a variety of buildup because that’s economically sound, but you can go too far as well.

Fleming: There are all kinds of other models where growth can be channeled in smart ways across the city, even at the most simple level of not shuffling a bunch of your most vulnerable residents into the places that are the most likely to flood. That’s not a particularly heavy-handed set of regulations to say, “We know this place will flood. We don’t want to build here. Where else can we put folks and keep housing prices affordable?” Lots of other cities have figured out how to do it. Houston knows how to do it, they’ve just made a political choice not to.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is it your expectation that because of the severity of this storm, Houstonians will try to change the regulation and zoning laws?

Fleming: I think there are a couple things you can set your watch to after a disaster. One is that somebody, either a mayor or a governor or whoever, is going to stand up and say, “Houston is stronger than the storm. We can figure out how to do this.” The reality is that no city or person is stronger than a hurricane. If you look at the case of New Jersey after Sandy, Gov. Chris Christie was the first one to stand up and say that. My hope is that Houston and Texas don’t go down that route. The other is that they’re going to start trying to push through a recovery process before all the folks who have been hit by Harvey are able to come back and partake in it. Whatever vision for Houston’s future is put together, if it’s not co-produced by the people who live there, or if it’s put together by a group of experts who can tell you the best way to engineer the city but don’t know anything about the folks who live there, it’s not going to matter what they come up with. It’ll never get built. And if it does, it won’t be shared by the people who live there now.

Knowledge@Wharton: But did that part of the story play out with Hurricane Katrina and the people of New Orleans?

Fleming: Absolutely. New Orleans gets held up as an exemplar of post-disaster recovery. But if you look at who was able to come back after Katrina, it wasn’t the folks who lived there before, especially on the low- and middle-income side. New Orleans has gotten richer and whiter since Katrina. Houston remains one of our country’s most diverse, and for me, most interesting cities. It would be a shame to see the same process unfold there.

Knowledge@Wharton: We watched as Hurricane Irma hit Florida, which also has tremendous development, especially along the coastal areas. You have the buildup, the concern of rising sea level and other factors that make Florida a place to watch over the next 40 to 50 years.

Fleming: If you think about the way that a building on a college campus like this is maintained, you have a thing called deferred maintenance where you’re not putting money into the building every year. You’re putting it in a set-aside to invest when the roof caves in or a window goes out or an HVAC needs to be replaced. In cities like Miami and Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, for a long time that deferred maintenance fund hasn’t been capitalized. There hasn’t been money put aside to deal with the reality of climate change and sea-level rise. That bill has come due for a lot of those cities now. I think the question before us now is, are we’re going to learn from these events and build back our cities better? Or are we going to go on with the business-as-usual approach of just developing along the coast without any regard for when the ocean and the seas are going to come in?

“We’re at the point now where the bill is coming due for all of these problems that we’ve put off for so long.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Unfortunately, it took Hurricane Andrew to set this in motion. After Andrew in 1992, Florida really changed the building standards to make structures more able to withstand storms like that. Even though you have the buildup, at least we are thinking about what we have to do to prevent significant damage from the next storm.

Fleming: That’s exactly right. The building code reform that went on in South Florida and parts of Texas after storms like that has been important. But it’s also the intervention that takes the longest time to have an effect. You can rebuild the buildings that were completely devastated by the storm. But a lot of those places that are newly vulnerable now, as sea levels rise and seashore subsidence has put new properties at risk, weren’t grandfathered in. They weren’t built with those building codes. They’re the same construction that was used in 1990 or 1989, when they were built. You can’t go in and retrofit those buildings to meet that new building code. One of the things they’re going to have to think about is what kind of new infrastructure they’re going to have to complement those new building codes in these places. It’s not just about making buildings stronger; it’s about armoring yourself against the inevitable push of the ocean.

Knowledge@Wharton: What about in California, where they’ve been going through another bout of wildfires? We see more and more development in the hills around Los Angeles and Hollywood. Not only does that have an impact when you’re talking about the fires, but landslides as well.

Fleming: Again, this is mostly a question of a failure of government, or a failure of local and state actors to think about the suitability of the land that they’re encouraging development on. There are ways to solve problems like these that are heavy-handed regulatory approaches, and there are market-based approaches to them. Some of these places have chosen not to opt into either path, and this is the result. You have a huge landscape that’s been filled with low-density development. It’s disrupted the ecosystem that used to help buffer some of those places from wildfires. When you get a severe drought like California’s been dealing with for the last few months, this is the result.

Knowledge@Wharton: What do we need to do to make our elected leaders and policymakers more aware of these problems so we don’t have some of the issues that we see in California, in Florida, in Texas? Development is happening everywhere, even in places like Montana and North Dakota.

Fleming: Part of this is that we have to change the conversation about climate change from one about whether or not the science is a real thing, and talk about the adaptation to climate change as an issue of national security. I can’t think of a better test case than Houston, where 90% of all of our military-grade jet fuel is refined, where two-thirds of all of our fuel either is refined, stored, processed or shipped out to market, where four of the 10 largest ports in the country reside. When Houston is shut down for a storm like this, our entire national GDP loses percentage points by the week. California is no different. It’s our largest economy. When those places are stressed by events like this, the entire country suffers.

Knowledge@Wharton: But the politics of Texas probably doesn’t allow for that conversation to begin.

Fleming: People would have said the same thing about Florida in the 1990s. Miami’s mayor is a Republican and, by all accounts, a member in well-standing in that party. And he’s been one of the thought leaders and most vocal advocates for climate change adaptation in the country because it’s a necessity for Miami. You can’t live there and not acknowledge that it’s coming. It’s a little easier in Texas, where if you go to Austin or the state house, members of your legislature will tell you it’s a coast with a state, not a coastal state. We all know that’s not true. Texas has one of the longest coastlines in the country. If they don’t find a way to deal with it, they’re going to keep finding events like Harvey at their front door.

“For every dollar you put into conservation or construction of new green or natural infrastructure, you get $7 back.”

Knowledge@Wharton: It’s all part of a bigger discussion in general about city planning, infrastructure and transit.

Fleming: This is about thinking about infrastructure and climate change adaptation as investments so that when you put money into infrastructure that protects the coast, it’s not just about Houston. It’s not just about Miami. It’s about the whole state. It’s about everybody who depends on that city for either getting their goods, whether they’re going to Walmart to pick up their food that week or whether they’re a farmer out in West Texas or in the panhandle of Florida trying to get their goods to market through an international port.

There are lots of different ways to think about infrastructure, one of which is the conventional kind that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers builds, which are big sea walls and levies and bulkheads that can protect some of these places from future storm events. Another way is to think about green infrastructure — all of the different natural systems that once kept a lot of these places safer from storms like Harvey — and investing in that the way we invest in all of the big structural pieces.

Knowledge@Wharton: The investment in some of these is fairly modest, considering the negative impact if you don’t have them in place.

Fleming: The payoff on all of these things is extraordinarily high. For every dollar you put into conservation or construction of new green or natural infrastructure, you get $7 back. For gray infrastructure, for the big walls and levies, too. Those things don’t get built unless they pass a very stringent national economic benefit test by the Army Corps. It’s just a matter of giving them the funds they need to do all the projects that are out there on their list. If you look at New York and the Northeast after Sandy, that was a place that had about 1,000 projects on its list that should have been built before Sandy. It has about another 1,000 now, after Sandy. And they’re not building them because they don’t have the money to do it.

Knowledge@Wharton: There’s so much development and population in the Northeast corridor, so a lot of the resources need to go here. But you still have some of these issues in rural places in Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming. You can’t pass on one to get to the other.

Fleming: That’s exactly right. Look, I grew up in rural Arkansas, so for me climate change is not a thing that was part of my childhood science education. But if you go to the farmers and you go to the folks who live in rural states like Arkansas and Montana and Wyoming, they know that climate change is real. They know it’s happening because they’re seeing it in the way they’re having to manage their fields and their crops. You may not be able to go in there and talk about it the way you talk about it in New York or Philly or D.C., but those folks are as open to solving this problem as anybody else in the country. It’s a matter of somebody stepping up at a state or a national level and being willing to have a hard conversation about investing in our future security. That can mean everything from the national security issue in Houston to a food security issue in the farm belt.

Knowledge@Wharton: The amount of money spent in California because of the drought and the wildfires is staggering. The state’s economy could be different if some basic policy changes were made.

“It’s not just about making buildings stronger; it’s about armoring yourself against the inevitable push of the ocean.”

Fleming: California’s going to have to find a way to talk about whether some of the crops there belong in California or if they belong in a place like the Mississippi River Delta, where rainfall is much higher, where land is a lot cheaper and where it’s easier to manage a problem like they’re having now with their drought — where droughts, frankly, don’t exist in the way that they exist in California.

Knowledge@Wharton: What is your expectation that we can have this discussion on the national level? President Obama seemingly wanted to bring that discussion forward. Can we get to that point?

Fleming: We’re at the point now where the bill is coming due for all of these problems that we’ve put off for so long. President Obama does deserve some credit for that, right? He brought a carbon tax bill before the House and the Senate. It came within a couple votes of coming to his desk to sign into law. Whether or not a carbon tax is the right answer, that’s the debate we should be having. What’s the right response to climate change? What’s the level of investment we need to make and are willing to make as a country? Not whether or not the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) or a couple of marine scientists along the Gulf Coast have been engaged in a 20-year con to make us think that climate change is fraudulent or a hoax.

Knowledge@Wharton: We’re going to need the business community to step in and make some of these decisions as well.

Fleming: Right. If you go to Houston, you go to the Galveston Bay area where all of these refineries and port facilities exist, they know it’s real. Their actuaries are much smarter than me and most of the other folks in my field. They recognize that the risks posed by climate change and storms and sea level rise are real. The potential losses for them are astronomical. So, they’ve built up levies and sea walls around their individual facilities because they know storms like Harvey are coming. It’s up to cities now to be led hopefully by strong mayors and governors and some other president who’s willing to talk about this issue, to get people galvanized around the idea of investing in the kind of infrastructure we need to live in the 21st century.

Most of the stuff that’s under our streets, that conveys all of our stormwater and floodwaters now, was built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. If you go to my neighborhood in Philly right now, every other week there’s a collapse of an old truss that somebody’s got to dig out. You go in there and look, and it’s made out of wood that’s been chewed through by termites.

The thing is, no city in probably most states can handle that problem themselves. The cost of replacing the stormwater infrastructure in a city like Philadelphia is in the 11-figure range. If you put that across all the major cities, and even the smaller and medium-sized cities in this country, we’re talking about a multigenerational, multitrillion-dollar problem that has to be solved.

We can get there. I have no lack of faith in the ability of this country to get there. We just need someone to step up and lead at the national level, who holds a high elected office and is willing to put themselves out there on an issue that everyone knows is important, that is often fought over in order to win elections.

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