This spectral photo of residents inside a Galveston assisted-living facility soaking calmly in the deep waters of Harvey is among the more haunting images to come out of Texas during this hellacious weather onslaught, the kind of “once-in-a-century” storm that is now occurring several times a decade in America alone. It looks like a Beckett play being performed on the Titanic, which is also a description that can be applied more broadly to this vertiginous moment in history, a time of woe for both political and climatic reasons.
Certainly global warming has played an outsize role in supersizing natural disasters, but Houston was particularly prone to devastation for a couple of other reasons: 1) It’s home to the greatest concentration of petrochemicals in the country, and 2) The city has been under-regulated and overbuilt, with paved streets now sprawled over prairies that formerly absorbed tons of excess water.
Despite frequently serving important purposes, zoning and building regulations are oft-cursed bête noires to Libertarians and other laissez faire economists and politicos. From a 2014 Time article that encouraged the rest of America to follow Texas’ lead in instituting more lenient zoning laws:
Among the policies [Tyler] Cowen proposes as we move into this future: cheaper education (to allow workers to upgrade their skills), looser building and zoning regulations (to radically reduce the price of housing across America), and a loosening of occupational licensing at the state and local level (to open up many more low-skill jobs).•
Certainly there are building codes and zoning rules driven by greed rather than merit, but the unintended consequences that follow rampant deregulation can be deadly. Houston now knows this all too well.
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From “Boomtown, Floodtown,” a December 2016 piece by Neena Satija, Kiah Collier and Al Shaw of ProPublica and the Texas Tribune, which predicted Houston would have a problem:
The area’s history is punctuated by such major back-to-back storms, but many residents say they are becoming morefrequentand severe, and scientists agree.
“More people die here than anywhere else from floods,” said Sam Brody, a Texas A&M University at Galveston researcher who specializes in natural hazards mitigation. “More property per capita is lost here. And the problem’s getting worse.”
Scientists, other experts and federal officials say Houston’s explosive growth is largely to blame. As millions have flocked to the metropolitan area in recent decades, local officials have largely snubbed stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater. That has led to an excess of floodwater during storms that chokes the city’s vast bayou network, drainage systems and two huge federally owned reservoirs, endangering many nearby homes — including Virginia Hammond’s.
On top of that, scientists say climate change is causing torrential rainfall to happen more often, meaning storms that used to be considered “once-in-a-lifetime” events are happening with greater frequency. Rare storms that have only a miniscule chance of occurring in any given year have repeatedly battered the city in the past 15 years. And a significant portion of buildings that flooded in the same time frame were not located in the “100-year” floodplain — the area considered to have a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year — catching residents who are not required to carry flood insurance off guard.•