Future-Proofing Coastal Cities Like Houston

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Houston, Texas, got whacked by Hurricane Harvey. 51 inches of rain would drown any city, whether it is located near the ocean or a thousand miles inland. But cities that border the sea are far more likely to be flooded by rain, rising sea levels, or storm surges than their mid-continent neighbors.

A Failure To Plan Equals A Plan To Fail

Houston, Hurricane Harvey and climate change“When you talk about rebuilding a place like Houston, people’s first thoughts are, ‘I want it back the way it was’,” says Sandra Knight, a senior research engineer at the University of Maryland. “And unfortunately that’s not the best thing to do. As a nation, we aren’t planning forward enough. We are developing in places that aren’t sustainable. We need to start doing things differently.”

In the United States, the primary focus is on rebuilding after floods and natural disasters. That’s what FEMA is designed to do. But planning to mitigate future damage? That smacks of government interference, big bad Washington creating a blizzard of regulations that place intolerable burdens on local governments and the business community.

Just last month, the Idiot in the Oval tore up rules promulgated by the Obama administration requiring new federal building and infrastructure projects to make provision for the effects of more frequent flooding and rising sea levels. Why, that would cost the taxpayers money, grumped The Trump.

What’s Next For Houston?

“Houston had 51 inches of rain and that would be disastrous for any city in the world, Mexico City, Bangkok, anywhere,” says Jeff Herbert, chief resiliency officer for the city of New Orleans. “It was unprecedented. The priority now is rescuing people and helping them. The next phase of recovery is the appropriate time to talk about how to rebuild the city. Houston will have to think about retrofitting to accept more water and think about its development patterns. The city will have to think about how it manages stormwater and its regulations.”

Learning From The Dutch

New Orleans has always been a special case because so much of it is below sea level and prone to flooding. In the 1950, officials from the Netherlands visited the city to learn more about how the city pumps excess water into Lake Pontchartrain. After Katrina devastated The Big Easy, officials from New Orleans reached out to their Dutch colleagues to learn more about their approach, which involves “living with the water.”

The Netherlands has an extensive infrastructure of dikes and levees — just like New Orleans — but it also has plenty of grassy areas, woods, and wetlands designed to soak up excess water. Green roofs covered with plants absorb some of the rain before it ever gets to street level. Permeable concrete in cities also helps aid the fight against flooding.

Since Katrina, New Orleans has created seven rain gardens to absorb standing water and plans to spend $220 million creating new green areas where rain water can collect rather than flood the streets. “After Katrina we realized we had to live with water within the city,” Jeff Herbert says. “We have hard infrastructure such as pumps but also nature-based solutions because pumping can’t handle it all. We had to go back to what existed in the city in the 1930s and 1940s, before mass development took place.”

Not A Rational Process

Hurricane Harvey“Many cities have dams, levees and flood walls which are a fairly narrow and inflexible response to flooding,” said Jeff Opperman, global freshwater lead scientist at WWF. “There is growing appreciation in the US that we need to diversify, to set the levees back, use natural vegetation and allow the river room. But then there’s political decisions around development and that’s a less rational process.”

Houston could learn from New Orleans, but will it?  For the past 50 years, it has been busy filling in its wetlands to support new communities that came into being as people flocked to the area, attracted by employment opportunities in the local economy — most of them dependent on fossil fuels.

“There’s a big variation in how cities are preparing. Some are doing almost nothing,” says Sabrina McCormick of George Washington University and lead author of a 2015 study of six US cities. “Houston’s approach is similar to other cities in that it hasn’t looked into the future and taken the risks seriously. Unfortunately we are seeing the ramifications of that.”

The Definition Of Insanity

In the absence of national standards — which are bitterly opposed by Republicans who have made careers out of sucking up the cash spread around by the Koch Brothers and their welter of liberarian “institutes” — each city is left to its own devices to try and figure out how to plan for the future. Houston is beholden to the fossil fuel industry for its economic well being. How likely is it that local politicians will make choices that are not supported by the local business community?

Rebuilding Houston so it is just the way it was before Hurricane Harvey paid a visit is stupid. Doing it with taxpayer money, even more so. But the same people who scream the loudest about the evils of big government are first in line when it comes to demanding money from Uncle Sugar to clean up the mess they made. But there better not be any strings attached to those federal dollars. Local people know what’s best. Just give us the cash and stay out of our business.

So-called conservatives complain incessantly about how federal regulations add to the cost of doing business — a familiar mantra the Koch Brothers have been reciting for 40 years. But where is the $180 billion or more the business community expects to get from federal coffers to rebuild Houston reflected in their corporate balance sheets? As one of our readers likes to say, capitalism in America today is a system that privatizes all the profits but socializes all the costs.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Will Houston prove the truth of that adage?

The Politics Of Disaster

Americans are flocking to cities, most of which are located in coastal areas. But the US government was set up to protect less populated rural areas from being overwhelmed by more populous cities. That bias means the Senate and the Electoral College heavily favor rural areas, which means policies that benefit the urban areas where most Americans live have a hard time getting approved by Congress.

There are very few rural areas near America’s coastline. Politicians from the so-called heartland are now showing they could care less about the plight of those urban areas. Last week, all six Republican congressman from Missouri voted against a bill to provide emergency funds to the Houston cleanup effort. The same was true of Republican congressmen representing Kansas City.

America Needs A Plan

Weuker Hurricane Harvey cartoon“Ideally we’d have a national plan to help guide cities toward some basic level of planning to address these risks,” says Sabrina McCormick says. “If we don’t see that leadership, cities will have to look to other cities to figure out where to go next. We also need to mitigate our greenhouse gases to reduce the impact in the first place.”

The rural bias built into the American system of government gives a big boost to conservatives, who have adopted the mantle of “smaller government with fewer regulations” that lies at the heart of the MAGA myth. A “business as usual approach” will mean Houston will go back to the way it was before — a sitting duck prone to disaster after disaster with the American taxpayers footing the bill.

Trumpenistas like Scott Pruitt are busy wiping the words “climate change” from every government website and blasting the media for daring to suggest Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma have anything whatsoever to do with human activity. Given such fear and loathing at the highest levels, what are the odds that significant steps will be taken to future proof the Houston area? Somewhere between slim and none would be a reasonable guess.

Source: The Guardian

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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