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Houston’s lack of zoning left city vulnerable to catastrophic floods

Aug. 29, 2017 Updated Tue., Aug. 29, 2017 at 9:28 a.m.

Residents of Melrose Park neighborhood walk through flooded streets with their belongings in Houston as Tropical Storm Harvey makes its way through the area on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017. (Elizabeth Conley / AP)
Residents of Melrose Park neighborhood walk through flooded streets with their belongings in Houston as Tropical Storm Harvey makes its way through the area on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017. (Elizabeth Conley / AP)

Submerged semi-trucks and highway on-ramps descending into deep water. Roof lines of homes flush with an unwelcome, churning brown river.

The images from the nation’s fourth-largest city are shocking and, like the floodwaters, won’t abate anytime soon. Catastrophic rains continue to pummel Houston as its 6.6 million residents scramble for safety from a storm that has yet to reach its peak with water that is expected to keep rising from rain that is still coming.

The National Weather Service called the storm “unprecedented” and “beyond anything experienced.” Houston’s near complete lack of zoning rules has made an uncommonly disastrous weather event even worse.

The famously “un-zoned” city has allowed developers to pave over natural areas that provide resilience to floods, and build homes in the way of cataclysm. According to a 2016 analysis by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune, 166,000 acres of coastal prairies have been destroyed by development since 2001.

Special Coverage: Hurricane Harvey

Floodwaters reached the roof lines of single-story homes Monday, and people could be heard pleading for help from inside as Harvey kept pouring rain on Houston after a chaotic weekend of rising water and rescues. | Read more »

Instead of being absorbed in the region’s bayous, which are sponges of rainwater that provide natural protection against floods in an area with a long history of Gulf storms, the floodwater takes to the streets and makes deadly aqueducts of the region’s highways and roads, as the harrowing pictures coming from Texas attest.

The situation is made more deadly by allowing more than 7,000 residential buildings to be constructed since 2010 in areas designated as flood zones by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

While troubling, the lack of regulations in Houston has been lauded by some, who argue it allows developers to quickly fill housing and development needs in one of the fastest growing regions in the country, and create density in a city that is attractive for immigrants and refugees from around the world.

As seen by supporters of Houston’s absence of zoning, the potential for experimentation in city-building comes from the lack of mandate to separate residential, commercial and industrial development, like all other major American cities do. Houston doesn’t segregate housing types, letting single-family homes, apartments and townhouses be built side by side. It doesn’t regulate density, allowing high-rises in any part of town.

Critics of the Houston model have long argued that it allows high rises and oil refineries to be built within neighborhoods of single-family homes. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, critics can easily point to a lack of disaster readiness created by such free-wheeling development, which allowed unchecked construction in flood-plain areas.

Don’t expect things to get better. Even with the knowledge that storms are predicted to become more frequent and more severe, President Donald Trump signed an executive order two weeks ago rolling back regulations designed to make areas such as Houston better protected against floods. The 2015 rule, an executive order by President Barack Obama, established a federal infrastructure standard to reduce the risk of flooding damage. Trump said he was “streamlining” the approval process by revoking it.

Given its history of floods, Houston could be better served by requiring development to address flood risk. Not counting the storm still pounding Houston, in the past two years, 16,000 buildings have been flooded, and $1 billion in damage was caused by the so-called “Tax Day” and “Memorial Day” floods. In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison killed almost two dozen people and caused $5 billion in damage in Harris County, which includes Houston.

Despite such recent history, the state is spending billions of dollars to construct the Grand Parkway, a third beltway loop around metro Houston that will pave over large portions of the Katy Prairie, a crucial part of the Western Gulf coastal grasslands.

As Kriston Capps argued on CityLab, Houston after Harvey would’ve been the first test of the Obama rule. Not so anymore. The city’s great build-out will continue, as will the storms and the flooding.

Without rules governing land use or federal regulations for flood preparedness, the scenes coming from Houston this week will become sadly familiar in coming years, Capps said.

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