Solutions After the Storm

The digital ink is pouring out over what can be done about the flood damage resulting from more frequent rain events. And amid that chatter I probably should reiterate that perhaps not much can be done about 30-50 inches of rain in a few days, a number larger that even the wettest state’s annual rainfall numbers. But even writing that sentence worries me for a different reason.

My biggest worry from this result will be that people will write it off as a freak accident, a once in a million occurrence that isn’t likely to happen again. But if I’m reading the news correctly on Houston, three 500 year storms in three years means something definitely needs to be done to make sure that water isn’t a recurring threat. And let’s also be honest about something else. This incidence of more storms isn’t just happening in the United States as climate change knows no boundaries. Just ask Nigeria and Bangladesh whose coverage has likely been overshadowed by Harvey’s coverage.

I really want to focus on possible solutions because as Paul Krugman did this weekend and so many others have before him, there’s a simplistic scolding that is happening without pointing to any solutions outside of leave the wetlands to sop up water.  A few pieces have good information, but for the most part it feels like a waste of everyone’s time to reprint the same stuff about zoning over and over again.

It’s clear we haven’t done a good job educating people about what zoning actually means.  People don’t know what regional planning does or about hydrology or natural systems.  So all they do is blame land use planning by just blaming the nebulous “sprawl” or “zoning”.  Which in turn leaves the argument open to hand waving from opportunists with any agenda on any side.

Peter Coy of Bloomberg Businessweek on NPR

Yeah. Houston is the only major U.S. city that does not have a zoning code. Literally you could just say you want to put up a skyscraper, and you can put it up anywhere you want in Houston.

That’s actually a good thing in my opinion.  It means that if you actually got rid of suburban style development codes embedded in Houston’s process, you might actually need less development on the periphery which is outside of the city limits and in my opinion where the problem of drainage lies. There’s another problem that when there’s no actual zoning everyone thinks their land is worth more than it is but that’s another topic we’ll cover some other time.

And Paul Krugman with the “both sides” argument for Houston and San Francisco has this to say.

Having no zoning, no control, can be disastrous — which is what we’re seeing in Houston now.

Last I checked they had complete control inside the city limit of development, just not over the type of use.  We’ve discussed this before.

And so on and so on. I could post quotes all day as there were so many of them along these same lines. I wrote about these issues in the last post but I wanted this time to write about some of the solutions.

In the NPR piece, Coy mentions the issue of flood insurance and what we might do to keep building from happening in areas that repeatedly flood.

And what the administrator of FEMA told Chris is fascinating. He said, look; maybe what we need is a system where there’s sort of a deductible. If you don’t want to have tough building codes, OK, you don’t have to. But the federal government is not going to come in with so-called first-dollar aid in an emergency. The state or the communities are going to have to put up a whole lot of money of their own money before the feds will consider contributing.

I personally don’t think we should let people rebuild where flooding has happened more than once.  It’s just too risky, especially since if it’s already happened twice in 100 years which is pretty frequent in the grand scheme of things.

The Dutch always have a few good ideas. I thought this process thinking was instructive and this Mother Jones piece has tons of great ideas.

Aerts says that good flood control rests on three pillars: first, fortification to keep water out; second, buildings that can withstand flooding; and third, resources for evacuation and reconstruction. The United States does fine on the third pillar, but fails on the first two.

A few of the interesting solutions from the article include thinking about denser development as easier to defend because of a smaller area and greater tax base ie Fortification.  The ability to construct buildings that not only can withstand flooding but make sure that city services are on high ground so they can keep operating is key.  Making sure buildings also don’t add to the runoff problem is important too.

In 2010, [Houston] voted to start taxing landowners $3 for every 1,000 square feet of shingles and pavement that sheds water from their properties into the sewers…Singapore requires builders to create water-retention basins when constructing new homes.

Finally we need better information.  That’s flood plain maps and data that gives people a realistic idea of how much risk they are taking. This is something that Jim Blackburn also mentions in his great Houston Chronicle piece with 12 different solutions.

We need better information about flooding and floodplains – what they are, how dependable the maps are and how to live near our bayous and creeks. Many of us have lived through several 100-year and a few 500-year storms, now. We need better information about what our rainfall future holds for us, and we need to be honest about it. The floodplain maps for the county should be redrawn with new and realistic rainfall amounts.

The next piece actually was what got me to write this blog post.  Here in California we have cap and trade for carbon emissions in an attempt to reduce them.  A major sale this year has the program on the right track but it’s clear that if you don’t want something (carbon, flooding) a system for reducing it is a good place to start.

In Quartz, the idea is put forth about perhaps creating a cap and trade or development rights transfer system for flood protective land. An idea that’s been tossed around is the Texas Coastal Exchange in which farmers and ranchers would be rewarded for undeveloped land.

Under the exchange, landowners in flood-prone areas along the Gulf Coast would be able to sell any floodwater or carbon emissions they can trap in their land. The carbon in a participant’s land would first be measured to set a base point; after some time, the amount of carbon would be re-measured; the rancher would then be able to put the extra accumulated carbon up for sale; buyers, such as companies wanting to reduce their carbon footprint, or needing to offset their emissions to comply with environmental rules, would bid on the carbon. (Something similar would be done with floodwater.) The more the ranchers capture through conservation methods, the bigger the payback.

There are lots of ideas in the pieces I posted and out there elsewhere.  It’s ridiculous to continue to have the “zoning” or “land use” argument without thinking of actual solutions that might help with the next rain event. I’m a huge fan of watershed design and wetlands protection in addition to greater density but the plans to do those things need to be realistic.

Listen to the Talking Headways Podcast


…the first thing I read every morning is the newsletter to see what’s been out there. It’s great to have an aggregator that pulls everything together so nicely.

Joe Cortright, City Observatory

I think that the email newsletter that you do every morning is the best one that I get, and I get a lot of them.

Mary Newsom, The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute

Really is the best daily urban newsletter out there.

Eric Jaffe, Editorial Director Sidewalk Labs


To Receive The Overhead Wire in Your Inbox Daily

Premium Daily Subscription

The Premium Daily Subscription is our most information packed offering, chock full of over 30 pieces of news every single day. Included are popular features such as the quote of the day and the most read article from the previous day. Also included is our weekly roundup for times when you are strapped for time but need to know what’s going on.

Premium Weekly Subscription

The Premium Weekly Subscription is for professionals constantly under a time crunch. We take the most read items from the week before and share them with subscribers along with more in depth analysis of a single popular topic.

Learn More and Subscribe

Top Links

of the past 48 hours

Video of the Day

Friends of The Overhead Wire

Back To Top

Welcome to The Overhead Wire

What Can We Help You Find?

Try Our Newsletter For Free