by Bruce Dunlavy
(My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)


“Everybody hates government until they need it.” –Clarence Page

The flood waters have receded, and the colossal extent of the damage to southeastern Texas is in fuller view.  An immediate six billion dollars in Federal government help is on its way, but the State’s governor, Greg Abbott, has estimated that it will take between $100 billion and $200 billion to complete the task.

What is that task?  Is it merely to “make whole’ those people and communities that have suffered losses?  To replace lost homes and furnishings, to repair roads and bridges, to tear down and replace public and private places of business?  Should it not also be to help ensure that such devastation does not recur when the next massive storm hits the region, as it surely will?

No one can deny that Hurricane Harvey was an enormous natural disaster. However, it is important to know that the effects of this natural disaster were compounded by a man-made disaster – namely, the boundless, unencumbered development and sprawl of the Houston area with little, if any, regard for environmental consequences.

At this time of public concern and the nationwide commitment to assist Harvey’s victims, there is a part of the story that is not being made clear, and which must be told. It’s not kind, but it needs to be said while everybody is still thinking about the situation: Human error, human folly, and human lack of foresight made a very bad situation very much worse.

Part of the flooding problem in Houston is that it is a city founded, settled, and run by people who have always wanted freedom from government regulation. Texas as a whole is a State committed to individual liberty and a small government that keeps its nose out of private affairs and private business.  Houston, especially, has maintained that attitude from its founding until now. One of the salient manifestations of it is that Houston is by far the largest city in the country with no zoning regulations. Houston’s citizenry has never had municipal zoning, and every time an issue to implement it has appeared on the ballot, Houston’s electors have rejected it.

Theoretically, in Houston you could put a hog-butchering facility in the middle of a neighborhood of $500,000 homes.  Of course that doesn’t happen, because the price of land there is too high. Thus zoning restrictions may not exist in law, but they exist in fact. It’s the free market at work. But can the market take care of more than just the most expensive neighborhoods?

The free market can do the job in the slaughterhouse-in-an-expensive-neighborhood situation, where an immediate undesirable effect is apparent and local residents have the financial power to stop it.  In that sense, there is zoning regulation in Houston.  That is to say, there are certain limitations on land use, but it is very rarely government-induced.  It’s from the landowners and developers (i.e., the market).

The free market, however, does a much poorer job of planning for future problems.  That is where the concept of “commonwealth” – a process for determining when public needs outweigh private wants – comes into the discussion.  Part of government regulation is mandated urban planning, and Houston has wanted none of that.

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Houston is particularly vulnerable to severe hurricane damage. This was well known before Harvey, and there are numerous reasons for it.  Some are climatic or geological. Hurricanes are not uncommon, nor are their effects unexpected. The coastal area from southeast Texas to southeast Florida has the highest single-storm rainfall events in the continental United States. In addition, Houston lies on a flood plain.  Most of Texas is flat, and Houston is particularly flat; the slope of its land is less than the slope of a shower floor.

Ensuring that colossal rainfalls can be quickly drained away should be at the top of the preparation list, but it isn’t.  There is no requirement that developers limit concrete, asphalt, and other “impervious covers” so that green areas can be maintained to help control rainfall runoff.  Nor is there a requirement that development include analysis of transportation needs to make sure roadways can at least partially accommodate the kind of traffic they might encounter in case of a natural disaster such as a hurricane.

Adding to the existing problems is the excessive pumping of water and oil from beneath the ground under Houston. This causes the ground to subside, in some areas losing eighty percent of its already low altitude above sea level. The effects of climate change and rising sea levels will continue to exacerbate this problem as time progresses. Adding to the problems is the fact that water and sewage treatment plants, landfills, industrial areas, and low-income housing are all more likely to be located in the most flood-prone areas.

Southeastern Texas in general, and Houston in particular, are now in a horrible situation, and they are calling for a lot of government help. Of course they should receive it, but they must also do their part to prevent a recurrence of this kind of disaster when the next big hurricane arrives, as it inevitably will. It is vital that Houston take an active role in saving itself by implementing a rigorous and comprehensive urban planning concept.  This means giving up some of the freedom-from-regulation attitude they are so enamored of.

If the people of Houston and its environs want government to come to their rescue when terrible things happen, they must accept that government is necessary to limit the severity of the damage caused by terrible things.  This means they must take a proactive role in the defense of their city and themselves by establishing and enforcing flood-damage mitigation regulations. The time to seek government help is when you need a guardrail to keep cars from going over a cliff, not when you have to rescue all the people smashed to pieces down at the bottom of it.