No, Flooding in Houston Was Not Caused By a Lack of Zoning Laws

The "development kills" crowd has failed to take into account the very creation of Houston and its long and colorful history of being underwater.


U.S. Marine Corps Assualt Amphibian Vehicles move through Hurricane Harvey flooded areas to north of Beaumont, Texas
Malcolm McClendon/Polaris/Newscom

What caused the devastating floods in Houston?

A simpleton might answer that it was the massive hurricane that dumped 50-plus inches of water on the city is the span of a few days. Which is why the mainstream media do not hire simpletons. According to them it was the city's almost criminal lack of zoning.

"The real villains in Harvey flood: urban sprawl and the politicians who allowed it," reads a Guardian headline. "Houston is Drowning—In Its Freedom From Regulation" says Newsweek. Outlets like the Washington Post have pointed the finger at Houston's "wild west growth", spurred by a lack of comprehensive urban planning, as a reason for the severity of the recent floods.

The claim being made is the absence of zoning—making Houston unique among major American cities—has allowed developers to pave over with impermeable concrete otherwise absorptive prairie and wetlands, thus preventing them from soaking up storm water exacerbating flooding.

The idea's surface plausibility falls apart in the specifics.

According to one estimate, Houston's paving over of wetlands cost it the ability to absorb four billion gallons of water. Hurricane Harvey dumped 19 trillion gallons of water on the city.

The "development kills" crowd has also failed to take into account the very creation of Houston and its long and colorful history of being underwater. "Downtown Houston has suffered a major flood on average about once a decade as far back as records extend in the 1830s," said Phil Magnus, an economic historian and Houston native in a recent blog post.

In 1935, when Houston was sprawl-free, the Buffalo Bayou—the main waterway through the downtown—rose some 54 feet during a flood. The bayourose 40 feet during the worst of Harvey.

Houston's landscape, not its land use policies, are responsible for this persistent flooding, Magnus says. The city is incredibly flat, with only small streams and bayous to drain away storm water. That topography is spectacularly ill-equipped to drain the sudden deluges of hurricane rain.

The flat, rural prairie around Interstate 10 in far west Houston, which saw some of the worst flooding, has very little development, Magnus says.

And even if one were to accept that sprawling development makes flooding considerably worse, there is no reason to assume zoning would improve it, says Ray Lehmann of the R Street Institute.

"The way that zoning has been used in most places is to deter density," Lehmann tells Reason. While Houston is the only major city to not have zoning regulation "most of the country looks like Houston, and, much like Houston, has sprawl."

When compared to other major U.S. cities, Houston actually has more permeable land, not less.

Only 39 percent of the city's land is taken up by impervious surface coverings according to U.S. Forest Service data. That's compares to 41 percent in New Orleans, 54 percent in Los Angeles, and 61 percent in New York City—all cities with traditional zoning regulations.

Houston's lack of zoning—far from causing damage to the city—may also help it rebuild faster than other cities seriously damaged by storms.

"I think it will actually be a more dynamic rebuilding which you wouldn't see in places that have a more traditional zoning code," Vanessa Brown Calder, an urban policy analyst with the Cato Institute, tells Reason. "There is just a lot more ability to move and make changes given what they've learned from the damage associated with the storm."

Contrast that with New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, she says, where rigid zoning codes prevented damaged developments in flooded parts of the city to be rebuilt elsewhere.

While the media spin their groundless narratives of the destructive power of zoning, the people of Houston will be rebuilding, safe in the knowledge they won't be told how to do it by some zoning—or editorial—board.

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  1. There was a bullshitter here pitching this crap earlier in the week.
    The supposed 5:1 ratio of precipitation to absorption presumes that the absorption would have happened in the time required.
    Furthermore, I presume there are storm sewers in all that concrete, and they are going to handle the excess far better than the hope it just ‘soaks in’.

  2. The middle of the Atlantic Ocean is flooded with thousands of feet of water 24/7/365, has been at least for the last 30 years or so, and not a peep out of the national news media about this.

  3. Thank you for bringing some facts to highlight the idiocy of the big government hacks that now pose as “journalists.”

  4. don’t worry teh federal government will tell Houston how to spend its money if they want any and it will include all sorts of new zoning and drainage and construction standards. may as well abandon the place now.

  5. did the zoning help during Hurricane Sandy? NOPE

    1. Come now. Don’t you remember how zoning laws kept New Orleans flood-free during Katrina?

  6. One other thing to highlight about the news coverage. The news likes to focus on all of the urban areas that have been flooded because… duh… there are lots of people living there. You aren’t seeing all of the rural, undeveloped areas because nobody cares that some sagebrush and cacti are under water.

  7. Damn anti-gub’ment Texas!!! If only they had zoned all the poor minorities into dense inner city Houston, then we could have had an ever bigger crisis on our hands! Everyone knows that inner city Houston is a floodplain on a slough, if all the poor darkies were there then we could have been doing more blaming Rethuglicans! Dammit, now all we get to do it mock Joel Van Osteen…

  8. Houston has pretty thorough storm drainage requirements.

    “No zoning” doesn’t mean no building codes.


    1. Current document


      1. Holy shit! 373 pages required for adherence to “no zoning”!!!

        HOW MANY, pray tell, HOW many pages are required for adherence to actual ZONING?!??!

        Inquiring minds want to know…

        1. “HOW MANY, pray tell, HOW many pages are required for adherence to actual ZONING?!??!”

          In San Francisco, the number is whatever results from ‘public input’ by every fucking busy-body within 10 blocks who thinks they know more about architecture than the guy you’re paying. For as many meetings as that or those busy-bodies have time to schedule.

        2. By no zoning they mean minimal restrictions on what kind of business you have. They don’t mean no engineering standards.

  9. How can anything in a human inhabited city absorb 19 trillion gallons of water, how can people be this obtuse.

    1. “…how can people be this obtuse.”


    2. “but, Hillary won the meaningless popular vote!!!”

      That’s how they can be that obtuse.

    3. Yes 19 trillion gallons of water – one graphic I saw was that it was enough water to cover all 48 states with 0.18″ of water. That is a freaking huge amount of water (I got my share).

  10. I remember the good ol’ days when bad shit just happened without having to blame someone.

    1. Yep. In those good ol’ days, those who blamed others for their own mistakes were called whiners, and shunned by ‘polite society’.
      Now they run the place.

  11. Recycled post follows…
    Well, the really-really fucked-up part of it is (if you research the details) that the local powers in Houston FORBID you from digging up or trucking in dirt to raise the foundation of your new house!!! This is on a socialistic theory… If I raise up my house foundation (do not let flood waters inundate my house), then I am “displacing” flood waters onto my neighbors!!! The same argument could be applied to the volume of waters displaced by the PILLARS upon which I place my raised house!!! There is NO real incentive to protect oneself, when building on ANY kind of flood plain!!!
    We are ALL on a flood plain, according to Noah’s Arc and Globabble Warmererering, and the melting of the polar ice caps!!! And Government Almighty mandates that we must all suffer; we can NOT protect ourselves! I could probably find a source link for this (try Houston Chronicle newspaper), but I am too lazy, and believers (one way or another) believe what they want to believe, anyway…
    PS, also please do NOT float your boat by my flooded house, because that, too, “displaces water onto” my house… Can I sue the Government Almighty boats that come to rescue me? The money to the lawyers would stimulate the economy, ya know…

    1. We are making progress on being allowed to defend ourselves with firearms…

      WHEN will we be allowed to defend ourselves and our families, with raised dwelling foundations?!?!?

      1. “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give it’s light, and the stars will fall from the sky – – – – “

    2. “If I raise up my house foundation (do not let flood waters inundate my house), then I am “displacing” flood waters onto my neighbors!!!”

      I did not know this, but similarly, the dikes along the Mississippi are regulated to a great degree (pretty sure this is from “Control of Nature”, McPhee).
      Raise your dike and the flood water pours over the one on the opposite bank. And as I recall, shooting someone for weakening YOUR dike is not considered bad form.
      I happened to fly over one of the monster Mississippi floods in ’93, and your claim that we all live in the flood plain sure looked true. That Boeing 7X7 took a while to fly between the western shoreline of the river and the eastern one.
      I still favor your choice ot living location, with you paying what the (non-distorted) insurance market says it costs to live there.
      As was suggested to that lefty twit regarding bottled-water pricing, make preparations and have a boat handy.

    3. Almost all home built in the Houston area are already higher than the local streets by several feet. Streets are used as secondary drainage.

      Yes, you are generally not allowed to raise it even more but some flood prone areas have been raising their houses by as much as 5 to 10 feet (I would move).

      There have also been neighborhoods in the houston area where the home owners were either bought out or were unable to get insurance if they rebuilt because there area flooded way too often. But that was quite a while back.

      1. There is a nearby community where the houses are a few feet below street level. They have flooded a few times in the last 20 years. I don’t fcking understand it. Build somewhere else.

        1. Why should they? The same people second-guessing the need for magic retro-regulation are almost certainly the same people who advocate for free flood plain insurance from the fedgov.

  12. So sayeth the WaPo:

    “But in a city built on a low-lying coastal plain, on “black gumbo,” clay-based soil that is among the least absorbent in the nation, many experts say those approaches no longer suffice. They say that new homes should be elevated and that construction should be prohibited in some flood-prone areas.”

    So, overall “square mileage” of absorbent soil probably isn’t very relevant.

    BUT, if SQRLSY is correct about that house-raising regulation, then maybe, juust maybe, the Houston municipal gov should consider allowing people to raise their houses first before mandating it. And if they’re worried about people building houses low anyway, maybe, juuust maybe, stop having the feds give people free flood insurance.

    Not to mention even the finger-waggers constantly concede throughout their article that the damage from a 50-inch flood would only be slightly (imperceptibly, I’m guessing) leavened by more permeable space.

    Here’s the real numbers for libertarians to keep in mind though:

    Dead from the last 3 years of flooding: -50

    Dead from the economic death of the Rust Belt and following suicides, opioid overdoses, cirrhosis, and cancer amongst fired rural workers prevented from moving into the new jobs in cities and suburbs by a combination of regulations amongst which zoning laws are among the most prominent: 100,000+

  13. …but there was flooding. Flooding is a bad outcome. All bad outcomes have to be someone’s fault. We must assign blame. Who can we blame?

    1. George W. Bush, obviously. He’s from Texas.

  14. The city is incredibly flat, with only small streams and bayous to drain away storm water. That topography is spectacularly ill-equipped to drain the sudden deluges of hurricane rain.

    It took me only about 2 minutes on Google-Earth looking at elevation readings around the Houston area to realize that being flat as a pancake, rather than building in a low elevation area, was the reason for the flooding.

    As a born-again cynic, I fully expected to see that the flooding was Katrina: Part Deux, i.e. dimwits building below sea level. Looking at the maps, I found my cynicism was replaced by sympathy.

    I still hate urban sprawl, and cities in general, but more government would not have prevented this.

  15. Deniers that Regulations work are the same deniers of Climate change.
    Houston’s problems were multiplied by lack of regulations, same goes for New Orleans.
    Regulations are there to protect the public from the profiteering corporations.
    How’s the Arkema chemical plant doing ? Again read about the lack of regulations and it spelled disaster.
    Use common sense people.
    Just like Climate change, you can deny it, but you cannot stop it………………….

    1. @LaBeets
      Early front runner for “Stupidest Comment of the Month”.

      You do realize that the actual, real, literal content of your post is “Regulations are magic!”. don’t you?

    2. Common sense is an oxymoron.

    3. So you’re another follower of the ‘if I say it over and over again it must be true’ school of epistemology.

  16. Should have been zoned 300 feet above sea level

  17. Well, I’m guessing that the civil engineering wisdom of the NY TImes, WaPo, HuffPo, PooPo, etc., would recommend not only more and more strictly-enforced zoning, but that it be zoning for steeper hillsides, ravines, arroyos and such draining into strictly-zoned creeks, canals and other carefully curated watercourses.

    I mean, really. If the progs just apply the same attitude towards the rest of physical reality that they use with regard to gender and race, it’s all a simple matter of semiotics, innit?

  18. For every complicated problem, there is a simple, easy-to-understand, wrong answer.

  19. You are right, the flooding was caused by the monsoon rains that hit the area every year causing massive flooding every year.

    The flooding is expected so the roads are built below grade to be canals and rivers to move the flood waters to the ocean.

    So, the development policy in Texas is to build assuming floods, except building to prevent flood damage requires paying workers to do a lot more work, and that is too costly.

    The high costs of paying workers kills jobs, so in Texas they create jobs by not requiring workers get paid.

    Look at all the workers who have jobs working for free rescuing people who have been flooded out of their homes, and working for free to rip out the flood damaged stuff and dumping it in the street to be hauled away for free.

  20. What do they think would happen if NY had 50 inches of rain? Irma might show them.

  21. In zoned areas prone to flooding codes typically require businesses such as Walmarts, which are frequently built on grassland or marshland because they are empty and flat, to be built on elevated pads. That’s great for the businesses. Everyone else nearby floods twice as deep as a result because there are less places for the water to go. Sometimes there’s just too much stuff and it’s time to stop.

  22. If your house or apartment building is damaged by flood, zoning is fairly irrelevant because those uses are vested in those locations. The more relevant issue is the number of buildings constructed in the 100-year floodplain.

  23. I’m getting tired of paying for flood damage when properties are flooded again and again. Build where you want. Just don’t expect FEMA and flood insurance to make you whole. OK, Houston?

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