To Protect Against the Next Harvey, Forget Zoning and Roll Back Government Meddling Instead

Existing regulations impoverish our cities, and perverse subsidies increase the damage done by catastrophic storms.


"Houston's lack of zoning left city vulnerable to catastrophic floods," nags a piece by Nicholas Deshais in the Spokane Spokesman-Review. Quartz's Ana Campoy and David Yanofsky agreed that "Houston's flooding shows what happens when you ignore science and let developers run rampant."

Uh oh! It looks like we better clamp down to prevent this from happening again. Better a little zoning than to risk another hellscape of destruction from the next Hurricane Harvey.

Except… it's all nonsense. Any city would have suffered from a storm like Harvey. And government meddling has already done enough damage—which would only be made worse by land-use regulations meant to protect us against the sort of event that happens every few centuries.

For starters, Harvey was a soaker of near-unprecedented power.

"For the United States, Harvey is a record breaker," notes Randy Cerveny, a professor of geographical sciences at Arizona State University and Rapporteur on Extreme Records for the United Nations/World Meteorological Organization. "It's the wettest storm we've seen since records have been held."

But we're going to get more storms like this, right? Because of global warming and all that? Maybe. Or maybe not.

"For the 21st century, some models project no change or a small reduction in the frequency of hurricanes, while others show an increase in frequency," according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. "More recent work shows that there is a trade-off between intensity and frequency—that as warmer oceans bolster hurricane intensity, fewer storms actually form."

But, again, Harvey is a real outlier by any measure of storms. It's not the sort of event you expect on a regular basis—a "1-in-1,000-year flood event" according to the University of Wisconsin's Space Science and Engineering Center.

How do you plan for that? You really don't

"50 inches of rain would have devastated any city," points out Daniel Herriges of Strong Towns, an organization that advocates for flexible and financially viable approaches to urban planning. "The loss of wetlands from 1992 to 2010 accounted for about 4 billion gallons of lost capacity to absorb storm water. Harvey had already dropped 15 trillion gallons as of two days ago." (He wrote on August 30.)

Herriges also reminds us that Houston isn't exactly a private property free-for-all (unfortunately). The city does without use-based zoning, "but it regulates land use in many other ways, such as minimum-parking requirements. Many neighborhoods have homeowners associations and deed restrictions that limit what can be built. And Houston's suburbs largely do have zoning."

It's difficult to see how adding more traditional zoning to the mix would have kept neighborhoods from being drowned by sheets of rain pouring down at a rate we might expect to see once in a millennium.

But would it be worthwhile to tighten land-use rules, just in case?

That sort of calculation works only if you assume that tighter restrictions come with few or no costs. But mandating that cities be built to be proof against the sort of storm that our distant descendants might see again will make those cities unaffordable and unwelcoming to people in the here and now.

"Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified, particularly in the high-growth metropolitan areas increasingly fueling the national economy. The accumulation of such barriers – including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes – has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand," the Obama administration warned last September. "The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers' access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions."

That concern isn't a theoretical one. Examining declining American mobility, the Wall Street Journal recently reported, "While small-town home prices have only modestly recovered from the housing market meltdown, years of restrictive land-use regulations have driven up prices in metropolitan areas to the point where it is difficult for all but the most highly educated professionals to move."

Decreased mobility hurts workers, but also knee-caps entrepreneurs, since "[t]his drop in mobility is not only keeping rural residents from climbing a ladder to better livelihoods, it is choking off the labor supply for employers in areas where jobs are plentiful."

Researchers from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found that "employers in Napa and Marin were challenged with filling their full-time positions and keeping them filled due to the high cost of local housing and the extreme traffic congestion that comes with moving to lower cost areas."

Those high California housing costs "are self-inflicted," according to a report from Chapman University's Center for Demographics and Policy. "The result of misguided policies that have tended to inflate land prices and drive up the cost of all kinds of housing." The report specifies that "land use policies have generally included 'urban containment' strategies that impose 'urban growth boundaries' and related policies that significantly restrict or even prohibit new suburban detached housing tracts from being built on greenfield land."

So the zoning rules and other land-use restrictions that some people call for to protect us from the destructive force of the next Hurricane Harvey instead leave our communities poorer and with fewer resources to deal with the next storm—without offering any actual protection.

But there's still a place for changes in government policy to deal with destructive storms. For starters, we could stop taxing the population to subsidize the housing preferences of people who build in areas prone to flooding.

"Congress has mandated federally regulated or insured lenders to require flood insurance on mortgaged properties that are located in areas at high risk of flooding," the Federal Emergency Management Agency trumpets on a Web page touting the government's National Flood Insurance Program. "But even if your property is not in a high risk flood area, your mortgage lender may still require you to have flood insurance."

But why a national—meaning government—flood insurance program? Because insuring properties against floods in areas prone to be submerged from time to time is a bad bet. Any company issuing such polices at other than high premiums is likely to lose money, so private companies backed away from the market, and the government stepped in in 1968. The federal government promptly discovered that taxing everybody to keep premiums low and spread costs is still a bad bet. The National Flood Insurance Program was $24.6 billion in the hole before Hurricane Harvey.

"Critics say the program's subsidies encourage people to live in flood-prone areas since they are spared the full cost of insuring them," Pro Publica noted in a piece after the latest storm.

Florida—no stranger to water falling from the sky or roaring in sideways—has been rolling back limits on rates and limiting access to state-subsidized insurance. The result has been a return of private insurers, who charge premium that reflect actual risk. That has the added effect of encouraging people to consider the full cost of settling in flood-prone areas—and maybe looking to higher ground instead.

With the National Flood Insurance Program set to expire at the end of this month, it's as good a time as any to consider similar reforms for the national program.

Will asking property owners to shoulder the full costs of living in risky area (if they still choose to live there) prevent another Hurricane Harvey? No. Nothing can fully prepare us for the devastating results of once-in-1,000-years storms. But ending subsidies for risky development makes more sense than imposing restrictive policies that reduce opportunity and prosperity, and deprive our people and communities of the resources that will help them deal with disasters to come.

Planning for the future doesn't mean designing our lives around the occasional catastrophe. It means refraining from encouraging people to off-load their costs on their neighbors, and allowing for a dynamic and free society that has the means to respond to what life brings our way.

NEXT: Abe Lincoln's Visit to Richmond, Va. Caused Controversy, Back in 2002

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  1. Worth pointing out that Christian Britschgi’s article says

    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.

    It’s just all-round fake news and even fake opinion, since I don’t believe for a minute that these clowns actually cared about its accuracy in the slightest. Someone misremembered some ancient drunken-college-daze factoid and it spread and mutated until someone else spewed it as if it were news.

    1. I think I read that Houston’s soil is less permeable than other areas per square acre.

      Doesn’t change the fact that zoning regulation kills more rural workers through suicide, opioids and cirrhosis in a month than all of Houston’s flooding in the last decade combined.

    2. Zoning really should not permit dense urban areas in places that can be hit by hurricanes and storm surge. Going to have to relocate NYC!


      1. I wouldn’t mind my city relocating to a place with better weather.

      2. No, zoning should require hurricanes and other storms to obtain permits before coming on shore.

  2. Funny that you’d criticize a writer from Spokane about hurricane preparedness – Spokane’s got more zoning and they don’t have any problems with hurricanes, now do they? Check and mate, dummy.

  3. Deshais would be another journalist opining from his nether regions about a sunject he has limited knowledge of in suppory of the heavy hand of government being given free reign.

  4. Mr. Tuccille may not have knowledge of the impact that paved over flood planes cause. While the flooding from Harvey is unique in magnitude, building in a flood prone area is “OK” because the Federal government sells fairly inexpensive flood insurance. Without it, many homes across the country would be uninsurable. Not only does it include areas of Huston but expensive holiday homes. These properties can flood frequently at a cost to the tax base.

    It isn’t just Huston. There are rivers across the nation that have homes in flood prone areas. Cities don’t care because without such building they would have a lower tax base.

    This isn’t a libertarian issue; it is an economic one.

    1. People wouldn’t build there without federal flood insurance. Government meddling — that’s the issue.

    2. It’s amazing what a little thought will do…

      My condo is almost 200 feet above the nearest body of water- and it’s a “drainage” creek.

      You pick your poison. South coast/East coast get hurricanes. California has 4 seasons- Monsoon, Wildfire, Drought, and Eatrhquake. Here in the Midwest, we get tornados and the remains of tropical storm/ hurricanes that decide to plant their ass over you and deliver 20 inches of rain in 24 hours.

  5. I live in usa and life is worth living comfortably for me and my family now and really have never seen goodness shown to me this much in my life as I am a mother who struggles with three children and I have been going through a problem as seriously as my husband found a terrible accident last two weeks, and the doctors states that he needs to undergo a delicate surgery for him to be able to walk again and I could not pay the bills, then your surgery went to the bank to borrow and reject me saying that I have no credit card, from there i run to my father and he was not able to help, then when I was browsing through yahoo answers and i came across a loan lender MR TONY HARTON, offering loans at affordable interest rate and i have been hearing about so many scams on the internet but at this my desperate situation, I had no choice but to give it an attempt and surprisingly it was all like a dream, I got a loan of $ 50,000 and I paid for my husband surgery and thank God today is good and you can walk and is working and the burden is longer so much on me more and we can feed well and my family is happy today and i said to myself that I will mourn aloud in the world of the wonders of God to me through this lender GOD fearing MR TONY HARTON and I would advise anyone in genuine and serious need of loan to contact this God-fearing man on through .. and I want you all to pray for this man for me

  6. New Jersey and New York have zoning out the wazoo. Somehow the zoning rules didn’t prevent massive destruction from Hurricane Sandy.

    1. Somehow the zoning rules didn’t prevent massive destruction from Hurricane Sandy.

      Which was entirely unexpected by anyone who had no knowledge of the history of the NJ/NY coastline. The rest of us knew that this was not the unprecedented event that every one seems to have thought it was.

      1. I am descended from people who lived in New Jersey (secret shameful confession. :))

        Historically, my people took summer vacations on the Jersey shore. What they did was construct expendable wood frame shacks. Those that survived the storms were hauled backed from wherever they came to rest and reset on their foundations for next summer. Contents that survived were dried out and kept, those that didn’t were discarded. Noone thought that they needed insurance of FEMA to reimburse them or bail them out.

        If they heard there was a storm coming they packed up and went back to Trenton or Haddonfield or wherever and that was that.

        1. I have heard similar anecdotes from the Florida Keys to almost everywhere else on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

  7. One reasonably easy way to get rid of NFIP (or to phase it out – ie one claim and that land parcel is no longer eligible forever) is simply to point out the distributional impact of NFIP beneficiaries.

    23% of the properties receiving subsidies are vacation homes.

    40% of the properties are worth more than $500k. 12% worth more than $1m (compare to median home price in US of $190k).

    Subsidy recipients are overwhelmingly in TX/FL/LA/MS/SC so it is clearly a regional subsidy not a ‘national’ anything. That said – I do think that the surveying work and the attempt to determine the relative flood risk of land lying along rivers/coasts/marshes is a legitimate public good and should be, at least, part of an interstate compact dealing with watershed management.

    1. Even worse are repetitive claims. Something like 1% of insured properties account for 25-30% of all claims. And according to an analysis funded by Pew, “a $69,000 Mississippi home flooded 34 times in 32 years, resulting in $663,000 in claims.”

  8. I think mccati’s post above is actually sincere. One long crazy run-on sentence in praise of some guy named Tony who gave her a loan. Normally, I think of these kinds of posts as scams, but this one looks like a heartfelt tribute to a genuinely good guy named Tony who floated the loan. It warmed my heart to read such a thing among the cold, analytical pages of Reason. I am going to go see this Tony guy about a loan and I hope by tomorrow I will be writing a long weepy run-on sentence of praise in these here comments.

  9. I still have yet to read one of the “zoning would have prevented the Houston flooding” that addresses the impermeability of the East Texas black gumbo clay, which predominates East Texas soils below about two inches of top soil.

    The permeability of this East Texas black gumbo clay is about 0.25 cm/hour (except when cracked by drought, which was not the case in Houston.)

    This compares with the permeability of sand at 5.00 cm/hour and loam at 1.3 cm/hour.

    Certainly East Texas black gumbo clay is more permeable than concrete, but 0.25 cm/hr isn’t going prevent flooding when 50 inches of rain falls in 24 hours (7 cm/hr).

    It would seem that certain writers — like NYT’s Krugman — just love government regulations of all sorts so much that they’ll take every opportunity to advocate more without doing the most basic of research.

    1. If I found one of these flood prone areas that I like so much that I wanted to live their I would consider three differnt options when building:

      1) Building on pad of fill so that my floor elevation was higher than the historical maximum flood elevation. This is not possible many places: a) because local planning laws do not allow it and/or b) because any reasonable slope from such an embankment could extend beyond my property boundaries.

      2) Building on piers high enough to raise my floor elevation above historically high flood levels. Alternatively, if I already lived there and wanted to rebuild, jack the house up and set it on piers or an earthwork pad as in 1).

      3) Build a two storey house with a sacrificial ground floor that could be restored at minimal cost.

      Most of these option do not exist today dues to planning regulations which are completely different from zoning.

      I was interested to find out that it was only after Hurricane Sandy that NYC changed their building requirements so that owners could put emergency generators on upper floors rather than in the basement of buildings.

      1. Option 3 is what happens in seriously flood-prone coastal parts of the Houston/Galveston area. A huge part of the problem is that areas around Houston that never flooded before were washed away.

        Two subdivisions about a mile away from my parents’ house, which had not flooded in my memory, were flooded to the point that you couldn’t see the windows on the first story. And my memory time frame includes several major hurricanes and tropical storms, including Allison in 2001, which was, to my knowledge, the previous rainfall record in a short span for the area. The first house I owned didn’t flood during Allison, but had water to the doorstep. That whole neighborhood flooded during Harvey. We got at or above our annual rainfall in less than three days. The floods in my parents’ town were caused by a continental U.S. record 51.88″ of rain in the watershed of the bayou that claimed the two neighborhoods mentioned above (among others).

        Another issue – this one still affecting people today – is (mis?)management of reservoirs. Two reservoirs on the west side of Houston were overflowing, and so the release rates from them (into the overflowing bayous!) was ramped up to prevent catastrophic failure. Homes downstream from them that had been safe up to that point rapidly flooded long after the worst of the rain had passed. I’ve heard unverified reports that the reservoirs were practically full days before the storm hit.

        1. Well, a big part of the problem of understanding and planning related to natural disasters is that human memory (and even human “history”) is stupidly short compared to frequency times for geologic events. People in general, and most engineers, like to use recorded data. But when natural cycles, or probabilities of random events, range into the thousands to hundreds of thousands of years (still a geologic blink of the eye), our predictions (and mititgations) fail.

          “Never happened here before” is lame thinking, like watching waves on the beach for 10 minutes, and later being shocked when the tide comes in.

      2. I built my own beach house in Waveland, MS back in 1970, 8 feet above the ground, with masonry or treated-wood on the ground level, and regular house above the 8 foot height. A garage and porch and store-room was the ground level. In the decade we lived there, we had 3 hurricanes with flood water as high as 5 feet or so–so no serious damage done. Finally sold the house and moved north–no problems. Then Katrina came and completely washed the whole thing away. But, I was not the owner anymore!

    2. OBVIOUSLY, government zoning would have such an impact that it would have drastically changed the impermeability of the soil. [/sarc]

  10. RE: To Protect Against the Next Harvey, Forget Zoning and Roll Back Government Meddling Instead

    Good luck with that.
    Too many entrenched bureaucrats depend on zoning and large government programs for their jobs, pay and benefits.

  11. High prices for homes are the consequence of excessive population. The supply of land is fixed.

    Of course, if you equate a rabbit hutch to a home . . .

    1. Maybe try taking a drive outside city limits once in a while, Eirk.

    2. EirkKengaard|9.5.17 @ 6:35PM|#
      “High prices for homes are the consequence of excessive population. The supply of land is fixed.”

      Please off yourself. The rest of us will have more land.

  12. Flood insurance? Insurance? All are a money making gamble (con) of people who ignore potentials for such disasters. Lower costs of building and group funded monies to rebuild, work against the self sufficiency of the individual. Building in flood plains and expecting government assistance for such foolhardy enterprise is the quest of our dependent society. I’ll have none of it and have little sympathy for such a crap-shoot.

  13. Houston already has almost no zoning.

    1. Yeah, but it has a shitload of planning.

      Although you can build almost anything any where (which is a good thing), anything you build must conform to a shitload of city planning regulations.

      1. Also, see below the response to your squirrel.

  14. Houston already has almost no zoning.

    1. Did you read the article?

  15. Of course any city would suffer in a storm like Harvey but not every city would allow volatile chemicals to be stored in a plant within the city limits, close to homes and with no provision that the site house the chemicals that would stop the chain reaction and avoid the explosions. Not every city would allow toxic waste to be stored near residential neighborhoods so that in the event of flooding the surrounding homes would be contaminated by said waste. Not every city would allow housing developments to be constructed down stream from dams so that necessary water release would flood them because there was no channels or green space to absorb the waters. Not every city would have no evacuation plan after experiencing the botched evacuation during Hurricane Ike where ordering people to leave by car, caused massive traffic jams and some deaths. ( No one in Texas ever heard of buses or trains?) Sometimes the freedom to chose can mean the freedom to die because someone else was free to choose.

    1. *sigh*

      A./B. If people were harmed by the chemicals, than the corporation should be fined for trespassing and reckless endangerment, no different than a drunk driver. And if the fines aren’t big enough to deter the next company from doing it again? Fine them *harder*.

      C. If you don’t want to live in a water release path, then *don’t live there*. As long as the government gives you a clear heads-up about what’s in store for you before you move in, you have no right to complain, and there is no social good in allowing land to lie fallow out of fear of a hundred-year flood.

      D. Evacuating a city of 2 million people is not going to magically become logistically feasible via the alleged miracle of public transportation: to say nothing of the fact that Houston’s no-evacuation plan *worked*, with only a dozen deaths after the rainiest storm in Texas history.

      So, to sum up: 2 of your examples involve clear violations of the NAP, and the following 2 are not examples of anything of concern.

  16. Since natural and man-made phenomena can devastate an area of tens to hundreds of square miles, perhaps we should question the wisdom of encouraging millions of people to live in such an area–and make those people potential victims to a single event.

    Imagine that instead of 6 million people in greater Houston, which bore the brunt of Harvey’s rainfall and induced flooding, there were ten separate cities of 600,000 spaced along the Texas coast, and only 2 or maybe 3 were impacted by Harvey.

  17. FEMA needs to be disbanded and take its low interest loans with it. The entire concept of the Feds coming in to save the day removes the consequences for living in a high risk area. If all that was removed, people would have to deal with the real consequences of their actions like paying sky high insurance for living near the ocean or have no insurance at all.
    I don’t hear anyone bitching about how they can spend the weekend fishing in the ocean or laying on the beach or body surfing when their ISN’T a hurricane. They didn’t invite me to come down and visit but now want my money to come stay there forever?
    No thanks.

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