Hurricanes

The Media Keep Saying Houston's Development Caused It to Flood

An engineer explains why that's wrong.

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Paul Krugman
Aristidis Vafeiadakis/ZUMA Press/Newscom

The flood waters from Hurricane Harvey are mercifully receding from Houston. Unfortunately, the flood of hot takes blaming Houston's development for the floods has continued unabated.

Despite repeated debunking from a wide range of commentators and urban policy experts, the idea that unregulated development caused the massive swell of storm water has seamlessly shifted from off-the-cuff observations to conventional wisdom.

"Houston's sprawl gave the city terrible traffic and an outsized pollution footprint even before the hurricane. When the rains came, the vast paved-over area meant that rising waters had nowhere to go," wrote Paul Krugman in his Monday New York Times column. Roane Carney of The Nation made the same claim last week, saying that Houston has witnessed a continual battle between developers who want to pave over green fields and the engineers and scientists who want to stop that in the name of flood prevention.

For a more informed view, I spoke with Neil Sander, a principal at Dynamic Engineering Consultants, P.C. who holds a master's in civil engineering from Johns Hopkins University. Sander has worked on commercial developments in the Houston area for the past five years.

Far from being an unregulated wild west, Sander says, Houston is typical in how it regulates storm water runoff.

"Houston is governed by a number of different storm water ordinances from different entities," he tells Reason. "The City of Houston, Harris County Flood Control District, and the Texas Department of Transportation all limit the amount of water you can release from a development, regardless of how much you pave." These regulations lay out rules for the quantity and rate of storm water runoff allowed from developments and for how that runoff is managed.

One need only look at the City of Houston's Infrastructure Design Manual for evidence of this.

Nearly a quarter of the 400-page manual—which governs everything from traffic signals to easement requirements—is devoted to storm water collection and drainage requirements, dictating how much water must be detained for a given amount of pavement and how quickly that water must be drained from a property. Other rules cover everything from the design and capacity of drainage ditches and culverts to the minimum spacing of storm water inlets.

Asked how well Houston regulates storm water runoff compared to other areas, Sander says the city does it "as well as anyplace else."

"Some places are very heavily overregulated, especially in the Northeast, but there is nothing uniquely awful about Houston," he tells Reason. "They look at all the same measurements that other municipalities look at. Certainly they have hundreds of pages of regulations on the subject."

Sander adds that the post-Harvey focus on impervious surfaces is misplaced.

According to analysis from the University of Wisconsin's Space Science and Engineering Center, Hurricane Harvey was a 1-in-1,000-year event, dumping nearly 20 trillion gallons of water on the Houston area in only a few days. No amount of planning or infrastructure can handle that kind of water, Sander notes. Even for green fields, "little water beyond a two- or five-year event is infiltrating anyway."

Sander suspects that current calls for more comprehensive urban planning are opportunistic. "Somebody has a solution sitting on a self, waiting for what they think is the right opportunity to roll it out," he says. But when it comes to surviving storms like Harvey, "I can say confidently that introducing zoning to Houston would make zero difference."

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  1. That image is so hilarious it doesn’t need alt-text, so you get a pass on this one, Christian.

  2. Shouldn’t Broken-window Krugman be happy about the flooding? It is a great way to boost the economy.

    1. It’s no alien invasion, but Harvey might do as an economic stimulant until one comes along.

      1. Just imagine how stimulating it would be to get hit by another asteroid like the one the wiped out the dinosaurs!

        1. Stop, STOP! Krugman can only get so hard!

          1. If ONLY we would please the Earth-Mother Spirit, Gaia, by the BANANA policy… NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) being absolutely archaic… BANANA = Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything…

            THEN, at long and turgid lusty-last, THEN-then, and ONLY then, will the Earth-Mother Spirit, Gaia, be appeased, and these dastardly floods will FINALLY be banished for good, for EVER!!!! If’n ye have ears, LISTEN!!!! (Especially when Al Gore Speaketh… Thus Spake The AL!!!!)

    2. I thought it was Bush’s policies and Global Warming that caused the Climate Change that caused the hurricanes.

  3. Woman in the picture: “Is that Paul Krugman? Why… why does he smell like that?”

    1. I assume it has something to do with all the cat piss in his apartment.

      1. The man in that picture has an apartment?

        1. He did, but he burned it do the ground for the greater good.

  4. We could just conduct an experiment by dumping 20 trillion gallons of water on NYC and watching it flow merrily into the Hudson. That’ll teach Houston.

    1. I thought we did that a few years ago.

      1. No, “we” didn’t do that…

        The gays and their rainbow parades in NYC brought that them thar “Wrath of Gawd” down upon NYC!

        THEY are to be blamed!

        //OK, /sarc for those not truly familiar with the angry flames of the Wrath of the SQRLSY One…

  5. One can clearly see that the lack of regulation is what caused the flooding by comparing to more heavily regulated environments that stand up to flooding much better.

    1. Wow, just the first paragraph by itself was pretty heinous.

  6. It’s not the lack of flooding, it’s the national flood insurance program, which distorts price signals about the risk of building in flood prone locations, and effectively subsidizes coastal , low-lying development.
    Libertarians have been saying this for decades, literally, and it’s been falling on deaf ears. People don’t want to hear it when the free market says don’t build in flood prone areas.

    1. They need to subsidize living in those areas because a huge chunk of that area is within the 100-mile constitution free border zone.

    2. It’s a never-going-to-win argument. When one person builds on a flood plane and can’t get insurance or can’t get it at a ‘reasonable’ price (price gouging!) it’s called a ‘market failure’, and somewhere around 100% of establishment media sources will parrot the same conclusion.

      That’s why the government keeps stepping in as ‘insurer of last resort’. The fact that the one person couldn’t get insurance or get it at a low cost was the price-signal that tells people “building here is risky as a mother fucker”.

    3. AWWwwww didjya HAFFTA say that?

      This is so true… I remember maybe ten years back when Portland Oregon had some heavy rains and some flooding, but mainly mudslides and such, dropping houses down hillsides like kids on a metal slide at the schoolyard. Some folks decided to sue the City… YOU LET ME BUILD THERE WHEN YOU SHOULDN”T HAVE!!!! WAA WAA WAA. PAY UP.

      So Portland raised the bar for permits to build, and set the standards to get a Yes and a Permit awhole lot higher. THey refused permits on lands deemed unstable.

      NOW some Portlanders sued the city for DENYING them their “RIGHT” to build up there. OK fine. They caved, and let them build.
      Guess what? Next bad storm more houses played skateboards and went down the hill to their destruction. Then guess what ELSE? Those people sued because they were granted their whiney wishes to build when it was not safe….. thus the city, badgered by those wanting to build in spite of wisdom and engineering, caved and let them… and then were sued for doing so.

      That’s what happens when government-as-god is the general rule. NO one can take responsibility for their own decisions. It always someone else’s fault.
      GROW UPP!!!!

  7. When your only preferred tool is the hammer of big gubmit, then everything looks like a nail.

    1. When your only preferred tool is the *visible fist* of big gubmit, then every*one* looks *like they have a face in sore need of punching*. FTFY.

      The problem of course being that if the gov were to look in a mirror for just one second, they would be too busy punching themselves to ever punch anybody else again.

  8. These regulations lay out rules for the quantity and rate of storm water runoff allowed from developments and for how that runoff is managed.

    Typically, storm sewer and retention systems are designed to control a 10yr (think average thunderstorm) intensity storm. Hurricane rainfall events are not the standard. Therefor, flooding will occur.

    1. I don’t know about other places, but “average thunderstorm” in Houston is a lot more than every 10 years. I’ve seen some pretty nasty storms that flooded streets (including mine), but never caused the issues Harvey did. Even Allison (in 2001) another slow-moving and returning tropical storm, didn’t dump as much water as Harvey did, and Allison was a huge hit on the area. Most of the Houston area got *more* than its annual rainfall average in a period of a day or less. The water that came into my house didn’t start accumulating until after dark on Saturday (the heavy rain started late in the afternoon). Water was over my baseboards by 5 AM Sunday morning. So in under 18 hours, I went from passable street to water in the house – and I have a decent slope to my yard.

      1. is a lot more than every 10 years

        Saying “10yr storm” does not mean that it happens every ten years. It is a measure of intensity of rainfall for a given locality measured in in/hr. You are making the same mistake that news media is making. Intensity times a runoff coefficient times the area in acres is the basic equation for rate of runoff. So, when female seth rogan at msnbc harps about how we’ve had x number of 100yr storms in >100 years, I cannot stress how much she does not know what she is talking about.

    2. Also, how much of Houston actually flooded? From the pics on the news, it would appear the whole area flooded, but that did not happen. My friend who lives in SE Houston got 49.40″ of rain (NOAA gauge 2 miles from his house), his house is actually mapped within the edge of the 100 year flood zone, and he got nothing, nada, zilch. Toilet paper floating on water in the low corner of his yard, but, other than that, the flood planning did it’s job.

      As with most things these days, I wonder if the news wankers and chattering classes are focusing on the pictures of flooding, without actually gathering information on the actual number of flooded homes.

      1. Friends of mine live north and east of Houston proper… were forced to evacuata as a precaution… came back to find their house had four feet of water standing inside it. They’ve already started gutting it to the studs and drying it out. Probably have to find somewhere else to live, as it will be a couple months at least.

      2. Releasing water from the reservoirs caused significant damage. In general, land use (man-made) is the problem.

  9. We need to get the new guys on the alt-text bandwagon. The missing alt-text on that Krugman pic nearly reaches criminal status.

    1. “I hope these benches are comfortable after this place empties out for the night.”

    2. “Wow, look at all these broken windows in Houston! Great opportunity for economic growth”

  10. What keeps not being said in all the “no regulation” articles is that Houston and Harris County are as blue as anyplace in the U.S. These were Democrats who supposedly “failed to regulate.”

  11. The real problem is anthropoclastic climate change which is compressing time so that these 1000-year storms seem to be happening every year.

  12. Based on my direct observations, I would say that 95% of Houston did not flood. Consider that Houston is larger than the entire state of Connecticut. Measuring flooding by watching television is not a reliable way to judge what is happening, and that seems to be what these commentators are doing.

  13. Land use creates and/or worsens floods, wildfires, snow storm drifting. This is settled science.

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