Houston is the fourth-largest U.S. city, situated in Harris County, which was the fastest-growing county in the nation for eight years running until 2016 when it was second.
Texas prides itself on having no income tax. Instead property taxes help fund local governments. To keep the golden geese laying eggs, it has resisted regulations that would slow building booms.
Bloomberg News reported Texas has no mandatory state building codes, and building inspectors don’t need a license.
Houston also has an aversion to zoning — the only major city without zoning laws, which voters have repeatedly rejected. Development can occur virtually anywhere on what its founder in the 1840s called “an endless swamp.”
A U.S. Geological Survey study found the acreage in metro Houston that couldn’t absorb rainfall increased by 32 percent from 2001 to 2011. Green space declined by three-quarters in recent decades.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency implored Texas to enact building codes and take other actions to mitigate flooding, but was rebuffed.
Both FEMA and the National Flood Insurance Program continue to pay claims for the same flooded homes. Nationally, FEMA has paid two or more claims for 1.3 million homes since 1998.
In Houston, USA TODAY reported, the NFIP rebuilt one home 16 times in 18 years — nearly $1 million for a residence valued at less than $120,000. Texas has more than 10,000 homes with repetitive claims. Houston also had major floods on Memorial Day 2015 and Tax Day 2016.
(The Washington Post cited even more egregious cases elsewhere. Outside Baton Rouge, a home valued at $55,921 was flooded more than 40 times with taxpayers paying $428,379 to rebuild it. North of St. Louis on the Mississippi River, a home valued at $90,000 generated $608,000 in aid after 34 floods.)
In Waterloo, though, FEMA provided the city with $5.7 million to help buy and demolish more than 40 flood-plagued homes, including 20 on Sans Souci island, in the aftermath of the 2008 Cedar River floods.
Congress took action to stem “repetitive losses” five years ago, but rescinded much of the legislation two years later when homeowners complained about unaffordable premiums.
The flood insurance program is now more than $24 billion in debt, awaiting the Hurricane Harvey tab as Congress prepares to raise the debt ceiling and approve a new budget.
Previous calls for creating more green space and detention ponds to absorb and contain floodwaters created by Houston’s constant paving and the area’s clay soil were rejected by Michael Talbott, an engineer and executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District.
Talbott, a climate-change denier, told ProPublica and the Texas Tribune advocates for those measures “have an agenda. … Their agenda to protect the environment overrides common sense.”
A like-minded President Donald Trump signed an executive order in March rescinding an Obama rule requiring federally funded infrastructure projects — including schools, housing and highways — to factor in climate change.
But the climate is changing, whatever the reason.
The Wall Street Journal reported 20 storms since 2010 — prior to Harvey — had each caused at least $1 billion in damage. Nine did so during the 1990s (inflation adjusted).
Since 1980, eastern Texas coast has had hurricanes and tropical storms or depressions almost annually. For the first time ever, Gulf of Mexico waters were never below 73 degrees this year, an ominous sign.
Calls for Houston to build a seawall following Hurricane Ike — which veered away from the city in September 2008 but still caused $30 billion in damage — have gone for naught.
“We’re sitting ducks. We’ve done nothing,” Phil Bedient, a Rice University engineering and co-director of the Storm Surge Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center, told Pro Publica and the Texas Tribune. “We’ve done nothing to shore up the coastline, to add resiliency.”
Inland, two Houston dams are rated among the nation’s half-dozen worst, according to the Houston Chronicle, “only a fracture away from triggering an apocalyptic flood” that would put half the city underwater.
Pro Publica and the Texas Tribune were prescient last year in warning about the consequences a major hurricane would have on an ill-prepared Houston and the repercussions nationwide because of its 10 major refineries and vast array of chemical manufacturing plants.
We encourage donations to assist the beleaguered residents of the Houston region dealing with an unprecedented 50 inches in rainfall. The tragedies have been heartbreaking, the rescue efforts inspiring.
However, when Congress eventually opens taxpayers’ pocketbooks to help pay for the damage, it should attach conditions to mitigate repetitive losses. In fact, it would behoove the Texas congressional delegation — so resistant to assisting victims of Hurricane Sandy on the Atlantic Coast — to take the lead if it truly values federal budget restraints.