Once is a freak occurrence. Twice is a trend. Twice in less than a year, catastrophic flooding of our city has taken lives, paralyzed us, and cost untold millions in damage to lives and property. As the City and County worked to clear debris and stagnant water, as aid and news coverage poured, a feeling of depressing familiarity has settled on Houston.
The flooding of Tax Day this year and Memorial Day last were not the result of Mother Nature’s most monstrous and irregular tropical storms, as we saw in Allison and Ike, it was the result of strong, but also frighteningly regular storms. We cannot and should not accept these disasters as simply “Acts of God,” and resign ourselves to nothing more than picking up the pieces and moving on. Disaster response and relief are key, but we must also seek to prevent these disasters in the first place. Surely the city that put a man on the moon can prevent itself from flooding catastrophically. We must confront this challenge head-on, because more of these storms will be coming. The heavy rains of last weekend were a chilling reminder of the dangers that we are facing.
Changing this will require a coordinated response across cities and counties, from individual Houstonians to our multinational institutions. There are many suggestions as to the culprits behind and remedies to this flooding, and as with many cases in life the answer is inevitably ‘all of the above.’
We must preserve, remediate, and yes, even expand our local wetlands, for these act as natural sponges to help soak, retain, and safely drain away massive rainfalls. We will have to more strictly regulate our famous development and sprawl with considerations for drainage and flooding. Developers must be required to invest in storm water systems to safely funnel storm waters from their property, while neighborhoods cannot be left content to drain their own rainfall into another. We must massively invest in, expand, and overhaul our existing storm water infrastructure, from drains to retaining basins and barriers to pumps and more. We must invest in research and development with better forecasting, prediction, and modeling technologies that enable us to identify and counteract dangers, and we should make use of innovative new materials such as ‘thirsty’ concrete.
Prevention will also require us to bring to heel litter and debris, especially bottles, cans, and plastic bags. This detritus can choke local drains and sewer systems, turning neighborhoods into impromptu retaining ponds. This requires not just individual clean-up efforts, but also government action to prevent this in the first place through tougher anti-littering enforcement and even container refund programs.
I commend our elected officials in coming to the forefront and leading on this issue, including Mayor Turner’s announcement that former Council Member Steven Costello will return to serve the City as ‘flood czar.’ Combatting flooding will require someone who can coordinate across numerous jurisdictions and who understands the intricacies of infrastructure and engineering. Steve’s background makes him a perfect fit, and as a friend on a personal level I can attest to his tireless work ethic on behalf of the people of Houston.
Prevention and preparedness are not the responsibility for elected officials and public leaders alone, and strengthening our region will require the will and determination of Houstonians. We must demand action from leaders yes, but we must also support our leaders when they take action. We must be prepared to pay the costs, both in time and money and minor inconvenience, to strengthen our region, for we have put this off for far too long.
As the U.S.’s fourth largest city, we should not be content to allow ourselves to be paralyzed by flood waters with a depressing regularity. We have the strength, capacity, and can-do spirit to change this, but it will require action from every Houstonian. The costs of preparedness will be well worth paying, though, and the cost of inaction is so much greater, both in dollars and lives.
We know that a third storm is only a matter of time, let’s start preparing for it today.
Originally posted on the Houston Chronicle In the Loop Blog by Mustafa Tameez on May 16th, 2016.