Last year Houston faced historically devastating flooding during Hurricane Harvey. Nine trillion gallons of water and 60 inches of rain fell from the sky in a span of two days, causing damage to the economy amounting to an estimated $190B. As the intensity and scope of natural disasters hitting the US continues to increase, it is becoming clear that cities like Houston have infrastructure and urban planning that are not built to withstand the havoc these storms bring.
Houston, We've Got A Problem
Houston is a low-lying city situated just under 50 feet above sea level. It has a slope less than one foot per mile. This means floodwaters, when they inevitably come, are slow to flow from west to east. These natural characteristics of the city’s geography are a recipe for trouble, and they also mean that the draining system infrastructure is critical in times of natural disasters. However, the city evinces a troubling lack of planning where infrastructure is concerned, especially in regards to old drains and pipes. One expert claims that today’s draining system shows little improvements from those that existed 100 years ago that were only capable of draining 1 to 1.5 inches of rain per hour. Additionally, the city’s two reservoirs are 70 years old and are deemed unfit. Both of these infrastructures were proven inadequate by the overflowing and spillover that occurred during Hurricane Harvey.
The many structures erected as part of the city’s urban sprawl — buildings, roads, and parking lots — buried grass and prairie lands which would have helped to absorb some of the flooding. Instead, these waters ran into the bayous which, as described earlier, are structurally deficient. As it turns out, the city lacks a zoning code, making it easier for builders to underestimate the need for flood mitigation techniques. This demonstrates the compromise to disaster planning urban communities often make in the pursuit of economic development.
Urban Plan B
The World Economic Forum has identified urban planning failure as a major disaster risk factor most severely affecting East Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, and South Asia. Conflicting priorities cause governments big and small to neglect the need for expensive resilience-oriented urban planning, but getting the proof of the pudding by eating it is extremely dangerous. In the long run it is far more costly, not only in funds but in lives, to not have urban planning that makes disaster preparedness a priority.
To ensure that last year’s scenario doesn’t occur again, the use of land resources must better integrate disaster risk considerations. Governments must practice close and constant collaboration with hazard scientists, civil and environmental engineers, and emergency management officials. Failing to seriously consider recommendations by scientists, including a study concluding that the city was woefully ill-prepared for disaster, was one of Houston’s greatest mistakes.
With an abundance of geographic and scientific knowledge at their fingertips, city planning commissions should use this knowledge proactively to protect property and lives. On a global scale, development policies should limit urban sprawl in high-risk and environmentally unstable areas. Building massive infrastructures on a coastal floodplain like Houston may be viewed as an inevitable compromise of space to accommodate a growing population, but it is also a clear defiance of practical science.
It's time to let risk mitigation and infrastructure sustainability lead our businesses — because if we only chase short term profits and neglect these crucial mitigations, we will pay in the long run in damage, resources, and lives.