[This is an invited, two-part guest post by Daniel Hogendoorn,* a Dutch postdoc at UCL in whose research includes Houston's flood-management. This post is based on research that will be a chapter in his dissertation, "The experience of difficulty in governing Explored through urban, flood and climate cases of evidence-making."--ES]
‘Floods are acts of God, but flood damages are acts of Man’--(1945) Gilbert White. (White is the founder of modern flood management in the U.S.)
In 2017, Greater Houston has over 7 million residents, the fourth largest metropolitan region in the United States. As I write this post, Hurricane Harvey is wrecking destruction on Houston with record breaking torrential rain, and we should expect many cascading effects, including tragic victims and massive economic harms.
The proximate causes of these harms are not at all mysterious. On the physical side, the Gulf of Mexico is an incubator for storms, with episodic disasters from torrential rainfall or surge waves. Great storms are a persisting regularity since the beginning of measurement. Over 43 major storms have been measured in Greater Houston since 1880. Allison (2001), Rita (2005), Ike (2008), and now Harvey the most disastrous one to date. Even annually, rainfall of 5-6 inches of water in 8 hours is normal. People sometimes drown when their cars get stuck in traffic during those downpours. Since Houston is a flat plain, with a high water table and sandy soil, it absorbs little of the rain. Moreover, it's a natural drainage area for the surrounding region, it's bayous carrying water down to the Gulf. As for storm surges, the Gulf of Mexico is a micro-tidal system with a tidal range around 30cm and near Houston, the Gulf has an average wave height of one meter. Yet during tropical storms and hurricanes, surge waves over seven meters occur. Surge waves destroy everything in their path, as Greater Houston experienced most recently during Tropical storm Ike (2008). Luckily, Harvey spared Houston's satellite cities its surge.
On the side of sheer physical force then, Nature just continues to play the game it has played since time immemorial. Even the record-breaking Harvey, the storm, like New York’s Sandy, that stayed put in a single place, is record breaking only on a short time span of measurement. Perhaps man made climate change will turn out to have an effect on storm frequency or intensity or precipitation in a warming Gulf. Perhaps sea levels will rise there. And even if these remain a series of ‘perhapses’, prudent governance dictates not to dismiss the concern because of the flaws of models, but, to the contrary, be extra careful. But in the case of Houston, the flood problems have nothing to do with the climate, not even the regular one. Gilbert White, in his quote that serves as motto in this post, already noted that people tend to make their own mess when it comes to flooding. He was thinking of the specific choices we make, as people living together, in living with water. And to be sure, Houston is full of such unfortunate choices.
In Greater Houston's vast geographical spread, the damages are certainly ma-nmade. Once Texans struck oil, Houston's fast and unregulated growth began. It resulted in paving over the natural drainage capacity of the Bayou system increased run off flooding. Unfettered development entered the flood plains. A subsidized flood insurance by the National Flood Insurance Program ensures people are undeterred. Such subsidized rates are however often buried in people's mortgages; people are often unaware of their flood exposure. Groundwater pumping subsided the land. Infamously, Houston has no zoning laws, and is a sprawling suburbia as a result. If there's hard rules, it seems that they amount to this: your McMansion should keep its distance from your neighbor and parking space must be available for guests.
Finally, while some version of 'once bitten, twice shy' is a maxim the world over, in Greater Houston collective memories don't seem to stick around very well. The region attracts people to make money, but many leave again once they have made it, settling for more child friendly, or aesthetically pleasing areas in the U.S. Within the city too, the rental contracts are short (and can be terminated to kick people out), and people move house frequently. Intriguing only recently conservation of existing buildings has become fashionable. The standard practice was to demolish a building once it lost its first economic function. As a result, a native Houston adult driving through her childhood neighborhood often receives no material cues to prompt a memory, including of any floods.
Let me turn to some of the existing man-made risks untouched so far Harvey. We could talk about the laboratory for biological warfare developed in Galveston's floodplain by George W. Bush after 9/11, or the locations of poorly protected nuclear waste on the coast. But perhaps the most troublesome source of concern comes from the petrochemical industry. Houston's harbor on the Ship Channel is the U.S. main industrial harbor, and makes Houston a global city. The port offers jobs to over a million people, creating 150 billion dollars of economic activity. When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, a petrochemical tank 'popped' from its foundations and drifted into a neighborhood, spilling its contents. In the Ship Channel, we find about 3400 petrochemical tanks exposed over an industrial corridor of 866 parcels over 60 km (Burleson et al. 2015). The main players here are Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell, and they cause an enormous moral hazard on the city. Because of the lack of zoning, the port and petrochemical complexes weave into (often poor) residential areas, and the vulnerable fishing estuaries and ecological zones of the Galveston Bay. Oil spills are already a weekly event, with episodic disasters, but a surge disaster would be utter horror.
Curiously, no one really governs the Ship Channel. It's jurisdictions are carved up in such a way that the big corporations are not constrained. Regulations are lenient and compliance hardly monitored. Corporations are supposed to prepare and control for a 100-year flood. Apart from such storms not happening once in a 100-years but much more often (and as such the term is misleading), it is often forgotten that this is a planning fiction with no basis in reality. Floods are wild in their distribution, and we really don't know the right probability distributions. From model runs, if even a 'moderate' Tropical storm like Ike (2008) had hit Houston 30 miles to the West, it's right arm would have pushed the surge into the Ship Channel. It would have been a nightmare the U.S. has never seen before.
The curious flood management policies of Greater Houston
For a scholar like me, who views policies like David Attenborough views tropical species, the Greater Houston metropolitan region is a feast. Apart from having no zoning laws, Greater Houston has no income tax. This drives down the capacity of government to take on large-scale infrastructural preventive measures. But it pushes many small governments to be inventive. What all these policies have in common, however, is that they do not aim to control nature. They are not preventive.
The Greater Houston region abounds in a great diversity of policies to manage the harms from floods. One could sort them, as I have with Nikki Brand,** into policies that inform, modify exposure, help recover, limit degrees of freedom, or prevent via control. I offer a number of examples, each of interest in itself, but here mentioned to give a sense of the diversity. We are impressed by the use of apps, for example, to target up-to-date information to specific zip codes and groups at risk to stimulate self-coordination. Equally impressive (from the perspective of the exercise of state-power) are the plans for the possibility of forced evacuation on highways, with all highways converted to 'contraflow', limiting the degrees of freedom of motorists; this is, as it were, a big semiotic show backed up by military force, legitimated by the 'state of exception' produced by the storm. Here, a massive coordination effort with the ship channel other cities has to take place. Such coordination is only seen when there is a Super Bowl in town.
Other striking local policies are the modification of the exposure of homes, including individual homeowners putting their houses on stilts, and the Texas Medical Center constructing a rhizome of tunnels with submarine doors to move its patients back and forth. There exist policies that target the buy-out of flooded homes from local citizens, as they will be in a psychological window where parting from their property to government is emotionally acceptable and can be done voluntarily. There exist frame-works for setting up contracts for 'shadow-networks', that is, secret arrangements with private contractors, to help clear the debris or offer space to the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Red Cross at a set rate (to prevent exploitation during times of crisis). By contrast, there are also the residents of Bolivar Island, who wish to weather the storm 'hunkering down' between the debris right in the line of fire, wanting no part of government; or the makeshift improvisations of coastal communities of illegal immigrants who, deprived of basic infrastructure, who similarly want no government attention for different, obvious reasons.
And there's the curious innovation of the Levee Improvement District, in the equally curious phenomenon of the Municipality Utility District. In the Greater Houston region, you can set up your own government. You ask for a permit at the Texas State, and then compete for residents and shops (for the sales tax) to whom you offer services, including police, and fire brigade, against an attractive rate. Such MUD's also maintain levees and have their own flood-policies. The list of idiosyncratic policies is much longer. But what we don’t find is policies aiming to control Nature, and prevent the distressing event.
For someone from the Netherlands, this diversity of approaches is almost disorienting. The Dutch feel they must avoid ruin via prevention and control (even if under a long time cost-benefit analysis migration to higher parts would make most sense), and we do so by a governance system that to my mind comes very close to Vincent Ostrom's polycentric governance, with decentralized Waterschappen (water boards) for the small stuff and the centralized Rijkswaterstaat for the heavy lifting. But Houston is a close contender for one of the top spots when it comes to experienced and possible harms. Yet, you can count the number of preventive policies on one hand. There's the Texas City Levee System, constructed after a hurricane in the 1960’s to protect petrochemical industry. There's the Galveston Seawall, constructed after the 1900 Hurricane by the U.S. Army Henry Martyn Roberts (who distilled managerial rules from such projects – and earlier military infrastructural ones displacing natives - into a manual for U.S. parliamentary procedure). There's also the Addick's and Barker's reservoirs and dams in Houston that are, I am sad to say, among the worst maintained in the U.S. (and a risk factor in the aftermath of Harvey). There's a levee which is not a levee but a means to keep a harbor free from sedimentation. And there are many small levees built by small scale levee improvement districts. In particular, the risk of surge flooding would be greatly decreased by some type of flood defense or system of different measures. And the drainage capacity of the city could be greatly improved by a concerted effort. Yet, there's no comprehensive protection. Why not?
You could blame the U.S. Federal level, but I'll sidestep that topic here. A report by the U.S. Army Corps from an attempt to make plans in the 1970's, contains a statement still typical for the local attitude:
‘Studies [...] were terminated because of the lack of local support and the lack of interest shown by potential sponsoring agencies.’ (USACE, 1974 p.120)
What explains this attitude? Lack of public budget is no real explanation, or only a proximate one. After all, the region is rich, the harms high and the officials elected. The extreme harms from flooding have already cost Texans (and U.S. citizens generally) many billions of dollars in harms. And they can expect much more in the future. The tax rate could be changed to cope with floods. Even Hayek thought government was the proper manager of floods. The same holds for the limits on regulation on private development and moral hazard of petrochemical industry. In revealed preference, Greater Houstonians, it appears, do not want to prevent disaster. It seems irrational. And yet, flooding has up until this point not even been a serious political discussion. Political candidates will not mention the topic of prevention, as they expect it will be 'political suicide', as one Mayoral candidate told me. The Texas Senate, which only meets every two years, similarly prefers to speak about prohibiting Marijuana and closing abortion clinics. Even its special sessions never mention storm flooding.
Why do Texans stick to their proverbial guns? Why, even in an ethnically and politically diverse population, are these discussions on prevention and control taboo? This I explore in Part II.
U.S. Army Engineer District, Galveston (1974) Texas coast hurricane study. Galveston Bay Study Segment; feasibility report.
White, G. (1945) Human Adjustment to Floods. Department of Geography Research Paper no. 29. Chicago: The University of Chicago.
*Daniel is a postdoctoral researcher at the department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy at University College London. His current research focuses on South East Asian Deltas. His Phd research was on how different groups coped with the experience of difficulty in expertise intensive governing, and included a case on Greater Houston Flood management and trying to design flood control measures in Greater Houston.
"Texas wíl waterramp niet voorkomen’," forthcoming, NRC 29-09-2017. [We will provide a link as soon as it is published.]