Workers lay bricks at the site of a housing development in Houston on May 4. How best to add new homes to the flood-prone city after Hurricane Harvey has generated significant debate.
HOUSTON – There was a golf course across from the house on Kemp Forest Drive that Andrew Taylor recently bought with his girlfriend. Hilly and dotted with ponds, Pine Crest Country Club was shabby around the edges, but in this city of floods and footloose building rules, it was a welcome sponge for the seasonal rains.
Now Taylor is watching work crews cement over the former fairways for homes – 900 of them – marking the first new residential development to rise in a flood plain since Hurricane Harvey swept through this city late last summer. Along with the construction comes anxiety, not only along Kemp Forest Drive, but also across the nation’s fourth-largest city, a flat expanse of tree-lined neighborhoods and towering urban enclaves that is always one major storm away from inundation.
"We had some questions about how we would fare flood-wise," said Taylor, who is 32 and works in an escape room, a real-life game in which groups solve puzzles to leave the locked space. "But this has never really flooded before, so we feel pretty safe. And we’re hopeful it might raise our property values." Houston is building again, gingerly.
A city chastened by disastrous flooding just months ago is trying to balance the need for new construction in a region short of housing with the civic fear that Houston is returning to its freewheeling ways.
The construction in northwest Houston, which serves as something of a post-Harvey starting gun, is being built to new, stricter standards. Planners say those rules reflect both the local government’s commitment to avoid repeating mistakes and new federal weather predictions that anticipate even more severe periods of rain here for decades to come. In the short term, forecasters say this year’s hurricane season, which begins June 1, could be even worse than last year’s.
As planners take the new cautious spirit and future weather into account, Houston officials are seeking more flexibility from the federal government over how billions of dollars in emergency funds can be used to empty out or retool residential areas that have flooded repeatedly.
"What are we going to do in these neighborhoods that people just don’t want to leave?" said Stephen Costello, Houston’s chief resilience officer, whose task is to balance development and flood protection as the city recovers.
Despite its size, Houston has never had zoning regulations and, despite its flood-prone topography, it added flood-protection standards to building codes just a little more than two decades ago.
The need to build even in flood-susceptible areas is the result of the region’s projected growth rate. Under even modest population forecasts, the Houston metro area is expecting to add 4 million residents – a two-thirds increase – in the next three decades. The housing stock, even before the storm, was struggling to keep up.
In late August, when the slow-moving Hurricane Harvey dumped more than four feet of rain across much of southeast Texas, all 22 of the Bayou City’s bayous flooded. The waters left more than 65 people dead and caused an estimated $120 billion in damage.
The debris piles are gone. But thousands of people remain in temporary housing, and a school district that had nearly 300 campuses damaged by floodwaters is still improvising to get children who are accustomed to neighborhood schools to be comfortable in more-distant classrooms.
The ubiquitous billboards and radio ads for real estate speculators – offering cash for flood-damaged homes – have helped keep the storm and its aftermath at the center of Houston’s civic culture.
Turner has been the driving force behind new building regulations that take into effect the revised weather predictions, which come as little surprise to people here. As the mayor told his audience of mostly longtime Houstonians, "We have had three 500-year storms in the last three years."
A 500-year storm is one that has a .2 percent chance of occurring in any given year. That something is shifting in Houston’s weather has been obvious to those paid to think about how the city should redevelop and grow in Harvey’s aftermath.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration signaled recently that it is revising the rainfall totals for Houston that once defined a 100-year storm, one that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year. In a draft analysis that takes into account Houston’s rainfall in recent decades, NOAA has added three to five inches of rain to what constitutes a 100-year storm, meaning that daily rainfall in such cases would equal 15 to 18 inches.
Haddock has been with the department for 13 years and, at this moment in her career, has subscribed to the "challenge provides opportunity" ethos as she helps chart what the city will look like decades from now. She highlighted one local characteristic that makes rethinking the city even more complex, a trait she calls the desire "to age in place."
But many of these old family homes are particularly prone to flooding, even those built to the pre-Harvey regulations that required houses to sit one foot above the 100-year flood level. City planners would like to ensure that, as those homes are renovated after flood damage, they meet stricter standards. Or, barring that, that they are not lived in again.
"The city is going to continue to grow, and we just have to figure out how to regulate that," he said.