Above the Waterline: Is Houston flooding a cautionary tale for Atlanta?

Texas Army National Guard soldiers move through the flooded streets of Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. (Courtesy US Army)

In the 1950s, when I was a toddler, my family moved from Virginia to a house in, what was then, the outskirts of Buckhead; it was built beside two streams that converged at the bottom of a forested slope in our backyard. It was a wonderful place to play and learn about nature in the woods and streams that were full of life back then: crayfish, snakes and a variety of fish species.

Given the topography of the house site and few development regulations, a portion of our split level home had been constructed less than fifteen feet from the edge of the creek that we called Gold Branch. (In 2014, my colleagues and friends arranged for the stream to be officially re-named Riverkeeper Creek, in recognition of my environmental work, but that’s another story…)

In 1959, Lenox Mall was built upstream in our watershed and the creek that received the drainage from that previously forested, now hardened, mall site became a raging, muddy torrent when it rained. It was my first, highly dramatic, lesson of what can happen downstream when a natural landscape is paved: the memory of my father trying to pull logs from the stream – so that they did not obstruct the flow and flood our home – remains vivid.

I can hardly imagine the fear and horror experienced by the thousands of flood victims in Texas and Florida from the recent hurricanes: acts of nature whose impact was immeasurably worse because of what has been called “a massive engineering and government failure”.

According to the Dallas Morning News, more than two decades ago, county officials predicted with “chilling accuracy” just how devastating a storm like Harvey would be for Houston. In a 1996 report, engineers for the Harris County Flood Control District concluded the area’s reservoir system was severely insufficient and imperiled thousands of properties.

The authors determined that storms far smaller than Harvey could wreck a large portion of the city and its western suburbs. They knew which neighborhoods would flood and why, and where the most damage would occur.

The engineers proposed a $400 million fix: constructing a massive underground conduit that would carry water out of the reservoirs and into the Houston Ship Channel more quickly. Interstate reconstruction, ongoing at the time, provided a perfect opportunity to combine both projects.

Had the report’s recommendations been heeded, the catastrophic flooding that struck Houston might have spared thousands of homes from floodwaters. Instead, the report got filed away and was forgotten. Government leaders ignored its conclusion: do nothing and accept the risk of flooding. They claimed at the time, and more recently, that the fix was too expensive and that the flood conduit couldn’t be built without federal dollars which they said were unavailable.

Yet, these local growth-at-any-cost boosters continued to permit development in flood-prone areas and filled wetlands for thousands of so-called “affordable” houses. The biggest city in the country without zoning bet that it could beat Mother Nature with Texas-style bravado, apparently assuming that the federal government (you and I) would pick up the tab for any catastrophe.

Of course, no amount of money can make up for loss of life or the loss of poorly uninsured homes and businesses. Lives are ruined by such events.

Ten years ago, Houston officials attempted to ban development in areas with a high risk of flooding. Developers sued and the policy was weakened. Officials tried putting up gauges in low-lying areas, but pressure from real estate interests had them removed.

How can it possibly be worth putting people’s lives and property at risk to make more money in the short term? Are we that greedy? Are we incapable of acknowledging the cumulative impacts of thousands of poor decisions and the associated risks?

American writer Upton Sinclair said it best: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Atlanta has created important initiatives to make the city sustainable and resilient, but the pressure on public officials remains strong to allow building in marginal areas: floodplains, stream buffers and wetlands.

In the 1950s, there was minimal understanding of how watersheds work in urban settings and the term climate change had not yet been invented. Today, we don’t have such excuses; we know what is coming and we better plan for it – or plan to assign blame and liability for recovery.

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and current board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy whose mission is to build a community of support for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.