Lessons from Houston

The following is an excerpt from a piece that originally appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek on August 31, 2017. Read the full article here.

Houston has been wet since birth. In the 1840s, the German explorer Ferdinand von Roemer described the Brazos River prairie just outside the young town as an “endless swamp” that mired the wheels of his wagons. He reported that some people who’d intended to settle in Texas turned around and left after seeing the “sad picture.” But Houston never let itself be hampered by its hydrology. It spent billions patching together a mess of dams and drainage projects as it grew and grew. It’s the fourth-biggest city in the U.S., boasting one of the world’s largest medical centers, oil refineries, a stupendous livestock show and rodeo, highbrow culture, vibrant economic growth, and speakers of 145 languages. The consolidated metropolitan statistical area surrounding Houston and extending to Galveston is larger than the state of New Jersey.

Harvey is a devastating reminder to Houston that nature will have its due. The Category 4 hurricane that hung around as a stationary tropical storm punished greater Houston with rainfall measured in feet, not inches. No city could have withstood Harvey without serious harm, but Houston made itself more vulnerable than necessary. Paving over the saw-grass prairie reduced the ground’s capacity to absorb rainfall. Flood-control reservoirs were too small. Building codes were inadequate. Roads became rivers, so while hospitals were open, it was almost impossible to reach them by car.

The consequence of loose or nonexistent codes is that storm damage is often worse than need be. “Disasters don’t have to be devastating,” says Eleanor Kitzman, who was Texas’ state insurance commissioner from 2011 to 2013. She now runs a company called MyStrongHome that helps homeowners upgrade their homes to qualify for lower homeowners’ insurance premiums. “We can’t prevent the event, but we can mitigate the damage.”

Making a city more resilient isn’t easy. Lots of U.S. cities—Miami comes to mind—were built in places that don’t make a lot of sense anymore. It’s worse abroad, where the world’s poorest cities are among the most vulnerable. More than 1,200 people in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal have died this summer from the worst monsoon flooding in years. One obvious solution is to curb the emission of the gases heating up the planet. But even if countries get a lot more serious about slowing climate change, we’re still going to have catastrophes. Mitigation of the consequences will have to be part of the answer.

Singapore could be a role model, says Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities, a nonprofit founded by the Rockefeller Foundation. While its population has more than doubled since the 1980s, the city-state, which is in the path of monsoons, has increased to 46 percent from 35 percent the area of land with green cover, according to the government’s Centre for Liveable Cities.

A strategy such as Singapore’s takes time, though. Rattled by Harvey, Houstonians may understandably want a quicker fix. “There will be such a focus to reduce a single hazard, to get the water away as quickly as possible” through sluices, berms, and the like, Berkowitz says. “Houston will miss an opportunity. If you’re really going to make those improvements, that’s the work of a generation.”

Read the full article in Bloomberg Businessweek.