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Houston After Harvey: Building Resilience, or Business as Usual?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017
Nora Moraga-Lewy

Nora Moraga-Lewy

Research Associate

Houston’s 160-acre Buffalo Bayou Park was designed to flood. The park is lined with native vegetation and landscaped to channel runoff and maximize floodwater transport capacity. Dog-walkers, joggers, bikers, and picnickers frequent the park, which also serves as habitat for native plant and animal species and has features that help filter pollutants from stormwater runoff that would otherwise flow directly into the waterway.

Buffalo Bayou Park (Nora M.L.)
Image 1: By late September, some of the trails had been carved out of the silt deposits left by the flood waters.

A late-September visit to the iconic Buffalo Bayou Park—one month after Hurricane Harvey—revealed a vaguely familiar landscape. During the historic flooding that followed the hurricane, the park did what it was designed to do—hold water. Water levels in the park crested at almost 40 feet, leaving behind silt deposits up to six feet high along the bank of the waterway (see Image 1).

Park patrons were inconvenienced by inaccessible paths and portions of the park experienced major damage. Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP) president Ann Olson said they “did not anticipate three historic flooding events in 1 ½ years” (read Olson’s post-Harvey statement here). BBP, a local nonprofit organization that leverages public and private funds to maintain the park, is currently relying on hundreds of volunteers and donated in-kind services to clean up and revitalize the area post-Harvey.

Today, Buffalo Bayou Park is a notable landmark in Houston—but it took nearly one century of patient planning and persistent land acquisitions for it to be created. The idea of a park can be traced back to the 1890s, when the city of Houston acquired the first parcel of land adjacent to the Bayou, specifically with the vision of a park in mind. After decades of sporadic nearby development, road and highway construction, and a doomed plan to straighten and pave walls for the Bayou, the BBP was founded in 1968. Thanks to BBP and others, the series of popular trails, parks, and other recreation opportunities illustrate how well-planned projects can mitigate flood damages while improving quality of life by offering various community amenities and providing environmental services.

One of Buffalo Bayou's newest beaches, where erosion-preventing grass has begun to regrow.
Image 2: One of Buffalo Bayou's newest beaches, where erosion-preventing grass has regrown after the storm.

Imagine the effects of flooding if the park did not exist in its current form—if structures had been built on the land or if concrete had been poured over banks that are currently covered in vegetation (see Image 2).

While the park served as a sort of buffer for flooding impacts from Hurricane Harvey for nearby structures, much of Houston was devastated and will require more than volunteer services to repair. Harvey has proven to be one of the most expensive natural disasters in U.S. history—costs could reach $160 billion to rebuild areas affected by Harvey, just in Texas. The state of Texas has requested an aid package totaling $61 billion to deal with Harvey’s wake.

Some recovery plans go beyond rebuilding and aim to mitigate future disasters. Harris County Flood Control District has plans to acquire 5,000 homes and structures in nearby floodplains with an unprecedented request of $800 million in federal funds (primarily from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, or HUD’s Community Development Block Grant). Other municipal requests for funds to acquire an additional 1,725 homes total about $329 million. There are other plans to fund infrastructure projects aimed at protecting the city and its vital energy industry.

These projects are important and can prevent a great deal of economic losses and save lives. However, it will take rules and planning that integrate hazard mitigation, environmental considerations, and potential social benefits to address future environmental risks. Houston is notorious (or popular, for many), for its nonexistent zoning and land use codes. While zoning rules alone may not have prevented extensive flood damages, sprawl generally exacerbates flooding problems by increasing impervious surface areas. Note that some of the egregious flood damage caused by Harvey occurred not in the natural floodplain—but in recently developed areas near 70-year-old ACE-constructed reservoirs that filled beyond capacity and had to be released or in locations with inadequate stormwater drainage. Hazard mitigation-related property acquisitions and structural projects only make sense if new structures are not subsequently constructed in another location that is also in harm’s way.

Buffalo Bayou Park (Nora M.L.)
Image 3: BBP has relied largely on volunteer labor to remove the deposits visible on both sides of the once vegetated banks of the Bayou.

Along with environmental risk mitigation measures, it will be crucial for cities, states, and the United States to consider smart ways to sustain growth and proactively adapt to foreseeable changes in climate and weather patterns. Buffalo Bayou Park could serve as an example of a popular project that keeps structures out of harm’s way and maximizes the use of natural features for hazard mitigation. Green infrastructure can reduce ambient air temperatures and help with air quality but also filter stormwater runoff and build greater resilience to the effects of climate change. Codes or ordinances discouraging building in areas that are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change can prevent future losses. There are also various near-term projects including floodplain buyouts that can eventually be managed to provide community and environmental benefits.

Houston faces funding and public buy-in challenges to its extensive post-Harvey buyout. Other cities may face similar or drastically different obstacles to not only hazard mitigation-related buyout programs, but other adaptation measures as well. Fortunately, organizations including ELI are working to develop guidance based on success stories and research to facilitate people- and nature-friendly solutions. Each city’s history and context may be unique, but there seems to be one universal theme: adaptation and hazard mitigation might seem expensive and tedious, but the cost of inaction will be much greater.