An inconsistent regulatory environment and a lack of awareness by residents of the potential flooding dangers in and around Houston were among the factors that contributed to the heavy damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey, according to a report released on June 21.
The report, which focuses on lessons learned from Harvey, offers several recommendations for the Houston area as it continues recovering from the deadly storm and prepares for future ones, including an August election that will ask voters to approve $2.5 billion in bonds for flood control projects.
Some of the recommendations include building a culture of awareness around flooding risks, trusting the public with information about potential dangers and making flood insurance more universally appealing to home and business owners.
“Not acting now to build flood resilience in Houston and Harris County will potentially be very costly in the future” according to the report compiled by Colorado nonprofit ISET-International, the American Red Cross Global Disaster Preparedness Center and Switzerland-based Zurich Insurance.
Harvey, which came ashore last August as a Category 4 hurricane, caused an estimated $125 billion in damage in Texas and flooded thousands of homes in the Houston area.
The report said that a lack of a coordinated regulatory environment to deal with development and adequately warn residents of potential flooding dangers exacerbated flood damages.
The biggest example of this highlighted in the report was the flooding associated with the area’s two reservoirs — Addicks and Barker — which has resulted in federal lawsuits in which thousands of homeowners allege they weren’t aware of the flooding risks from the two damns.
The report says there were numerous steps that could have been taken in the years before Harvey that would have softened the impact of flooding from the reservoirs, including not allowing homes to be built in them and their surrounding floodways and giving adequate disclosures about flooding risks whenever homes around the reservoirs were sold.
The report also discussed a culture that didn’t warn people of the potential danger of flooding. It pointed to such things as not having to disclose a home’s prior history of being flooded to using terms to describe extreme floods like a “100-year event” that don’t help people understand that catastrophic flooding can happen more regularly.
“There were so many people who had no idea they were in a flood risk area,” said Karen MacClune, chief operations officer with ISET-International, which has done similar reports after other natural disasters.
The report also said the Houston-area can’t only rely on infrastructure and engineering solutions to deal with flooding risk. Solutions should be broader than widening bayous and building more reservoirs but also have to include leaving more open spaces, restoring wetlands and robust regulations, according to the report.
“As a nation, we should look at severe weather events that happen within our regions not as anomalies, … we should actually look at them as wake up calls and as opportunities to learn from them,” said Kathleen Savio, chief executive officer of Zurich North America.
MacClune said she’s encouraged by some of the steps Houston and Harris County have taken since Harvey, including the passage of stricter rules for building structures in the area’s flood plains and the upcoming bond measure.
“But at some point, flooding is going to become an existential threat for Houston,” MacClune said. “At what point does that start harming your reputation and businesses stop moving here if you don’t get on top of some of this stuff? And for Houston, it’s going to be figuring out how do you live with water.”
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