After Harvey, we must change more than how we react to flood risk to thrive amid coming climate challenges [Editorial]

The phrase “after Harvey” dominates Houston’s vocabulary. Can we live in this house after Harvey? Will businesses still relocate here after Harvey?

Nearly 20 months after one of the most expensive disasters in U.S. history, much has changed. In 2018, City Council passed regulations requiring new construction to be elevated 2 feet above the 500-year flood plain, a move that, along with the push to update building codes across Texas, should protect more property. Harris County voters also resoundingly approved a $2.5 billion bond referendum to fund 230 new flood mitigation projects.

That’s important progress. But, despite our new reality, we have not started moving past the retroactive scrambling of recovery and toward the deliberate planning of resilience.

That distinction is more than just a play on buzzwords. For all the damage Harvey brought, it also has given our region money and urgency it wouldn’t have had otherwise to prepare for the dangerous changes to our climate expected this century. We must take advantage of both. While flood recovery and mitigation will always be essential in Houston, we must also develop smart, comprehensive policies that address the many other climate-related threats.

That will take more than policies. It may also require new governance structures and more cooperation. The lack of a single entity planning for the region has been limiting. As Chronicle reporter Emily Foxhall wrote April 15, summarizing two new reports from the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium, the regional response to Harvey is defined by a “patchwork of rules that could be better aligned across jurisdictions.”

Who should be responsible for that alignment? Mayor Sylvester Turner? Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo? Who’s going to be the lead in ensuring that everyone, from Galveston County to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is working together to advance big, regional fixes, such as the coastal barrier?

“The problem is scale,” landscape architect and Rice University professor Ernesto Alfaro told the editorial board. “There’s a need for an entity that oversees all this.”

If that’s missing even on the specific question of flooding, how much truer must it be for the larger, more comprehensive approach to climate resilience? In October 2018, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned us of a range of threats, including extreme heat and drought, sea level rise, storm surge and potentially devastating impacts to agriculture and biodiversity. A report in November from the Trump administration raised similar concerns about Texas’ vulnerability. And in December, a study ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott advised a greater urgency about the changing climate.

The reports all sound the same clanging alarm: We’re running out of time to prepare for these challenges. But that doesn’t mean the Houston region is starting from scratch. After Harvey, Stephen Costello, the city’s chief recovery officer, told us he sees “more cooperation” than ever, much of it led by the Harris County Flood Control District. That’s good news. But, again, much of that cooperation is about one threat: flooding.

The IPCC report urged policymakers and government leaders to take “unprecedented” action. That should be Houston’s motto after Harvey.

If Houston wants to grow the way it is projected to, it needs to take unprecedented action. Harvey has presented only the first of the questions we must ask as we look to bolster our chances of thriving in what the global scientific community warns will be challenging times. The environmental threats we face do not respect political boundaries, so why should we let boundaries dictate our solutions? We need long-term collaboration among the region’s counties, community leaders, task forces, government agencies, nonprofits, academics, private companies and ordinary citizens to stitch that “patchwork” into a vision for what Houston should become.


It doesn’t happen in one or two years, Costello cautioned. But, after Harvey, we can’t just shoehorn our status quo into a few new regulations without taking a systemic approach. Regional collaboration, with a focus on cultivating resilience amid a range of mounting environmental challenges, should shape every decision we make — from the streets we build, to the housing we plan, to the tank farms we regulate, to the energy we produce and consume. It’s not just about flooding. It’s about the future of the place we call home.

We know more storms and other potentially crippling threats are coming. When the next Harvey arrives, let’s not be stuck talking about what we should have done differently to get ready.

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