Can Houston prevent disaster when the next storm comes?


John Yang: We return to our series on the state of hurricane recovery efforts in Houston five months after Hurricane Harvey.

In our first reports, we profiled two sets of homeowners who are still trying to get their lives back to normal.

In his final report on life after the storm, Hari Sreenivasan explores what changes leaders say are needed to avoid another disaster, and who should pay for them.

Hari Sreenivasan: In Northeast Houston, Jackie White and her husband, Michael, are repairing their home, which flooded during Harvey. This is the second time they have gone through all of this, despite being outside the federally designated floodplain.

Jackie's holding out hope that the government will buy her out, so she can move some place safer.

Jackie White: I have to live with it until I can get it together, get it together or find someplace else to go. But that would be a big blessing.

Hari Sreenivasan: All right, show me your house.

Jackie White:OK. It's a mess.

Hari Sreenivasan: Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, in the southwest neighborhood of Meyerland, Kathleen and Matt Pacini flooded as well.

Kathleen Pacini: This was our den. It had this wonderful wood paneling in here.

Hari Sreenivasan: They loved their mid-century home, but with Kathleen fighting breast cancer, they have decided to take their insurance payout and sell.

Kathleen Pacini: So, our contract currently is with a builder, who will come in and tear it down and build a million-plus-dollar house.

Hari Sreenivasan: That new house would be elevated, to keep it from flooding.

Brett Zamore: This is a house that looks like it's in the process of being lifted.

Hari Sreenivasan: We drove around the Pacinis' neighborhood, where many homes are now for sale, with architect Brett Zamore. He designs homes in this area. In fact, he says he won't even take on clients unless they're thinking long-term.

Brett Zamore: Yes, this house has been like this for a while because it was flooded during, I think, the Tax Day flood.

I have been in Houston since '95, and it's flooded so many times. It's getting worse and worse every year. The past three years, we have had three severe floods, Tax Day flood, Memorial Day flood, and then Harvey.

And Harvey has just been the one that people have realized, we have got to wake up and do something about this.

We built about 16 inches above base flood elevation with this house.

Hari Sreenivasan: The city and county say they are, enacting building codes that will require new homes to be elevated above not the 100, but the 500-year floodplain. And yet elevating old homes is expensive, even with a federal subsidy.

So, in some cases, it will mean buying out old homes like Jackie White's, says Harris County Executive Ed Emmett.

Ed Emmett: Like it or not, we cannot keep paying people to rebuild in places where they're going to keep flooding.

Hari Sreenivasan: Buyouts take money. The county will move forward with a large bond issue, and $5 billion from the Department of Housing and Urban Development is on the way, some of which will go towards that.

Sam Brody: There's been a huge disconnect, I think, between the builder of these developments and the homebuyer.

Hari Sreenivasan: Texas A&M Professor Sam Brody says better information will help drive market changes moving forward. Using FEMA data on homes that have flooded before, he created Buyers B-Where, so when people are looking to buy a home in Houston or Galveston, they can know the flood risk, too.

We talked to a woman this morning. She's heading back to a house that is kind of being, you know, Band-Aided together. If she had her choice, she wouldn't go back there. She has survived Allison. She doesn't want another Harvey, right? But she's like, I don't have the money to anywhere else.

Sam Brody: And I hear stories like that every week, and Buyers-B-Where was created in response to people coming and saying, I wish I knew. I'm trapped. I will never be bought out because there's so many people who want to be bought out.

Hari Sreenivasan: In addition to moving people out of harm's way, Brody says there are many structural and large-scale changes need, and that, after Harvey, now is the time to push for them.

Sam Brody: I was here for Tropical Storm Allison, which had similar impacts. At that point, they said, this will never happen again. That was in 2001. Sixteen years later, it happened again, this time more widespread. I think it's a real window of opportunity to think about meaningful change.

Hari Sreenivasan: Houston is known as the Bayou City. It was built in a low-lying area only about an hour from the Gulf of Mexico. Many of its streets were built to convey stormwater into the bayous, which snake throughout the city. Those, in turn, take water from the streets out to the Gulf.

Harvey was so catastrophic, not because of its winds, but because it dumped more than 50 inches of rain on this region. The flood control measures were simply overwhelmed. The two reservoirs, the Barker and Addicks, which were built in the 1940s and lie in the west, look like fields on a dry January day.

Harvey filled them to the brim, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls them, feared a breach, so they opened their floodgates into Buffalo Bayou, flooding tens of thousands of additional homes.

Mayor Sylvester Turner: We don't want to be standing in the same place when the next storm comes.

Hari Sreenivasan: Mayor Sylvester Turner and others are calling for a third reservoir to be built in the northwest part of the city, the continued widening of the bayous to help carry more water to the Gulf, and in the Gulf, the construction of a coastal spine, a massive gate that would protect the region during a storm surge.

Mayor Sylvester Turner: One thing we do know, the rains will continue to fall, and the odds are there will be flooding in '18, '19 and '20. So, we have to be stronger, and we have to be more resilient.

Otherwise, just putting people back in their homes the very way they were before is just funding for failure.

Hari Sreenivasan: But, of course, these ideas will take time, political will, and money.

The state of Texas has an $11 billion rainy day fund that Turner and Emmett want to tap into, but the state legislature won't return to session until 2019. Then there's an $81 billion funding package making its way through Congress. The House has passed it, but the Senate has yet to vote on it.

In a year that held the most expensive natural disasters on record, wildfires in California, hurricanes in Florida and Puerto Rico, that money will have to be shared between all of the affected areas.

Mayor Sylvester Turner: We need to move with the greatest degree of urgency. The state has indicated repeatedly that they are probably not going to come back into session until 2019. We're waiting on the feds.

Hari Sreenivasan: So, what's the holdup? I mean, why — I mean, you're in a position of power. You have got members of Congress in the majority. You have got a White House, the majority.

Rep. John Culberson: Well, today, it is illegal for me, as a member of Congress and appropriator, to target the money to a geographically specific project.

Hari Sreenivasan: U.S. Representative John Culberson represents Houston, and says because of a House ban on earmarks, he cannot send money directly to these flood mitigation projects to get them moving quickly.

Rep. John Culberson: That makes no sense. It handicaps me as a representative, and it prevents me from front-loading the funding.

By front-loading the funding, it expedites everything. By cutting the permitting time, you give the local authorities the ability to build these things much more rapidly. If they have got the cash on hand to get it done, they will get it done in record time. And that's what I'm focused on.

Hari Sreenivasan: President Trump has said he supports bringing earmarks back, but a bipartisan bill now moving through the Senate would permanently ban them.

In the meantime, with the help of federal funds, people like Jackie White are returning to their homes, resigned to the fact that they may go through all of this again.

Jackie White: I have no control. This is home. And I would have to just basically do the same thing I'm doing now, is plead my case, and wish to get help.

Hari Sreenivasan: The question Brody and others ask is whether the nation continues to pay for disaster recovery after a storm, or for flood mitigation before one, saving both money and lives.

Sam Brody: Many would say that we're setting ourselves up in Houston and Miami and Chicago for continuing chronic and repetitive flood losses. As the conditions change, it's just going to get worse, unless we really step back and start rethinking the way we measure and conceptualize risk.

Hari Sreenivasan: Reporting from Houston, I'm Hari Sreenivasan for the PBS NewsHour.

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Can Houston prevent disaster when the next storm comes? first appeared on the PBS NewsHour website.

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