All eyes have been on Houston as they experienced the landfall of Harvey, and now as they begin the clean up. There are several policies that could have mitigated the damage and death toll of Harvey. First and foremost, Houston is the only major city in the US without zoning laws. Another example is the controlled releases of water from dams conducted by officials, rather than letting them overflow: if these dams had been taller and reservoirs bigger, there would have been no need for controlled releases or overflow.
While some argue that cities should not plan to withstand floods that have a 0.01% chance of happening each year, the reality is that these statistics are changing as the temperature of the planet rises: warmer air holds more water.
What New York and other cities can do is look to up-to-date scientific facts and models to determine how likely a storm is to happen, and how extreme it may be. We can increase dam and reservoir capacity, build homes higher off the ground, raise levees and bayous, and stop building in wetlands and floodplains to name a few options.
Officials must not shy away from spending money on natural disaster mitigation before the disaster strikes and irreversible damage is inflicted.
Harvey will cost the US over $70 Billion in damage, yet in January 2017, Houston officials were praising flood mitigation projects costing just under $285 million, an amount which pales in comparison.
Ultimately, the reasons for lack of zoning regulations in Houston are fueled by the idea that zoning will harm economic development and reduce taxes collected by the city. But environmentally-conscious zoning policies do not only protect the environment, but they protect citizens from environmental disasters. It is past time for city officials to recognize that avoiding regulations for the sake of economic development can lead to an increase in damage and death toll from natural disasters. This raises the question: when will officials value the lives and the livelihood of their citizens over the collection of tax revenue?
Author: Victoria Shea