The Political Roots of Houston’s Flooding

The Political Roots of Houston’s Flooding

The Political Roots of Houston’s Flooding

Roane Carey on how the city’s developers are fighting a losing battle against climate change.


Roane Carey is managing editor of The Nation. He went to Houston to visit family, and because of the hurricane was stuck there for a week. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jon Wiener: The city of Houston, we’ve learned, is enormous. It has the fourth-largest population in the country, and it stretches out over 600 square miles. Beyond that is more suburban development. How much has that sprawl been a factor in the flooding?

Roane Carey: It’s been a key part of it. The politics behind this flooding have been obscured by the human story, and there’s obvious reasons for that. But for anyone who wants to understand why it has been so bad, they need to understand how development has made things worse. Going back at least to the 1930s, Houston has been a flood zone. Everyone has known that. They had catastrophic floods in the 1930s and 1940s. There has been a big battle between developers and city fathers on one side, and engineers, flood specialists, and scientists on the other, over the need to prevent development in key flood zones and grasslands. And almost always, the people who really know about how flooding works have lost that battle. Developers have continued to develop in places where they need to keep grassland, because grasslands are the sponges for these massive rains. Instead, we’ve seen the paving over of huge freshwater floodplains.

The Katy Prairie is a great example. That’s a huge area west of the center of Houston, much of which has been paved over. Many of the people who’ve been forced out of their homes, who’ve had to be rescued, who’ve had all their possessions destroyed, lived in subdivisions there—despite the fact that scientists said, “You better not develop there, because that’s prone to flooding.”

The other thing to remember is that the old maps of flood zones have become obsolete. Areas have been hit that had never been flooded before. In the spring of 2016 we had what are called the Tax Day Floods, which were considered hundred-year floods—or 500-year floods, as many reports claim. There were the Memorial Day Floods of spring of 2015, which were also considered 100- or 500-year floods. There was catastrophic flooding from Tropical Storm Allison in the summer of 2001, which was considered unprecedented. We’ve been having storms that are bringing in much more water than ever before, and they’re flooding areas that have never, never flooded before. So they need to completely rework what are considered 100- and 500-year flood zones—because now, by that definition, we’re getting a 500-year flood every year.

JW: Naomi Klein, Nation magazine columnist, has been writing about Hurricane Harvey. She says, “We hear lots of talk about how unprecedented this kind of rainfall is, how no one saw it coming, so no one could adequately prepare…but you won’t hear much, if any, talk about climate change.” Did you hear talk about climate change in the storm coverage in Houston?

RC: There was one station, KPRC TV, Channel 2, the NBC affiliate, that has been really good about informing people about which areas are flooding. Their two chief meteorologists are real experts—they’re fantastic. It’s what I call expert service journalism.

But what I haven’t seen on KPRC or the other stations that I’ve looked at is deeper explanations about why we’re getting these unprecedented catastrophic floods now, almost every year. They’re very good about telling people where the weather patterns are going, who’s getting the worst of the flooding, who needs help, what’s expected to happen. But they’re not discussing the deeper politics.

Naomi is right about this. After Katrina, after Super Storm Sandy, after Harvey, we have to understand that these kind of storms are the new normal. This is not unprecedented anymore. Because of climate change, they’re going to bring more moisture and they’re going to be more powerful because the water is warmer than it was before. There’s more moisture. And that’s what happened with Harvey.

The power of the hurricane itself dissipated very quickly here. The real catastrophe was that it sat on top of the city and brought staggering amounts of rain—more rain than anyone had ever conceived.

JW: The Gulf of Mexico in particular is warmer this past year than it has ever been in recorded history. When the Gulf is warmer, more of the ocean water evaporates, forms bigger clouds, and we get these huge storms. It seems like we’re not going to be able to cool off the Gulf of Mexico. So where do we go from here?

RC: It’s a good question. Our country is now led by somebody who’s in complete denial about climate change. And one of the major parties, the Republicans, are also in complete denial about climate change. That’s going to cause more misery and more catastrophes. I think that politically, given the logjam in the executive branch and in the Republican Party, it’s going take local activists.

In Houston, in one of the areas near the reservoirs that had very bad floods, as long ago as the ’80s and ’90s they formed a local action group to prevent further development—because they knew it would be disastrous. They fought against the city and county officials, trying to keep the floodplains as grasslands, which are crucial sponges for floods. They lost that battle.

The problem is the greed of the developers, who pay for the campaigns of politicians who will approve new development. People need to keep at that; they have to band together and say, “We were forced out of our homes because of stupid, greedy development, and we have to stop this.” For the thousands of damaged homes from Hurricane Harvey, an intelligent city and county political system would think about buying up some of those homes, compensating the owners, and letting some neighborhoods return to grassland.

JW: Houston is best known for its oil refineries. In fact, it’s where the Keystone pipeline is supposed to end. They want to bring Alberta crude all the way to Houston to refine it there. There’s a kind of a cruel irony in the hurricane hitting the center of the American oil-refining industry—because no industry has done more to increase the temperature of the earth than the oil and gas industry.

RC: Your phrase “cruel irony” fits perfectly. On the one hand, the oil and petrochemical industry is the major lifeblood of Houston’s economy. It has brought tens of thousands of jobs here. But it is also the chief cause of climate change. People don’t really want to question it. Houston is in a bind, because we have to move to renewable fuels. We have to get rid of oil and gas. I don’t know how it’s going to affect Houston.

JW: Of course, we are thinking also about Hurricane Katrina and the response to disaster in New Orleans. Does that suggest anything about what might happen with the recovery in Houston?

RC: There were two sides in the progressive camp about the reconstruction of New Orleans. One said, “We have to rebuild these communities. Especially the 9th Ward.” There was real fear that poor black people would be chased out, a fear of racialized de-development. But on the other hand there were a lot of progressive people who said, “In many parts of New Orleans, including wealthy areas that were almost all white, there has been development that environmentally is unwise. They’re always close to catastrophe because they’re below sea level.” I never saw a very comfortable resolution of that debate, because you have two progressive ideals butting up against each other.

I could see something like that happening with Houston. If you want to be honest about the need to protect floodplains, then you would talk about not rebuilding certain areas. But then you’re talking about thousands of people. Where are those people going live? They want to go back to their homes. If their homes have been destroyed, they want them rebuilt. Of course, knowing Houston politics, I can imagine that anything resisting redevelopment will be bulldozed—because Houston is completely controlled by developers. The counter-forces are so much weaker—at least they have been so far.

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