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.