A flooded house in the Energy Corridor post-Harvey
Revolution Messaging A flooded house in the Energy Corridor post-Harvey

Cities have their conceits. New York is certain it sits at the absolute center of everything that matters. Portland knows it’s hipper. Chicago knows it’s tougher. Houston’s conceit is that it’s the best engineer, a city that knows how to solve problems and seize opportunities with good old-fashioned, mechanical know-how.

Identity, as always, is tied to history. Houston was initially a railroad hub, and then, thanks to the dredging and widening of the 50-mile Houston Ship Channel, a flourishing inland port. Since the early 20th century, it has thrived as the center of the U.S. oil and gas industry. All cities are engineered creations, of course, but the largest city in the American Southwest was built on a particular faith in humanity’s ability to extend its dominion over the natural environment.

The natural environment has a nasty habit of disputing that dominion, however, and in Houston that reckoning arrived in full force last August with Hurricane Harvey. In a four-day period, the storm dropped more than 40 inches of rain across much of the city. The peak recorded rainfall in the greater metropolitan area was an almost unbelievable 51 inches. That much rain would wreak havoc anywhere, but Houston lies low and flat on the gulf coastal plain, and is crisscrossed with roughly 150 miles of bayous, which are essentially marshy, slow-moving streams. The bayous have been channeled, widened, and deepened in areas to handle more water, and the city has engineered its landscape and buildings in other ways to cope with flooding—a problem since Houston was founded. But as anyone who watched television last August knows, it wasn’t enough. Harvey submerged much of the city as if it was a waterlogged bath toy. It overflowed the bayous, swamped highways, and swept through neighborhoods, wrecking homes and businesses. In the end, the toll from the storm was more than a 100 dead and damage estimated at as high as $125 billion overall.

An aerial of bayou greenways
Jonnu Singleton/Houston Parks Board An aerial of bayou greenways

Harvey, what we now love to call a “super storm,” got plenty of attention. Less publicized was that it was the third 500-year flood in Houston in the last four years. The other two storms, the Memorial Day flood of 2015 and the Tax Day Flood of 2016, were not as severe, but still resulted in significant damage and at least 17 deaths, according to the Houston Chronicle.

I traveled to Houston to see how the city was recovering from Harvey and how its urban planners and architects are reshaping the city’s infrastructure in response. What I found was a proud city quietly wrestling with many of its deeply held convictions about itself.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Edward Emmett, the chief executive officer for the surrounding Harris County, have proposed a range of measures to increase the metro area’s capacity to deal with severe storms, which climate scientists believe are likely to become more frequent as the oceans warm. “Both of them were adamant, saying that Harvey changed everything,” says Guy Hagstette, FAIA, the former director of planning and development for the Houston Downtown Management District.

The proposals include building several underground tunnels to carry floodwaters from the bayous to the ship channel (a project that would cost billions), a third reservoir to hold water during storms (at an estimated cost of $500 million), the further widening and channeling of some bayous, and the increased use of flood warning systems and flood gates (barriers that rise when the water reaches them) to protect downtown buildings from flooding. Architects, urban planners, the city’s park board, and private foundations are also tackling the problem of how to make Houston more resilient. “The concern is community wide,” says Patrick Walsh, the city’s director of planning and development.

Brays Bayou just south of the Texas Medical Center
DIIMSA Brays Bayou just south of the Texas Medical Center

As Houston considers which proposals to pursue, the question is how far the city is willing to go in examining its central conceits. The answer to that is unclear. But for now, Houston is being forced to consider the possibility that it can no longer engineer a solution—that it will instead have to bend to the will of a changing climate.

A Measured Retreat
On a gray day this winter, Hagstette took me on a tour of post-Harvey Houston. We started with the Texas Medical Center (TMC), which advertises itself as the largest medical complex in the world, with 106,000 employees and a campus that encompasses 50 million square feet of developed space. In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison swamped much of the center. In response, Hagstette says, “It got its act together, put in flood gates, isolated the buildings, raised up the electrical system, put in an early warning system at Brays Bayou—something that needs to happen throughout Houston.” TMC’s approached worked. It came through Harvey, a far worse storm than Allison, relatively unscathed.

Later that day, Adrin Biagas, a senior land acquisition manager for the Houston Parks Board, showed me another defensive measure that the city is undertaking: creating more green space around the bayous. The parks board has been working to expand hiking and biking trails—which would double as a flood buffer—through its Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative. City voters supported a $100 million bond referendum for the initiative, and the board was closing in on a goal of raising another $120 million in private funds. “This started before Harvey,” Biagas told me.

The White Oak Bayou bike trail near downtown
Houston Parks Board The White Oak Bayou bike trail near downtown
The Bayou Greenways 2020 plan (anticipated new trails and parks appear in dark green)
Houston Parks Board The Bayou Greenways 2020 plan (anticipated new trails and parks appear in dark green)

In a simplified way, these strategies represent the city’s response to the threat posed by storms like Harvey: Put the right kind of physical or mechanical safeguards in place and stubbornly stay put. Houston has building code elevation requirements for new construction in the flood plain, but it hasn’t stopped or limited building there. Since 2008, about 1,400 new structures have been built in the floodway, the most vulnerable part of the zone, as a Houston Chronicle investigation revealed in December. That’s hardly a surprise. The city is known for its lack of zoning, predicated on a deeply rooted faith in the virtues of economic libertarianism, a belief that the productive forces of capitalism flourish when left unencumbered by government regulation. In early April, the city council did pass a measure to raise the elevation requirements for new buildings in the flood plain— an idea originally proposed by the mayor—but the issue was politically contentious and underscores the continued opposition to more stringent codes.

The county has, on a voluntary basis, been buying out homes in the flood plain—about 3,000 homes during the last 17 years, according to Hagstette. Which sounds like an impressive number until you realize, as Rice University architecture professor Albert Pope told me, that there are 150,000 structures in the zone. In the wake of Harvey, the county recently announced it would ask voters this summer to approve a bond measure that could raise up to $2 billion for flood control measures, including an expanded use of voluntary buyouts. Federal and state aid will provide additional money for buyouts—if sellers are willing. “The amount being tossed around for buyouts, when you throw in the federal money, is in the billions of dollars,” Hagstette says.

A 1959 house designed by Arthur Steinberg (right) in the Meyerland neighborhood was elevated by its owner before Harvey and survived largely unscathed
Raj Mankad/Rice Design Alliance A 1959 house designed by Arthur Steinberg (right) in the Meyerland neighborhood was elevated by its owner before Harvey and survived largely unscathed

Still, the voluntary nature of the buyouts leaves some neighborhoods suspended in a kind of half-life. During my tour, we traveled through residential blocks near the bayous where vacant lots surrounded houses that were still occupied: Southwestern brick ranch homes, their lawns tidied up, floated like islands of middle-class defiance amid desolate pockets of emptiness. Even in the midday, the lack of density gave the neighborhoods a forlorn air. The floods have also inspired a strange Frankenstein architecture, as some home builders have taken advantage of federal aid programs to raise their ranch homes above the flood level, putting in first floors that are used as garages, storage space, or rec rooms, and that are built with concrete or brick walls and floors that can be easily cleaned when floodwaters recede.

The proportions of a classic one-story ranch, of course, often do not led themselves to being raised another 7 to 10 feet in the air, and driving through Meyerland, an otherwise attractive middle-class neighborhood along Brays Bayou that has flooded three times in the last four years, the effect was disorienting, as if some of the houses had started sneaking steroids and now towered aggressively above their neighbors. One house in particular, little more than a hollowed-out stick-frame shell propped up on a set of temporary stilts as it was rebuilt, struck me as a particularly good example of the absurdity of the approach.

A house in Meyerland in the process of being raised almost five feet right before Harvey
courtesy Arkitektura Development A house in Meyerland in the process of being raised almost five feet right before Harvey

Pope, whose current work is focused on the urban implications of climate change, believes Meyerland is an example of how Houston’s engineered response to flooding has reached its limits. “Engineering is over. We’ve done what we can. We can no longer assume there’s an engineering fix to this,” he says. “Now we have no choice: We have to pull structures out of the flood plain.”

Pope is working with his students on a plan for Meyerland that would do just that. Downstairs in the Rice University architecture building, spread along a hallway wall, he showed me sketches of a staged withdrawal for the neighborhood. The series of renderings showed homes slowly retreating from the bayou as higher density development rose along the back edge of the neighborhood. It all had a logical, ordered sense of progression, but I wondered if there’s any chance of it actually happening. The problem with any large-scale plans to reshape communities is that they affect groups who have come together in a reflection of shared needs, values or identity. Take Meyerland, which has a proud history, dating back to the 1950s, as the center of Jewish life in Houston, and remains a desirable neighborhood for many residents today.

A Rice University plan for a staged withdrawal from the Meyerland neighborhood
A Rice University plan for a staged withdrawal from the Meyerland neighborhood

“Real people live in these homes,” Hagstette told me when we were discussing buyouts. “These communities have reasons they’re here, whether it’s schools or because they’re on a bus route or because the housing is affordable.” As long as federal aid exists that allows families to rebuild, it seems likely many will, even if it’s the third or fourth time, and even if it means raising your ranch house on concrete stilts.

Still, when the plans are ready, Pope intends to present them to citizens in Meyerland and the city as a whole. If nothing else, he hopes to inspire more active urban planning in the city. “If there was ever a call for that higher level of planning to occur, it was Hurricane Harvey,” he says. “A lot more things are going to have to be designed because of the changing climate. We cannot assume a viable future for Houston if we don’t plan. We want that recognition to come sooner rather than later, and the way we can do that is by showing the benefits of planning sooner rather than later.”

A City Torn Between Two Strategies
During my visit, I didn’t speak to anyone who disagreed with the notion that Houston could use better planning to deal with flooding. The pushback begins when you mention the possibility of zoning. I got a strong sense that many of those involved in planning and development in Houston are tired of hearing their city described as a “no zoning” Wild West where anything goes. “We don’t have zoning, but we have regulation,” says Walsh, “and lots of our regulation comes through the building codes.”

He also points out that a storm like Harvey would have been devastating anywhere. “If we had had zoning, we still would have flooded with 51 inches of rain,” he says. “We just would have been a zoned city that flooded.”

Walsh believes that a couple things could help mitigate flood damage: better transportation policy, such as discouraging the building of new roads that encourage exurban growth, as well as revisions to the building codes that incorporate revised 100-year and 500-year flood levels. (Several people I spoke to expected FEMA to raise those levels significantly.) The city has a Redevelopment and Drainage Task Force that Walsh said is focusing on flood plain mitigation, including greater water detention capacity in the bayous and overflow areas, and the clearing of obstructions to drainage on streets and rights of way. The city plans to submit applications for federal funds to help pay for $700 million in projects that would include raising six bridges to cope with flooding, creating detention basins in an old golf course, and digging a new canal that would divert water from downtown.

Construction that recently started on a new development in Humble, part of Harris County
Paul Hester Construction that recently started on a new development in Humble, part of Harris County

Will Cannady, FAIA, a Rice professor and long-time Houston resident, believes the city has far from exhausted such an approach. “There is a way to solve the problem from an engineering point of view,” he says. “We just don’t want to do it.”

Ron Witte, AIA, another Rice University professor, thinks Houston is currently torn between two different strategies. “One way would to be manage the water,” he says, “the other way is to manage the damage the water can do.” One way is reflected in the plans for new reservoirs and further engineering the bayous. The other involves, at least in part, a managed retreat.

Harvey as Catalyst
One of the oddities of my career is that I have now been sent to three different cities to see how they were recovering from historic floods, including Grand Forks, N.D., following a 1997 flood along the Red River; and New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the costliest hurricane on record before Harvey.

I’ve discovered that badly flooded neighborhoods all have a surface similarity: towering piles of trash, torn-out drywall, paneling, carpet, and ruined furniture lining the curbs, often more than it seems like the houses behind them should be able to hold; stray garbage still stuck in bushes and grass; and odd things tangled high in tree branches, higher than you can imagine water reaching. Many years later I can still remember a queen-size mattress lodged ridiculously high in the branches of a massive oak on the Mississippi coast.

Flooding damage in Lakewood, a Houston neighborhood, in September 2017
Revolution Messaging Flooding damage in Lakewood, a Houston neighborhood, in September 2017

Houston has done a better job of cleaning up in a shorter time than I remember the other cities managing. Meyerland, in particular, looked surprisingly far along. But less affluent neighborhoods in the northwest that Biagas took me through had not fared as well. Many of the homes were clearly deserted; some appeared to be barely standing. Piles of refuse still stood on street corners and lots remained trash-littered. “A lot of these homes are probably abandoned,” Biagas told me. “This entire area was just underwater. Up to the rooftops in a lot of cases.”

I understand the draw of community, but looking at the damage, I wondered why anyone would want to stay. Witte, the Rice architect, expressed a sentiment I heard repeatedly: “I see Harvey as a catalyst for change. The model we should be looking at is not recovery, not making Houston whole, but coming out ahead of where we are.”

Both Grand Forks and New Orleans eventually had to accept significant changes in their communities. Houston, in the end, seems unlikely to escape the same reckoning.