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Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

Build the 'Dam Wall': What Houston Needs Now

Cities, Economics Infrastructure & Transportation

Exploding chemical plants. More than 100,000 people without drinking water. Despite these headline disasters, Hurricane Harvey has also revealed an important success story: The waterworks the government built seven decades ago to keep water out of Houston are working.

But they can’t adequately protect the big city that exists today.

“Just as New York’s subways can’t handle today’s record crowds, Houston’s dams can’t handle the city’s boom-time population.”

Just as New York needs its subways, cities on the Gulf Coast can’t exist without flood protection. After two big floods, the feds built Houston’s two major dams and reservoirs, the Addicks and Barker, between 1942 and 1948.

As the local Chronicle newspaper reported two days before Harvey, the dams are “the biggest line of defense for flooding through some of the densest parts of Houston.”

In normal times, the reservoirs stay dry. When it rains heavily, they fill with water, keeping it from flooding the oldest parts of Houston, including downtown.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which still owns and operates the infrastructure, waits for the rain to subside, then gradually releases the water into the nearby swampland of the Buffalo Bayou.

Before Harvey, according to the Army, the dams had saved Houston from $10 billion in flood damage.

The dams are now undergoing the severest test they’ve ever had — and so far, are performing well. Unlike in New Orleans after Katrina, the floodwaters haven’t broken the walls or gates.

Downtown Houston, some of its oldest neighborhoods and the Texas Medical Center aren’t dry; they did, after all, get a lot of rain. But they didn’t suffer the level of flooding they would’ve if the dams had failed. The dams also likely saved hundreds of lives, if not more.

The dams and reservoirs did fail, though, in another way. They aren’t ambitious enough to serve modern Houston. In the 1940s, as the Army pointed out last year, Houston had a population of less than 400,000. Today, the city’s at 2.3 million.

Just like in New Orleans, this means people who aren’t lucky enough to live in older, higher neighborhoods aren’t protected by this infrastructure, at least not in a catastrophic flood.

As the rainwater in the reservoirs rose last week, the Army had to release some of their collected water to avoid damage to the dams. That water spilled into neighborhoods that didn’t even exist half a century ago.

The bigger floods sent hundreds of thousands of residents fleeing to friends’ and relatives’ homes and hotels if they were lucky, and to public shelters like the city’s convention center if they had no other where to go.

It’s a tale of two cities. As the Chronicle reported last Thursday, “the central heart of Houston is mostly dry and just waiting for a return to normalcy.” But “heavily populated areas to the west and northwest remain a waist-deep chocolate soup as . . . releases continue to be made” from the reservoirs.

Houston and New York, then, despite their vast differences, have one thing in common: Their critical infrastructure hasn’t kept up. Just as New York’s subways can’t handle today’s record crowds, Houston’s dams can’t handle the city’s boom-time population.

“Just as New York’s subways can’t handle today’s record crowds, Houston’s dams can’t handle the city’s boom-time population.”

One answer to this problem is money. The Army has already started some modest projects to improve Houston’s dams.

After Katrina, the federal government spent $14.5 billion shoring up New Orleans’ flood protection. Long-term flood-control investment is a good idea in Houston, too.

But Washington should do this not through a chaotic post-Harvey recovery bill, but through President Trump’s campaign-season idea of a national infrastructure plan. (Whatever happened to it?)

Houston might not like the other answer so much: planning. The city allows developers to build just about anywhere, including on swamps that were once natural outlets for floods.

It’s not alone. New Yorkers may sniff at Texas’ free-for-all attitude. But Gotham, too, has hundreds of thousands of people living in low-lying areas. (Remember Sandy and Staten Island?)

In both cities, real-estate prices should, and do, reflect the risk of flooding. If your house is on a swamp, it should cost less. Eventually, though, all federal taxpayers bear the ultimate risk.

After Harvey, just as after Sandy and Katrina, taxpayers will have to pay out billions in flood-insurance claims for supposedly cheap houses. But the national flood-insurance program is already $24 billion in debt. And if past storms are any guide, the feds will give up to hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece to people who didn’t have flood insurance anyway.

Harvey was supposedly a 1,000-year weather event. But does anyone really think we have 1,000 years to figure out how to house the country’s ever-growing population cheaply and safely?

This piece originally appeared in the New York Post


Nicole Gelinas is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. Follow her on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post