Tue, Sep 12, 2017 - Page 9 News List

How to rebuild cities after hurricanes like Harvey

The aftermath of a disaster often focuses on getting back to normal, but do cities need to think harder about how to withstand the next one?

By Oliver Milman  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

US President Donald Trump visited a hurricane-stricken Houston and promised the “best ever” government response before pumping his fist from the steps of Air Force One as he departed.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott marveled that the state’s “resilient spirit is alive and well.”

The phrase “Houston Strong” has been daubed as graffiti on city underpasses and held aloft as placards at home baseball games.

There has been plenty of defiance, heart-rending loss and uplifting generosity in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, but one pressing topic has so far been largely overlooked: How will Houston rebuild in a better way should a storm like this ever visit again?

“When you talk about rebuilding a place like Houston, people’s first thoughts are: ‘I want it back the way it was,’” University of Maryland senior research engineer Sandra Knight said. “And unfortunately, that’s not the best thing to do. As a nation we aren’t planning forward enough. We are developing in places that aren’t sustainable. We need to start doing things differently.”

Abbott has said a “Texas-sized storm needs a Texas-sized response,” predicting that reconstruction after the heaviest rainfall event in recorded US history — about 94.6 trillion liters of water were dumped on a band of southeast Texas in just a few days — would top the US$120 billion required by New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

It might cost taxpayers more than US$180 billion, and it is not yet clear what lessons will be learned ahead of the rebuild.

The US places huge emphasis on flood recovery rather than avoidance, using the heft of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency to help those in need as well as administer a national insurance scheme that ostensibly places restrictions on what is built where, but in practice has repeatedly bailed out houses in flood-prone areas that are frequently inundated.

This emergency response is entirely appropriate in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, but at some point, a difficult conversation about whether a city needs to be refashioned as it recovers also needs to happen, New Orleans Chief Resilience Officer Jeff Hebert said.

“Houston had 51 inches [130cm] of rain and that would be disastrous for any city in the world — Mexico City, Bangkok, anywhere,” Hebert said. “It was unprecedented. The priority now is rescuing people and helping them.”

“The next phase of recovery is the appropriate time to talk about how to rebuild the city. Houston will have to think about retrofitting to accept more water and think about its development patterns. The city will have to think about how it manages storm water and its regulations,” he said.

Houston has taken a rather laissez-faire approach to city planning, with a lack of zoning allowing housing to spill out over a large expanse, often in areas next to bayous vulnerable to flooding.

The city is lacking in sponge-like parklands and is rich in concrete, which helps push water into unplanned streetscape swimming pools.

The flat terrain of Houston, along with its proximity to the hurricane-spawning Gulf of Mexico, are further vulnerabilities.

Climate change is playing a role — the warming atmosphere holds more moisture that falls in the sort of rain that swamped Houston. The seas are rising faster on the eastern seaboard of the US than almost anywhere else in the world, heightening the effects of storm surges from hurricanes.

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