Houston’s also Living in Post-Katrina Time

Section: Outlook – Page 1

Sun, 18 Sep 2005

Houston’s also living in post-Katrina time


KATRINA is a watershed event. The kind of event for which there is Pre-Katrina and Post-Katrina time. A dividing of the metaphorical waters, as it were. As a nation, we will be talking about how we do emergency response, particularly for those most in need, in pre-and post-Katrina terms for a long time.

But Katrina and all hurricanes and tropical storms are also literal “watershed events”- water flowing down, though and within our Gulf Coast watersheds out to the Gulf of Mexico. I hope we will also be talking about watershed management in pre- and post-Katrina terms for a long time as well. It is clear in Katrina’s devastating wake that we have much to learn about sound watershed management.

Each and every one of us along the Gulf lives in a watershed – the area of land that has a common drainage point. All the land that is drained by Buffalo Bayou, for example, is the Buffalo Bayou watershed. Everything that is done in the watershed shows up in the river or bayou that drains it. Not paying attention to where and how water flows in the watershed is what gets us into trouble and causes big storms to become bigger events than they otherwise would be.

Recognizing that nature imposes certain limits and that all land is not equal in terms of risk implies the necessity of some degree of land use planning. Pre-Katrina, we didn’t like to talk about land-use planning in this region. It smacks too much of big government intervention for our taste. Post-Katrina, we have been talking about the need to re-evaluate the role of government in emergency response. Perhaps starving the government in this area isn’t the answer. Maybe it isn’t the answer in terms of long-term planning for land use, either.

We live in a very flat area with lots of rainfall. We know that flooding is our big problem. But we also know that the risk is not the same everywhere.

We know we should stay out of floodplains. But we don’t seem to have learned the lesson with respect to hurricanes. Thousands of new homes have been platted in low-lying Galveston County and other vulnerable areas in the region.

Because we resist land-use planning, we give little thought to whether new subdivisions should go in where they are going. The market demands these houses, and that is good enough for us. Or at least it was in pre-Katrina times. The market doesn’t think like a watershed – and therein lies the problem.

Land-use planning does not mean the end of the free market. It just means that local communities, not “big government,” have a right, indeed an obligation, to do a little planning for the future health and safety of their residents. It means that certain boundaries can be set, that a template upon which the free market can operate at will is constructed. To do otherwise is to ignore the fundamental social contract that informs our democracy.

So what can Katrina teach us about planning in our area? Perhaps we can take a hint from that most famous part of New Orleans, the French Quarter, which flooded only a little and whose buildings suffered little wind damage. At least three lessons emerge:

1. Location. Not all of New Orleans was equally vulnerable, as we have seen. The French Quarter is on much higher ground. It does make a difference where you are on the landscape. In our area, only a few feet of elevation can make all the difference in the world. There are also areas that should be avoided because of the intrinsic value they provide to society: certain wetlands, prairies and forests. Only local governments and their elected officials can make these decisions.

2. Permanence of structure. It is clear that we don’t build homes to last, and we certainly don’t build them to flood-proof standards. I am reminded of pictures I have seen of flooding in Bangladesh, with its masonry houses that are flooded year after year. When the water recedes, residents of that country just take out the hose and wash it down. The owner of a masonry house may lose belongings caught in the flood, but not his or her house. The French Quarter was built to last, mainly of masonry and rock.

3. Urban form. We build cities for cars, not people. This means that we spread out much more than we have to, and consequently end up paying more for transportation than we do for housing. Our grandparents could afford higher quality houses than we can because they spent so much less on transportation. Perhaps if we built communities with pedestrian rather than car standards in mind we could afford to flood-proof our houses. Living in a more compact, pedestrian-friendly form would also provide more opportunity to get to know our neighbors better – one of the very best things that makes for resilient cities that can respond well to emergencies of any kind.

The French Quarter has the kind of urban form that encourages spontaneous interactions among neighbors. Take away the bars and Bourbon Street and you would have an environment any small town or city in America would envy. It wouldn’t be the French Quarter of course, but there can only be one of those.

As we imagine our future, we must imagine it with Katrina-like storms and other disasters. Doing so will help us make our cities much more pleasant and safe to live in all the time, and much more resilient in the face of storms that will surely come our way. But it will require more than imagination; it will require planning.

John Jacob is director of the Texas Coastal Watershed Program, a joint project of Texas Sea Grant and Texas Cooperative Extension, both part of the Texas A&M University System.
Opinions expressed here are his alone. Readers may e-mail him at jjacob@tamu.edu

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