Resilient Houston: Boiling the Ocean

Earlier this month, the City of Houston released an epic 186-page report called “Resilient Houston.”

Cover photo from Resilient Houston. To see the entire report, click here.

Defining Resilience: The First Challenge

After Harvey, one heard lots of talk about “resilience.” Frankly, it became the cliché of the day in many circles. One could not go to a seminar or public meeting without hearing someone spout the term with the zeal of a freshly minted MBA trying to impress his/her boss. The word-du-jour bestowed an air of insider knowledge that commanded attention in a room full of people looking for answers.

The problem with such amorphous terms is they fail to calibrate expectations and set boundaries. Because no one knows exactly what they mean, they can be twisted to mean almost anything and serve any parochial interest.

Making the City More Resistant to Flooding?

I, for one, thought it was all about making the city more resistant to flooding. Silly me. I should have known better. When I opened the final report last week, I found a blueprint for transforming the City into a Utopian society. The sentiments were all noble and borne of an egalitarian ethic. But very little of the report addressed ways to flood-proof the city.

180 Degrees from Flood-Bond Approach

This was nothing like the Harris County Flood Bond a year after Harvey. During that year, Flood Control put the county under a microscope. It met with residents, business owners and community leaders in every watershed. Then flood control developed a project list, estimated project costs, and gave voters something tangible to vote on – a $2.5 billion bond. After voters approved it, approximately half of the mitigation projects had begun within another year.

Instead of asking how can we prevent or reduce flooding, Resilient Houston looks at the City through the other end of the telescope. It asks how can we prevent or reduce the impacts of flooding on the poor, the elderly, the mentally ill, the hungry and more. Noble sentiments, no doubt. I have no quarrel with them. But from a pragmatic point of view, how do you address such a broad agenda? Wouldn’t it be easier just to reduce the flooding? Where do you find the money to address all those related issues? How do you measure results?

Boiling the Ocean

Business people have their own term for such overly ambitious plans: “boiling the ocean.” By attempting the impossible, no matter how noble, ocean-boiling exercises collapse from their own weight.

Yes, it’s good to have a vision for where you want to go.

But does the City of Houston really need to solve the problems of climate change, income inequality, disparities in health care, housing affordability, urban sprawl, carbon neutrality, homelessness, full employment, aging infrastructure, public transportation, wealth generation, and street crime in order to repair a sewer?

Why is it necessary for the City to invest in local arts, build “community cohesion,” and celebrate “neighborhood identity” to clean out a ditch?

You get the idea. It’s as if every group in the City needing a handout saw “resilience” as a meal ticket. “Yeah, let’s hitch our wagons to that star. Sink our hooks into that. That’s good for a grant or two.”

Making Room for Water

On page 99, the report finally declares that we need to “Make Room for Water.” Now, they’re talking! As long as it’s not in my living room.

This report has plenty of good ideas. Goal #11 says, “We will modernize Houston infrastructure to address the challenges of the future.” Gee. Where have I heard that before?

Wait! Ten years ago. The drainage fee. Prop A. A billion dollars later, where has the money gone? Why are the ditches still clogged?

Positives in Plan

Maybe it’s unfair to ask for an actionable plan and accountability in a report like this.

It does lay out an attractive vision for the City’s future.

After all, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there. And it’s hard to have a beating heart and not feel for the people highlighted in this report.

Shortcomings of Plan

On the other hand, Resilient Houston has everything but a Gannt chart (showing a project’s key steps and critical path), a deadline and a budget.

Meanwhile, I know of hundreds of people in Elm Grove who flooded twice in five months last year. They just need someone to make Perry Homes get off its ass and build some detention ponds. They don’t have time to “Leverage Smart City Investments to Address our Most Critical Resilience Challenges” (Section 43), one of which is street flooding.

And if the City really wants to “Enable Houstonians to Make Mobility Choices that Improve Well-Being and Reduce the Cost of Living” (Section 50), the City could start by keeping floodwater out of people’s crankcases.

New vehicle destroyed by May 7th flood in Elm Grove.
Another new vehicle belonging to same family destroyed by Imelda flood in Elm Grove just five months later.
Vehicle destroyed in Imelda flood on Village Springs in Elm Grove. The street was full of such vehicles. This family lost two also.

Harris County Flood Control estimates that more than 300,000 vehicles flooded across Harris County during Harvey. Many were at homes, parking garages, and dealership lots.

In May of 2019, the average price of a new car purchased in the U.S. climbed to $36,718. Replacing those 300,000 vehicles cost $11 billion.

If you want to reduce transportation costs for Houstonians, wouldn’t that be a good place to start? Like NOW. Do we really need to drag bike lanes and sidewalks into this debate? Yikes.

It took the City nearly 900 days to produce this report.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 2/19/2020

904 Days after Hurricane Harvey