Best-selling Florida author/journalist Craig Pittman penned a poignant post for the Florida Phoenix about the state’s problems evacuating coastal communities before hurricanes. While the article uses evacuation to make a point, it’s really about a political culture that permits developments that put people’s lives at risk. It’s a cautionary tale for Texas, especially Harris County where flooding is such a huge issue and where the current leadership seems to have lost interest in mitigating it.
Ignoring Evacuation Standards
The title of Pittman’s article is “Development on Florida’s barrier islands made Ian evacuation virtually impossible.”
The story traces the approval of a high-rise development on a Florida barrier island that sought building permits, despite warnings that population density would lead to a 96-hour evacuation time.
Florida has a 16-hour evacuation standard. But only 9 of the state’s 45 counties can meet it.Florida Phoenix article by Craig Pittman
A loophole in Florida law lets developers mitigate evacuation delays with storm shelters. “They can do that by building new storm shelters, donating land for storm shelters, or donating money for storm shelters. In other words, it’s all about shelters, not about making it any easier to get off the island,” says Pittman.
“Dial a Prayer” for Buyers after Rebuilding
Then along came a hurricane named Ian – almost a Category 5 storm. Lee County (three barrier islands) didn’t issue evacuation orders until 24-hours in advance and at least 119 people died.
Pittman ends with this sage advice regarding rebuilding in the same place. “You know the elected officials will be bowing to whatever those developers want. So, here’s my suggestion. They should approve building in those areas that Ian destroyed, but with one requirement. Every single would-be buyer should get a photo showing exactly what that spot looked like after Ian hit.”
“Then, if they still want to buy there, give them the phone number for Dial-A-Prayer. They’re going to need it, because if another Ian hits, the only one who can help them is Jesus.”
Similarities with Texas: Ill-Advised Political Decisions
Houston had a disastrous experience with evacuation during 180 mph Hurricane Rita. Evacuation attempts were tied to 107 deaths of Houston-area residents alone. Now, we don’t even try to evacuate from wind anymore. But as I read Pittman’s article, I thought of posts I have written about our ill-advised development practices that put people in harm’s way or that contribute to flooding. Some of the highlights include:
- Half-sized detention ponds
- Building in flood zones
- Destruction of wetlands
- Buying out condos destroyed by flooding only to build more a mile downstream – even closer to the river
- Failure to adopt minimum drainage standards and building codes
- Loopholes in drainage regulations that let developers avoid building detention ponds
- Failure to follow construction best practices
- Mining practices that contribute to sedimentation
- Clearcutting without precautions
- Not keeping flood maps up to date
- Building new developments to old standards when everyone knows the standards will soon change
- Delays in adopting new standards
- Lack of enforcement
- Trying to build high-rises in floodways where people can’t be evacuated
How soon we forget!
Lessons for Harris County
Five years after Harvey, we’ve squandered an opportunity. Articles like those above are becoming more common, not less. As fear of flooding has receded, so has the zeal to hold developers to higher standards. And the pace of flood-mitigation efforts has slowed. We’ve squandered our best chance – perhaps ever – to address flooding.
For example, fourteen months after the Texas General Land Office notified Harris County that it would get $750 million to mitigate flooding, the County has yet to submit a plan for how it would spend the money.
In fact, the county has yet to identify a single project in the plan. Lina Hidalgo, the Harris County judge, gave the project to her Community Services department instead of Flood Control. So far, Community Services has only identified a process for determining the plan. The department is still waiting on “direction from leadership” to identify projects that add up to $750 million.
Duh! Did someone think of listing all the unfunded flood-bond projects? This is what I mean about the loss of zeal on the part of the county leader.
The Public-Safety Threat and What to Do About It
Potential flooding is as much of a public-safety threat as crime. Harvey stole $125 billion from people and businesses. That’s more than $30,000 for every person in Harris County. It’s time we took flooding seriously again. We need to regain our sense of urgency about flood-reduction efforts. That’s why ReduceFlooding has endorsed Alexandra del Moral Mealer for County Judge. She is laser-focused on the issues that matter most in Harris County.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/18/22
1876 Days since Hurricane Harvey
The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.