Paradoxes of “Flood Control”
Most of us would hate to get flooded. Repairs can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. They can also disrupt normal life for months or even years. Yet collectively, we often act in ways that worsen flooding. Why?
From Ignorance to Inadvertence and Intentional
Some individuals do it out of ignorance, like the person who re-routes his drainage onto a neighbor’s property without thinking.
Some do it out of self-interest, like the person who re-routes his drainage onto a neighbor’s property WHILE thinking that he is saving his own.
And some do it on a mass scale for profit. These include developers who falsify engineering reports, or exploit loopholes and grandfather clauses in local regulations to save money. For instance, by avoiding the construction of detention ponds, they can squeeze more saleable lots out of a piece of land. Likewise, some bring fill into floodplains. And even try to build homes in floodways.
Putting Self-Interest Ahead of Public Interest
They all have one thing in common. They put self-interest ahead of public interest. They let society deal with the consequences of inconsiderate and sometimes illegal actions.
When you look at such actions as conflicts between the individual and the collective, they appear rational – people just trying to maximize their profits and minimize their costs.
But when you look at it from the taxpayer perspective, through the other end of the telescope, these actions appear irrational, self-contradictory and paradoxical. Some examples:
- Montgomery County gives agricultural- and timber-exemption property tax breaks to sand mines in floodways. Then they let the federal government and downstream taxpayers in Harris County and the City of Houston pay for more than a hundred million dollars in dredging.
- We allow the destruction of wetlands, i.e., nature’s sponges. The loss of vegetation and increase in impervious cover due to development in wetlands speeds up the concentration of floodwaters, often exacerbating downstream flooding.
- Land in floodplains and floodways is cheap. Allowing builders to develop there maximizes their profit, but also increases damage during floods. Then residents make flood insurance claims, seek other financial assistance, or demand expensive flood mitigation projects to protect themselves.
- A corollary to that: we make publicly subsidized flood insurance available in the United States. That creates a false sense of security that encourages development in dangerous places. “Even if I flood, I’m covered.” Would a private insurance company make the same offer? Hell no! They would price the policy so that people had to investigate and reconsider the risk.
- To build in dangerous places, people yell “property rights.” They count on the fact that most Americans are such rabid individualists that they can rally political sentiment for dubious projects with that battle cry. But when the big flood comes, they jeopardize other people’s lives by forcing first responders to make high-water rescues in swift-moving currents.
- Most people place unfounded faith in numbers and experts. The engineer who tells them their new home is X feet above the hundred-year flood plain may be a hired gun who does not disclose limitations on the data. For instance, in one case I saw a new mall upstream changed the base flood elevation of a residence by 12 FEET! Who was that engineer working for? Was the City or County engineer really checking his work?
- Most people are not knowledgeable enough to interpret risk from flood maps. They think they’re in or out of the risky areas based on government flood maps. But they may not know that their local government has not updated the data on which those maps are built for decades. During that time, intensive upstream development may have occurred.
- Brown & Root warned of the need for maintenance dredging at certain places on the West Fork San Jacinto almost two decades before the need became APPARENT. But it was easy to defer maintenance on problems lurking underwater. And the City did. That contributed to the flooding of almost 20,000 homes and businesses in the Lake Houston area during Harvey.
- We acknowledge that flooding does not respect political boundaries. But flood regulations remain, in many cases, out of sync across those boundaries. The balkanization of local politics makes flood mitigation difficult. Careless development upstream can quickly offset the expenditure of hundreds of millions spent on flood mitigation projects downstream. That results in no net gain and can even make flooding worse.
- Failure to predict (or account for) upstream development can erode the margin of error that protects downstream residents from flooding.
- Most Americans dream of owning their own little plot of land. So, we continue to grow outward, not upward. This creates the need for more concrete and other impervious cover. More floodplains get filled. More wetlands get destroyed. More roads get paved. More aggregate gets extracted from floodways and floodplains. And the cycle continues relentlessly.
- Some counties deliberately design lax floodplain regulations or ignore them to lure developers. The East Montgomery County Improvement District used to trumpet, “Come here. We have no rules.” Then the developers build questionable developments in questionable places and target first-time home buyers who are too naïve to understand the risks.
- Montgomery County also hired an engineering firm to check the engineering firm’s own plans for a developer. As many as 600 homes across the county line in Kingwood flooded when the company didn’t highlight its own “errors.” For instance, they said there were no floodplains or wetlands when there were. If these guys were financial auditors, they would be disbarred by now. Talk about conflicts! But in the topsy-turvy world of engineering, that can make them more attractive to potential developer clients.
- One developer in Liberty County has forever altered the floodplains of the East Fork and Luce Bayou across an area that’s already 15,000 acres and growing. Liberty County commissioners refused to look at video evidence that the developer was not following county regulations. Then, in the same meeting, they complained about people making allegations without any evidence. Blindness is willful when tax dollars are at stake.
- Population can simply outgrow drainage infrastructure as it has in large parts of Houston. So, in 2010, Houstonians passed a drainage fee based on a property’s percentage of impervious cover. Then City officials promptly started diverting money from the fund. Voters passed another charter amendment in 2018 to create a lock box around the money. But the language did not do that. And guess what? A lack of ballot and budget transparency keeps us locked in cycles of despair and repair.
- Major floods happen infrequently enough that officials, engineers and developers can blame them on “acts of God.” In reality, floods result not only from what falls from the sky, but also from thousands of individual decisions leading up to the flood. Developers who built in the wrong place. People who bought in the wrong place. Based on information some experts knew was outdated. Without taking proper precautions. See above.
- Flood mitigation and disaster relief processes take too long. They need re-engineering to shorten the time between problem and solution. We are still accepting applications for Harvey aid. And most of the flood mitigation projects completed to date that arose from Harvey have been studies that are a preludeto construction. The lengthy time between problem and solution keeps people at risk for flooding.
After studying and writing about flooding for more than three years, here are my nominations for the 17 most bizarre things we tolerate as a society re: flooding.
I could go on. But you get the idea. Much flooding is self-inflicted by the human race.
I received a flood insurance mailing today from USAA. They pointed out how much even a small amount of water can set you back financially. “Just 1 inch of flood damage can cost you more than $25,000,” the company claims. “Why risk it?”
USAA also points out that:
- Floods are the #1 natural disaster in the U.S.
- Flood insurance isn’t part of your typical homeowner’s coverage.
- More than 20% of flood losses each year occur in low- or medium-risk areas.
That last point really stopped me.
We need to have a serious discussion about these paradoxes. Clearly, we’re doing many things wrong.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/29/2021
1308 Days after 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.