Houston Faces Flood Risk with 500-Year Floodplain Management

Mayor Sylvester Turner with supplies as part of Hurricane Harvey post-disaster relief efforts. Turner is proposing 500-year floodplain restrictions on community development.
Image: Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP, Pool

As Houston remained in disaster recovery mode, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced a proposal to restrict development below the 500-year floodplain along with temporary transitional housing strategies.

Editor’s Note: Updated May 22, 2018. Houston revised Chapter 19 regulations to the 500-year floodplain standard in April 2018. Not all district representatives agreed with the measure, and the fighting over new housing developments continues.

According to some urban planning experts, mismanagement of community development created sprawl in the floodplain, exacerbating stormwater runoff and increasing flooding, resulting in millions of dollars of impact on the Houston’s infrastructure, housing and resources, and a high toll on residents’ lives.

But before Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston, the city has more often than not dealt with flooding throughout its history. Since the city was founded, flooding along its main stormwater repository — Buffalo Bayou — was a thing. It’s a vulnerability that has overwhelmed Houston public works and infrastructure time and again.

According to an in-depth two-part series about Hurricane Harvey as Houston’s “reckoning” in December, 2017, by the Houston Chronicle:

Houston’s deference to developers was evidenced by the thousands of homes built in known floodplains and floodways, clogging the path of rushing floodwater and causing it to rise. Developers not only had built out to the bases of the reservoirs that once sat on the far western flank of Harris County, but inside them — within their flood pools — and right up to their emergency spillways. Over time, Houstonians became desensitized to the risks of living about 50 feet above sea level.

Increased Floodplain Restrictions to be Proposed

While others disagree that sprawl is a chief driver of Harvey’s disaster quotient and point to factors like the Brazos River reaching record levels, the charge levied at the city that allowing continued development in certain floodplains was a bad idea for this particular city and its unique variables are being considered.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced to City Council he will propose a change in zoning ordinances, requiring new construction in Houston to be built two feet above the 500-year floodplain, according to ABC.

The city is currently reviewing all floodplain regulations as they relate to building ordinances, according to the Houston Chronicle, as well as new community development proposals to rebuild and replace lost housing. Floodplains are named based on probability models, and efforts to change Houston’s floodplain restrictions in the past had failed.

According to Vox, in a piece that investigates why the city is unprepared for flooding and suggests the use of national floodplain assessments in development planning don’t work as well in Houston, the city has actually been “working off a Hazard Mitigation Plan it developed in 2012 — based on where FEMA was then saying the city’s 100-year and 500-year floodplains were located.” Harris County FEMA maps were most recently updated in 2016.

Turner’s proposal to curb development below the 500-year floodplain will come in February, as attention is focused on more immediate disaster recovery needs and the Turner Administration’s ongoing affordable housing development work.

Ordinance Change for Temporary Transitional Housing to Be Proposed

Houston had lost more than 15,500 homes to the hurricane, but another 273,276 homes were reported damaged by ABC13. There is still a lot of flooded housing repair work needed, and the city is leveraging a workforce development grant to help address a shortage of qualified workers.

While work is completed on damaged homes, displaced people are in need of post-disaster transitional housing. Turner said he would bring an ordinance to city council next week to allow people to place trailers, container homes and other temporary structures on property to house residents as they rebuild. The mayor stressed that it would not be a permanent change, rather its a temporary motion.

It might also to help to ease the citys burden on the Federal government, which has since extended disaster housing support.

On January 12th, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) granted Texas’ request to extend the deadline for Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) for victims of Hurricane Harvey. The FEMA program covers short-term shelter for those displaced by Hurricane Harvey. The TSA deadline has been extended to March 12, 2018. It was previously scheduled to terminate on January 16th.

Opening the Door to Transit-Oriented Development

In addition to floodplain management changes, rebuilding Houston may open the door to orient community development more toward mobility as the Turner Administration pursues affordable housing opportunities.

According to Streetsblog USA, transit oriented development strategies, which consider transportation as well as housing costs when measuring affordability, there is optimism in the city to advance affordable housing development goals.

The post-Harvey disaster recovery could be a huge turning point that sets a positive course for the city,” said Tom McCasland, director of Houston Housing and Community Development.

The city can encourage multi-family housing where there is good transit, with service that is every 15 minutes during peak hours, and that is 100 percent affordable or has a mix [of affordable, workforce, and market-rate housing],” he said.


About the author

Andrea Fox

Andrea Fox

Andrea Fox is Editor of EfficientGov.com and Senior Editor at Lexipol. She is based in Massachusetts.