With a few tweaks, the city’s relaxed land-use regulations might be an advantage during recovery and rebuilding.

Hurricane Harvey brought an estimated nine trillion gallons of water into the streets of Houston, bringing America’s fourth largest city to its knees. In the wake of the disaster, many urbanists asked: To what extent did Houston’s unconventional approach to planning make the damage worse?

Before the rain stopped falling, more than a few writers laid the blame for some of the damage at the feet of Houston’s lack of zoning and the region’s startling horizontal growth. Others pointed to Houston’s rapidly spreading impervious surfaces, often in the form of surface parking lots and roads, which prevent water from soaking into the ground, adding to runoff and increasing the speed of flowing water. Since 2010 alone, area officials have approved the construction of over 7,000 houses in 100-year floodplains. Much of this development also occurred in prairie wetlands, reducing the region’s capacity to absorb the extreme amounts of water dumped onto the city by Harvey.
But while some new construction happened within Houston proper, most of it occurred in Houston’s conventionally zoned suburbs; as Mayor Sylvester Turner recently put it, “Zoning wouldn’t have changed anything. We would have been a city with zoning that flooded.”There is no doubt that developing on wetlands and adding too much impervious surface contributed to the catastrophic shape of the Houston region’s flooding. But for the most part, these problems have very little to do with zoning. Houston does lack conventional Euclidian zoning—residents have voted it down three times, most recently in 1994. But lacking Euclidian zoning just means that Houston doesn’t strictly separate land uses and densities—that is to say, the city doesn’t forcibly separate things like single-family homes, apartments, groceries, and offices. In practice, this means is that Houston lacks several of the land-use regulations that many urbanists today revile. Most of these regulations—from floor area ratios to banning accessory dwelling units—have very little to do with developing in floodplains, and largely serve to restrict dense urban development.

Beyond not segregating uses, Houston’s approach to planning is unique in that it doesn’t artificially limit densities or throw up barriers to dense urban redevelopment. This is generally good if you care about housing affordability or racial segregation, since it keeps NIMBYs from blocking new multi-family housing. Unlike San Francisco or Boston, Houston lacks a lot of the discretionary reviews and “neighborhood vetoes,” making it much easier to convert single-family homes in high-demand areas into apartments or townhouses. This also makes dense infill redevelopment much easier, which allows cities to grow up and become more dense. Where the zoning in most cities pushes new development out into the suburbs, Houston keeps it easy to add more housing in desirable urban neighborhoods. Ironically, if we are concerned about destructive greenfield development, Houston’s lack of zoning almost certainly helps more than it hurts.

Houston’s unique, hands-off approach means that building dense new housing in the city is easy.

In this sense, Houston’s lack of zoning could prove to be an advantage when it comes to recovering and rebuilding in a sustainable way. Early estimates put the number of homes destroyed at 40,000 and many more partially damaged homes will likely be demolished in the coming weeks and months. We also know that if we want to avoid worsening the next flood, new housing can’t go back into wetlands or onto sensitive greenfields. With the risks of suburban development clear and over 500,000 cars waterlogged, many residents displaced by flooding may look to urban Houston for a new home. Houston is going to need a lot of new housing, and most of it will need to go into the city’s existing urban areas.Happily, Houston’s unique, hands-off approach means that building dense new housing in the city is easy. Consider that over the last few years, Houston has been undergoing an unprecedented boom in multifamily housing construction. In 2016 alone, Houston built an estimated 25,000 apartments, much higher than considerably larger cities like New York and Los Angeles. Few other cities of Houston’s size would have the administrative capacity or willingness to facilitate the massive urban rebuilding that will be needed post-Harvey, and this is largely thanks to Houston’s lack of zoning and flexible approach to urban development.

For planners, the key will be to make the tweaks needed to keep this massive redevelopment from worsening future extreme weather events. First, planners could eliminate the city’s minimum parking requirements. Where land is cheap and parking requirements are high, these requirements force developers to build large surface parking lots, resulting in hundreds of acres of impervious surface across the city. As the rebuilding process starts, it would be silly to see developers forced to rebuild them.Second, state and local policymakers should set aside more funds for the purchase of development rights, allowing the city to buy from landowners the right to develop their property. This has the benefit of preserving sensitive wetlands and environments before they are developed. Where wetlands were already developed, the city should buy out property owners and convert the land back into wetlands. Both solutions could expand and protect water-absorbent wetlands without running afoul of Houston’s famous reverence for property rights.

Finally, policymakers in Houston and surrounding municipalities could expand incentives for new developments and renovations that incorporate stormwater mitigation into their design. Less impervious surface and more wetlands preservation will help on the margin, but as The Atlantic’s Ian Bogost pointed out, planners still need to find a place to put all that water during extreme weather. Expanding incentives to add cisterns, green roofs, and detention ponds to new development could help to address this challenge.

The trick will be expanding such programs not just in the city of Houston, but across the region, with its many levels of government and municipalities. Some municipalities have taken stormwater mitigation very seriously. But going forward, the state will probably need to tame the region’s tangled mess of 949 suburban Municipal Utility Districts, which manage local infrastructure. So far, they have largely dropped the ball on stormwater management. If Houston is going to manage nine trillion gallons of water again, it’s going to need help.


As efforts to rebuild have slowly begun in areas hit hard by Hurricane Harvey, officials continue to warn of lingering environmental hazards, including the health risks posed by receding floodwater.




In a news release Sunday night, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality cautioned that floodwaters can contain bacteria and contaminants, and conceal downed power lines, large objects and animals. Gov. Greg Abbott gave a similar warning in a Sunday interview with CNN’s “State of the Union,” saying, “These waters are filled both with chemicals [and] waste, things like that, that can pose real health hazards.” He referenced a “multitude of dangers to public health because of the flooding waters.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to access 11 ultra-polluted Superfund sites damaged by the storm, raising concerns about the spread of toxins.

Thousands of people are still without drinking water, including some of the 120,000 residents of Beaumont – many of whom have queued in long lines for bottled water. The TCEQ, in its release, said 188 water systems in the state have boil-water notices, and 37 others have been shut down. Nearly 85,000 homes and businesses were still without power Sunday, Reuters reported.

Over 400 wastewater treatment plants are also not fully operational, and wastewater from some facilities has spilled due to flooding, according to the TCEQ release. The agency said it is “actively working to monitor facilities that have reported spills, conduct outreach and provide technical guidance to all other wastewater facilities in flood-impacted areas.”

And in Crosby, a 1.5 mile evacuation zone that’s been in place since Tuesday around an Arkema Inc. facility was lifted overnight. With little notice, the company exploded its six remaining chemical containers Sunday in what was described by officials as a “controlled burn” and a “proactive approach to minimize the impacts to the community.” The company had initially said it would not destroy the remaining chemicals after flood-related damage caused a series of explosions at the facility. The Houston Chronicle reported that notice wasn’t given until after the ignition operations had already begun on Sunday.

At a news conference Monday morning, representatives for Arkema said soot from the ignition operations was being tested and that there was no expected impact on the area’s water supply. They confirmed that five of the company’s facilities in the Gulf Coast had been impacted by the storm, though not as badly as the Crosby plant, and could not say when the Crosby facility would reopen.

Local authorities advised residents returning to homes within the evacuation zone to drink bottled water and wear surgical masks, closed-toe shoes and gloves as a precautionary measure. In a news release, the Harris County Public Health Department said the same recommendation is given to those returning to flooded homes.

Swift Federal Funding Promised

U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy paid a visit Monday afternoon to Houston, where he announced the House will vote Wednesday morning on an initial relief package for Harvey victims. McCarthy, a California Republican, made the announcement at a news conference at the NRG Center, which is being used as a shelter.

“It won’t be the only relief package we vote on,” McCarthy said, flanked by members of the Texas congressional delegation. “What we want to do is make sure FEMA has the money going forward as the cities and the counties assess the damage.”

Abbott, McCarthy, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, and U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, met Sunday, and the congressional leaders insisted then too that action would be swiftly taken to pass the funding measure, according to a release after their meeting.

Recovery Efforts Continue

Officials say Harvey has caused at least 60 deaths, many from drowning and indirect effects of the storm, the Associated Press reported Monday.

In a conference call, an officer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency said efforts had shifted from life-saving to recovery. John Long, the Deputy Federal Coordinating Officer, said 550,000 families had registered for a FEMA assistance program and that more than 16,000 were staying in hotels as part of a transitional shelter program.

On Monday night, FEMA granted Abbott’s request for the agency to provide loans that will help Texas cities rebuild after the storm.

“The quick and focused work of our federal partners in response to Hurricane Harvey has been essential to the recovery in Texas,” Abbott said in a statement.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice repopulated two Richmond prisons Monday, after the facilities were evacuated last week amid flooding from the storm. About 1,400 inmates were returned to the all-male Jester 3 and Vance Units.

Three other prisons, housing some 4,500 male inmates among them, remain evacuated. In an email Monday, the TDCJ said the Ramsey, Stringfellow and Terrrell Units will continued to be assessed and, once safe, will also be repopulated.

The water supply at several federal and state prisons in Beaumont was impacted by flooding, the Chronicle wrote Monday. Correctional officers there were also reportedly unable to cross the Neches River to get to work.

Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.


Harvey flooded the U.S.’ most dangerous toxic waste sites

The EPA report specifically noted the risk that floodwaters might carry away and spread toxic materials over a wider area

At the Highlands Acid Pit on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, the No Trespassing sign on the barbed-wire fence encircling the 3.3-acre Superfund site barely peeked above the churning flood water from the nearby San Jacinto River. AP Photo/Jason Dearen

The Associated Press visited the sites this past week, some of them still only accessible by boat.

Long a centre of the American petrochemical industry, the Houston metro area has more than a dozen such Superfund sites, designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as being among the most intensely contaminated places in the country.

EPA spokeswoman Amy Graham could not immediately provide details on when agency experts would inspect the Houston-area sites. She said Friday that staff had checked on two other Superfund sites in Corpus Christi and found no significant damage.

“We will begin to assess other sites after flood waters recede in those areas,” Graham said.

Near the Highlands Acid Pit, across the swollen San Jacinto River from Houston, Dwight Chandler sipped beer and swept out the thick muck caked inside his devastated home. He worried whether Harvey’s floodwaters had also washed in pollution from the Superfund site just a couple blocks away.

In the 1950s, the pit was filled with toxic sludge and sulfuric acid from oil and gas operations. Though 22,000 cubic yards of hazardous waste and soil were excavated in the 1980s, the site is still considered a potential threat to groundwater, and EPA maintains monitoring wells there.

When he was growing up in Highlands, Chandler, now 62, said he and his friends used to swim in the by-then abandoned pit.

“My daddy talks about having bird dogs down there and to run and the acid would eat the pads off their feet,” he recounted Thursday. “We didn’t know any better.”

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has said cleaning up Superfund sites are a priority, even as he has taken steps to roll back or delay rules aimed at preventing air and water pollution. President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget seeks to cut money for the Superfund program by 30 per cent, though congressional Republicans are likely to approve less severe reductions.

Like Trump, Pruitt has expressed skepticism about the predictions of climate scientists that warmer air and warmer seas will produce stronger, more drenching storms.

Under the Obama administration, the EPA conducted a nationwide assessment of the increased threat to Superfund sites posed by climate change, including rising sea levels and stronger hurricanes. Of the more than 1,600 sites reviewed as part of the 2012 study, 521 were determined to be in 1-in-100 year and 1-in-500 year flood zones. Nearly 50 sites in coastal areas could also be vulnerable to rising sea levels.

The threats to human health and wildlife posed by rising waters inundating Superfund sites varies widely depending on the specific contaminants and concentrations involved. But the EPA report specifically noted the risk that floodwaters might carry away and spread toxic materials over a wider area.

In Crosby, across the San Jacinto River from Houston, a small working-class neighbourhood sits between two Superfund sites, French LTD and the Sikes Disposal Pits. The area was wrecked by Harvey’s floods, with only a single house from among the roughly dozen lining Hickory Lane still standing.

After the flood water receded on Friday, a sinkhole the size of a swimming pool had opened up and swallowed two cars. The acrid smell of creosote filled the air.

At the Highlands Acid Pit on Thursday, August 31, 2017, the No Trespassing sign on the barbed-wire fence encircling the 3.3-acre Superfund site barely peeked above the churning flood water from the nearby San Jacinto River. AP Photo/Jason Dearen

At the Brio Refining Inc. in Friendswood, the floodwaters had receded by Saturday. There was a layer of silt on the road leading to the Superfund site. The company operated a chemical reprocessing and refining facility there until the 1980s, leaving behind polluted soil and groundwater.

The San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund site was completely covered by water when an AP reporter saw it Thursday. According to its website, the EPA was set to make a final decision this year about a proposed $97 million cleanup effort to remove toxic waste from a paper mill that operated there in the 1960s.

The flow from the raging river washing over the toxic site was so intense it damaged an adjacent section of the Interstate 10 bridge, which has been closed to traffic due to concerns it might collapse.

There was no way to immediately access how much contaminated soil from the site might have been washed away. According to an EPA survey from last year, soil from the former waste pits contains dioxins and other long-lasting toxins linked to birth defects and cancer.

Kara Cook-Schultz, who studies Superfund sites for the advocacy group TexPIRG, said environmentalists have warned for years about the potential for flooding to inundate Texas Superfund sites, particularly the San Jacinto Waste Pits.

“If floodwaters have spread the chemicals in the waste pits, then dangerous chemicals like dioxin could be spread around the wider Houston area,” Cook-Schultz said. “Superfund sites are known to be the most dangerous places in the country, and they should have been properly protected against flooding.”

Reference:  http://nationalpost.com/news/world/ap-exclusive-toxic-waste-sites-flooded-epa-not-on-scene-2?lipi=urn%3Ali%3Apage%3Ad_flagship3_profile_view_base_recent_activity_details_shares%3BQabajCz%2BQZ%2BaVEN4kN2KLg%3D%3D