Was the Houston Disaster Man-Made?

Hurricane Harvey wasn’t man-made, obviously, but the scale of the destruction was, in large part, an unintended consequence of government policy. Michael Grunwald reports at Politico: “How Washington Made Harvey Worse.”

Nearly two decades before the storm’s historic assault on homes and businesses along the Gulf Coast of Texas this week, the National Wildlife Federation released a groundbreaking report about the United States government’s dysfunctional flood insurance program, demonstrating how it was making catastrophes worse by encouraging Americans to build and rebuild in flood-prone areas. The report, titled “Higher Ground,” crunched federal data to show that just 2 percent of the program’s insured properties were receiving 40 percent of its damage claims. The most egregious example was a home that had flooded 16 times in 18 years, netting its owners more than $800,000 even though it was valued at less than $115,000.

That home was located in Houston, along with more than half of America’s worst “repetitive loss properties” identified in the report.
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Houston’s problem was runaway development in flood-prone areas, accelerated by heavily subsidized federal flood insurance. Now that Hurricane Harvey has turned Conrad’s warnings into reality, it’s worth noting that Houston’s problem was in part a Washington problem, a slow-motion disaster that was easy to predict but politically impossible to prevent.
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Hurricane Harvey is not the first costly flood to hit Houston since that 1998 report. In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison dumped more than two feet of rain on the city, causing about $5 billion in damages. Two relatively modest storms that hit Houston in 2015 and 2016—so small they didn’t get names—did so much property damage they made the list of the 15 highest-priced floods in U.S. history. But Houston’s low-lying flatlands keep booming, as sprawling subdivisions and parking lots pave over the wetlands and pastures that used to soak up the area’s excess rainfall, which is how Houston managed to host three “500-year floods” in the past three years.

People have been talking about the perverse consequences of federal flood insurance for a long time, but nothing has been done. Congress enacted a semblance of reform in 2012, providing for premiums that more closely reflect the risk of flooding of flood plains. But political pressure led Congress to retreat in 2014. Hurricane Harvey will most likely result in more federal spending on flood relief, and more unintended consequences in the future, rather than fewer.

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