Oh no, an agenda

Houston’s always been soggy. It probably wasn’t a very good place to build an enormous city, when you get right down to it.

No city could have withstood Harvey without serious harm, but Houston made itself more vulnerable than necessary. Paving over the saw-grass prairie reduced the ground’s capacity to absorb rainfall. Flood-control reservoirs were too small. Building codes were inadequate. Roads became rivers, so while hospitals were open, it was almost impossible to reach them by car.

Harvey is a humanitarian disaster. Ordinary Texans were defenseless against rising waters contaminated by sewage and dotted with floating colonies of fire ants. The confirmed death toll, 20 as of Aug. 30, is expected to rise as rescuers discover more bodies. Residents will return to damaged homes vulnerable to the spread of mold. Much of the damage, which could run to $100 billion or more by one estimate, is uninsured. “This will be the worst natural disaster in American history” in financial terms, Joel Myers, founder and president of AccuWeather, predicted in an Aug. 29 statement.

Sprawling Houston is a can-do city whose attitude is grow first, ask questions later. It’s the only major U.S. city without a zoning code saying what types of buildings can go where, so skyscrapers sometimes sprout next to split-levels. Voters have repeatedly opposed enacting a zoning law.

No to zoning law, but yes to public money after a disaster.

Houston is suffering now from the lack of an effective plan to deal with chronic flooding.

Attitude is partly to blame. Michael Talbott spent 35 years with the Harris County Flood Control District trying to protect Houston, mainly by seeking funds for widening drainage channels and bayous. But he resisted the notion that more drastic measures such as preserving green space and managing growth were required. Shortly before retiring as executive director in 2016, Talbott gave an interview to ProPublica and the Texas Tribune in which he disputed the effect of global warming and said conservationists were antidevelopment. “They have an agenda … their agenda to protect the environment overrides common sense,” he said.

Wait. Protecting the environment – the one we all depend on for survival – is “an agenda” but unrestricted building with no thought for the environment that we all depend on for survival is not? How does that work exactly?

Why do people insist on portraying “the environment” as some kind of whimsical luxury dreamed up by latte-sipping Gwyneth Paltrows? Without “the environment” we have no food, no water, no breathable air, no survivable temperature, no anything. There’s no such thing as doing without “the environment,” but there is such a thing as environmental degradation so extreme that only insects can survive. If city and state and federal officials don’t have “an agenda” of preserving a livable environment then we’re all in big big trouble.

The fight in Texas is a microcosm of a national battle. The International Code Council, a Washington nonprofit made up of government officials and industry representatives, updates its model codes every three years, inviting state and local governments to adopt them. Last year the National Association of Home Builders boasted of its prowess at stopping codes for 2018 that it didn’t like. “Only 6 percent of the proposals that NAHB opposed made it through the committee hearings intact,” the association wrote on its blog. The homebuilders demonstrated their power again this year, when President Donald Trump reversed an Obama initiative restricting federally funded building projects in flood plains. “This is a huge victory for NAHB and its members,” the association blogged.

Not all homebuilders are OK with the organization’s antiregulatory bent. Ron Jones, a member of the NAHB board who builds houses in Colorado, says that while the first priority now is helping the victims, he hopes the storm will force new thinking. “There’s no sort of national leadership involved,” he says. “For them it’s just, ‘Hell, we’ll rebuild these houses as many times as you’ll pay us to do it.’ ”

Let’s not do it that way. That’s a bad way.

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