“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."

Friday, September 01, 2017

What Happens When You Build on a Coastal Swamp & Flood Plain in a Hurricane Zone?

The real villains in Harvey flood: urban sprawl and the politicians who allowed it | Billy Fleming

hurricane harvey
‘The swamps and wetlands that once characterized Houston’s hinterland have been replaced with strip malls and suburban tract homes.’ Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP
Houston’s catastrophic flood will be framed by leaders in Texas as an unforeseeable act of God. It isn’t. Houston’s unfettered sprawl into the marshland of southeast Texas was a conscious choice by policymakers. So was building a global city on a slowly submerging swamp. Both were decisions that led to disaster.

Houston has quietly become our fourth largest and fastest-growing city, due in large part to cheap housing. But the latter has come at an exorbitant cost to its safety. The swamps and wetlands that once characterized Houston’s hinterland have been replaced with strip malls and suburban tract homes.

Those landscapes once served as a natural flood protection system for the city. Research shows that, if they hadn’t been filled and developed, Harvey’s impact would have been lessened. Sam Brody and his colleagues at Texas A&M University in Galveston have been predicting an event like this for nearly a decade. That their work went unheeded by Texas policymakers should not be forgotten. 

Worse, a generation of civic leaders have completely deregulated Houston’s land development market. In that process, they helped build a far-flung network of poor neighborhoods on top of a swamp. In Houston, there is a simple truth: the poorer you are, the closer you live to a petrochemical plant and the likelier your home is to flood.

There will be an impulse to elide past the political choices that led us to this point. We shouldn’t allow our politicians to use the use Harvey’s victims as human shields by pronouncing that now is not the time for criticism or blame. There’s never been a more important time to understand the political machinations that led to Harvey’s destructiveness, and to do everything in our power to dismantle them.

Much has been made about Ted Cruz’s vote against Sandy relief funding in 2013. His hypocrisy is fair game for political journalists. But the greater failure of Cruz and John Cornyn is in not seeking funding for a solution to the world’s most predictable disaster before Harvey made landfall.

Much more should be made of Texas Land Commissioner, George P Bush’s failings. As head of the General Land Office, Bush holds a unique and singular power to plan, engineer, and manage the Texas coastline.

But nearly a decade after Hurricane Ike – which hit the city eight years ago – and nearly three years since his election, there’s scant evidence that Bush has done anything to secure Texas’s coastal cities against the threat posed by climate change.
In fact, he’s yet to fully spend the more than $3bn allocated to the General Land Office after Ike. Given that Bush is likely to lead the Harvey recovery, it’s fair for us to question whether or not he’s up to the task.

The question that he and every Houstonian must ponder now is how their recovery can be better than those that followed Ike and Katrina. 

Erecting a massive barrier system akin to the $14.5bn behemoth rimming New Orleans won’t be enough. But it will be the impulse of every politician eager to project an image of strength and resilience in Harvey’s aftermath – and to expand their political brand by becoming known as Houston’s savior.

Built in 2014 and already suffering a potentially catastrophic pump failure, the New Orleans surge barrier is emblematic of the greater infrastructural challenge facing coastal cities in the US. 

Coastal infrastructure is incredibly expensive to build and nearly impossible to maintain, especially when you realize that the maintenance is borne entirely by local governments – none of which have the financial or technical capacity to do so effectively.

Some have already begun to point to Holland, where the world’s most complex flood control system operates, and to proclaim that if the Dutch do it, so can the United States. This simply isn’t true.

The Netherlands has a much higher tax rate, giving it more resources per person to invest in its infrastructure. Dutch storms are also less intense and bring lower surge heights and less rainfall than their American counterparts.

For a lasting recovery, Houston will need to supplement whatever barrier system it builds with a broader, regional network of wetlands, retention ponds, and green infrastructure to restore the once-robust, natural flood protection lost to a half-century of urban sprawl. 

Designers have been calling for such an approach since Ike made landfall. Houston should look to New York’s landscape architect-led recovery process as a model worthy of consideration.

A half-century of bad design choices and impotent planning led Houston to this crisis. Now, it’s up to a new generation of Houstonians to do what their predecessors could not – prepare the Magnolia City to rise up and meet its wetter future head on. 

Houston deserves the full, fair recovery that never came after Ike. They may not get another chance.
  • Billy Fleming is research director for the Ian L McHarg Center at University of Pennsylvania School of Design, where he earned a PhD in City Planning. He is a co-author The Indivisible Guide and a co-creator of Data Refuge


  1. Keeping things in perspective -

    BobFri Sep 01, 05:13:00 AM EDT
    And you think we've got it bad ?

    As the world watches Storm Harvey, more than 1,000 have been killed in floods in south Asia

    Evening Standard
    Chloe Chaplain

    It's not an unusual state of affairs from June through September, monsoon time.

    Here in the USA, back in about 1900, something like maybe 10,000 of us were killed in a storm similar to the one we have just experienced.

    1900 Galveston hurricane
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Jump to: navigation, search
    Great Galveston Hurricane
    of 1900
    Category 4 major hurricane (SSHWS/NWS)

    Surface weather analysis of the hurricane on September 8, just before landfall.
    August 27, 1900
    September 17, 1900
    (Extratropical after September 11, 1900)

    Highest winds
    1-minute sustained: 145 mph (230 km/h)
    Lowest pressure
    936 mbar (hPa); 27.64 inHg

    6,000–12,000 direct
    $21 million (1900 USD)
    (equivalent to $605 million in 2016, adjusted for inflation; see Aftermath for more)
    Areas affected
    Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Cuba, Turks and Caicos Islands, Bahamas, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Eastern Canada

    Part of the 1900 Atlantic hurricane season

    The Great Galveston Hurricane was a Category 4 storm, with winds of up to 145 mph (233 km/h), which made landfall on September 8, 1900, in Galveston, Texas, in the United States, leaving about 6,000 to 12,000 dead. It remains to the present day the deadliest natural disaster in US history.

    The hurricane appears to have started as an atmospheric trough from West Africa, causing unsettled weather in the Caribbean, and emerging into the Florida Straits as a tropical storm on September 5. Owing to contradictory forecasts, the people of Galveston felt no alarm until the official hurricane warning of September 7. The next morning, a storm surge of 15 ft (4.6 m) washed over the long, flat island-city which was only 8 ft (2.4 m) above sea level, knocking buildings off their foundations and destroying over 3,600 homes.

    The disaster ended the Golden Era of Galveston, as the hurricane alarmed potential investors, who turned to Houston instead. The whole island of Galveston was subsequently raised by 17 ft (5.2 m) and a 10 mi (16 km) seawall erected.[1]....

    BobFri Sep 01, 05:15:00 AM EDT
    Harvey has been a little pissing in the wind by comparison.

    BobFri Sep 01, 05:21:00 AM EDT
    Every year Mumbai, home to about 20 million people and India’s two biggest stock exchanges, struggles to cope with the annual monsoon deluge - drawing criticism about its poor planning and weak infrastructure.

    © Provided by Independent Print Limited an128610811people-are-rescu.jpg

    More than half of the city’s population live in shantytowns, where weak and temporary buildings put them at increased risk in adverse weather conditions. 

    © Provided by Independent Print Limited an128672929indian-flood-eff.jpg

    Meanwhile in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, more than 500 people were killed. The government said thousands more have been forced to abandon their homes and are residing in nearby relief camps.

    1. Worse, a generation of civic leaders have completely deregulated Houston’s land development market. In that process, they helped build a far-flung network of poor neighborhoods on top of a swamp. In Houston, there is a simple truth: the poorer you are, the closer you live to a petrochemical plant and the likelier your home is to flood.

      What, pray tell, is to be done with the poor then ?

      High rise tenements ?

      High Rise Tenements, song lyrics
      Song: High Rise Tenements
      Lyrics: Jaribu Hill & Ngoma Hill(1)

      Music: Jaribu Hill & Ngoma Hill
      Year: 1981
      Genre: Blues
      Country: USA

      High rise tenements
      No sentiments for the residents
      High rise tenements
      No sentiments for the residents.
      Rats and roaches running wild
      Out the window falls a child
      Just because there was no rail
      and the window still was frail.

      This song was originally posted on

      (REFRAIN - repeat twice)
      Brother Johnson froze in bed
      Boiler broke, paint filled with lead
      Asbestos dangling above his head
      At 39 why is he dead?
      (REFRAIN - repeat twice)

      Landlord wants to raise the rent
      Inflation up 18 percent
      Con-Ed(2) sucks your pocket dry
      Oil bills rising to the sky.
      (REFRAIN - repeat twice)

      You won't see this on TV
      CBS or ABC
      Censorship of truth denies
      Reality of human cries.
      (REFRAIN - repeat twice)

      We can stop and start anew
      Something good for me and you
      Organize it's time to fight
      For decent housing is our right.