Urban Planning

I am reading, as we all are, of the hurricane survivors who are now left to find long-term shelter, get their kids in a school, deal with FEMA and insurance agencies and go through the day-to-day agony of hoping that each day brings them closer to returning home.

What is the most disturbing about Hurricane Harvey, and the destruction it has left in Houston, is the lack of urban planning is one of the reasons the destruction is so wide.  I could also point to the Governor of Texas who refuses to call a special session for Harvey aid because he won’t tap into the $10B that has been saved for a rainy day.  Why?  Who the hell knows.  Or the fact that the politicians in Texas voted against NY aid for Sandy and now find themselves in a similar place.  Their lack of empathy might come back and bite them in the ass.  But what is most important to focus on is the lack of smart urban planning post the 2005 flood in Texas.

Houston is a city with no zoning.  That means that if you own the land, you can build whatever you want, there is zero regulation.  You can have a home next to a gas plant or a retirement community next to an airport.  It represents the Texan mentality of the Lone Star State.

We are in the process of building in CA and NY.  There are restrictive rules in both areas that might be frustrating but they make sense.  In CA, they want to make sure that your water use is minimal and so you need a permit to do a full renovation of your garden.  In NY and CA they want to make sure that the plants in your yard are native to the area. There are strict regulations around size, setbacks, energy, location, windows, etc.  These are put in place so that if everyone building is making collective decisions so when there is a natural disaster, the urban planning has been put into place so that the destruction is minimal.  For instance, buildings in CA are built with earthquakes in mind, as they should be.

Climate change might have been the reason behind the storm of Hurricane Harvey but it has nothing to do with building a chemical factory in a flood zone when politicians opted to lobby for a delay in safety rules here.  Were the homes built forced to use certain materials that dry quickly?  Were the roads and parking lots built with the ability to soak up as much water as possible with smart run-offs if there was a flood? Did everyone have to use local plants when planting or allowed to use non-native plants that can wreak havoc on the system?  Were new homes raised above the water level when they were built? I believe the answers to all of my questions are no.

It takes time, energy, smart thinking, and laws around urban planning when planning for possible natural disasters. When the water settles and the research is done, we will find out that politicians opted against smart decisions around forward thinking urban planning.  It is the people without the means who will suffer the most.  FEMA will not be the savior here as I have learned first hand that FEMA is just an insurance company with the Government as the front end.  They just pay out 50% on the dollar is you are lucky without spending much time evening looking under the hood.

My heart aches for all these families whose lives have been uprooted but it makes me angry that the aftermath of this storm could have been less destructive.  Storms like these are natural disasters but humans have their fingers all over this.