Building codes and drainage deficiencies need upgrade to match storm threats
Posted September 12
By the time all the measuring and calculating is done, Hurricane Harvey will prove an era-defining storm. Federal and state officials performed admirably to limit the suffering and loss of life, but the whole mess is far worse than it needed to be.
Federal and state agencies have become remarkably proficient at responding to emergencies, but they continue to come up short on preventative measures to safeguard lives, property and the economy for the inevitable day the forces of nature strike.
Harvey as measured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center rated a 4 on a scale of 5. Wind damage to framed homes, for example, should not tally as high as for a Category 5 hurricane like Katrina in 2005. However, in terms of rainfall, Harvey tops them all — 50 inches is the largest accumulation recorded for the contiguous 48 states.
After the confused and disorganized response to Katrina, federal and state relief infrastructure was substantially improved and lines of responsibility more clearly defined. Governors are in charge of crisis management, whereas the federal government delivers resources the individual states cannot reasonably be expected to have on hand.
In this regard, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and President Trump have been at the top of their games.
Nevertheless, the property and incomes losses will prove devastating. Moody’s Analytics initially estimated property losses at $75 billion and lost business from shutdowns at $25 billion, but I expect those figures to ultimately be at least $110 and $50 billion — flood damage can appear deceptively limited at first glance, and rebuilding will be slow.
Everyone is aware of rising gasoline prices as oil shipments from the Texas Eagle Ford field and refinery operations in the Gulf region are curtailed. The Colonial Pipeline, which delivers gasoline, jet fuel and heating oil to the Northeast — including metropolitan New York — is particularly vulnerable to flooding. Overall, shortages, greater reliance on more expensive imports from Europe and generally higher prices will likely be with us through the end of the year.
We can’t change that geography — the location of Eagle Ford — but the refinery industry is unnecessarily concentrated along the western Gulf Coast and particularly vulnerable to tropical storms.
Environmental regulations have made it difficult to build and operate refineries in other parts of the country. Whereas 30 years ago the industry had 220 operating facilities, it now has only 141, and about one-quarter of its capacity is down thanks to the storm. Facilities in other parts of the country are already operating near full-tilt and are hard-pressed to make up the shortfall.
Houston and the surrounding region are unnecessarily vulnerable to storms because building codes and zoning have not kept up with climate change. Flooding has increased as storms have become more severe — what was once a 250-year storm is now likely a 100-year storm, and the latter now a 25-year storm.
Whereas codes require building foundations to be 12 to 18 inches above the outdated 100-year standard, those should be upgraded, but haven’t. The spread of concrete and asphalt surfaces makes drainage impossible, and more emphasis on high-rise development coupled with green spaces would considerably aid water absorption during severe rains.
Regional drainage systems — the first line of defense — built around the turn of the 20th century can hardly handle a 10-year flood, but municipalities strained by other fiscal demands have been slow to upgrade those adequately.
Private flood insurance is very difficult to obtain, and federal insurance has coverage limits set 50 years ago and that don't compensate businesses for lost commerce resulting from storm closures. More than half the homeowners and businesses hit by Harvey are outside of federally designated flood areas.
All this will slow rebuilding and is simply unnecessary. Congress has been bickering over privatizing the National Flood Insurance Program, which has been losing money for years and has inadequate reserves to deal with Harvey and whatever comes next.
In recent years, so much attention at both the state and federal level has been focused on health care, mitigating income inequality and expanding entitlements that the essential functions of government — such as drainage pipes adequate to safeguard communities from the inevitable forces of nature — have been shortchanged.
The rescue vehicles arrive on time, but the damage is unnecessarily large and cleanup simply too slow and incomplete.
Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland and a national columnist.