A Storm Forces Houston, the Limitless City, to Consider Its Limits

HOUSTON — Not long after a pair of New York real estate speculators founded this city on the banks of a torpid bayou in the 1830s, every home and every business flooded. Though settlers tried draining their humid, swampy, sweltering surroundings, the inundations came again and again, with 16 major floods in the city’s first century.

And yet somehow, improbably, Houston not only survived but prospered — and it sprawled omnivorously, becoming the nation’s fourth-largest city and perhaps its purest model of untrammeled growth.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the disaster played out in an eccentric anachronism, a city of modest economic heft proudly tethered to its exotic past. But Harvey has inundated a city perpetually looking to the future, a place built on boundless entrepreneurialism, the glories of air conditioning, a fierce aversion to regulation and a sense of limitless possibility.

The result has been a uniquely American success story, the capital of the world’s petroleum industry, and the place that sent a man to the moon, built the world’s biggest medical center and became a model of dizzying multiculturalism, with 145 languages spoken.

But Harvey’s staggering flooding is raising very un-Houstonian questions about whether there are, in fact, limits to the Houston model of perpetual growth, and whether humans can push nature only so far before nature pushes back with catastrophic force.

Though its breakneck development culture and lax regulatory environment have been lauded for giving working people affordable housing — and thus a shot at the American dream — many experts and residents say that the developers’ encroachment into the wetlands and prairies that used to serve Houston as natural sponges has inevitably exacerbated the misery that the city is suffering today.

“There could have been ways to have more green space and more green infrastructure over the years, and it just didn’t work that way, because it was fast and furious,” said Phil Bedient, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Rice University. Many developments were not built with enough open land or enough detention areas to take in floodwaters, Dr. Bedient said. “It’s been known for years how to do it,” he said, “it just costs the developers more money to do it that way.”

The post-Harvey rebuilding drama here is bound to unfold as a frontier nation increasingly faces up to limits — as southern and western cities mature, as resources are strained by a growing population, and as climate change, exacerbated by Houston’s signature industry, threatens bigger, wetter, ever-more-dangerous storms.

Greater Houston has always been a precarious place for a boomtown. It sprawls across a flat coastal plain, crisscrossed by slow-moving bayous, with clay soils that do not easily absorb water. The average annual rainfall is 48 inches. For years, locals kept track of the hurricanes brewing in the Gulf of Mexico with magnetic maps hung in their kitchens.

In fact, it was a bold spate of post-storm improvisation that helped truly put Houston on the map. In 1900, a Category 4 hurricane virtually leveled Galveston, the nearby coastal port city. At least 6,000 people were killed. The fear of another direct hit like that helped spur the dredging of the Houston Ship Channel, a 50-mile waterway completed in 1914 that allowed ships to come up from the Gulf of Mexico to Houston, a relatively safer inland port.

A man rode one horse and led another through a flooded suburban neighborhood on Tuesday. Much of the prairie west of Houston that once helped absorb storm water has been developed.CreditAndrew Burton for The New York Times

But Houston continued to go underwater again and again, with a particularly costly flood in 1929 and another in 1935. In response, the state legislature, in 1937, created the Harris County Flood Control District, in an effort to finally build a modern flood-control system. Eventually, with federal assistance, two huge projects, the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, were constructed to protect downtown from flooding.

The city grew rapidly in the postwar years, and in an effort to control storm water and direct the runoff to the Gulf of Mexico, two key bayous through the city were channelized — essentially converted to concrete culverts — while a third was widened, Dr. Bedient said. A network of channels — 1,500 of them, today totaling 2,500 miles — were built to move storm runoff out of neighborhoods and down to the sea.

But in the end, they may have provided a false sense of security. “And so the building just went rampant, and there weren’t many controls,” Dr. Bedient said. “We had no zoning. It was like the Wild West, and you just built housing subdivision after housing subdivision up close to the bayous, up close to the channels.”

By the 1980s, Dr. Bedient said, officials came to realize that the system could not handle big rainfalls: the green space that could have absorbed much of the water from a big storm was now paved over with parking lots, houses, churches and malls.

Houstonians felt the impact in June 2001, when Tropical Storm Allison hit Harris County and dumped 80 percent of an average year’s rainfall on the area, killing 22 people and leaving behind 73,000 damaged residences and $5 billion in property damage. Since then, scientists have warned that climate change could produce rainier, more frequent and more damaging storms in the Gulf Coast region, turning what were once minor annoyances into major disasters.

Yet through all of this, metropolitan Houston has kept growing. Though the region suffered some tough years after the 1980s oil bust, Harris County, which includes Houston, experienced the highest annual population growth of any county in the United States in eight of the last nine years, according to census data.

Developers both responded to and fueled the boom, often doing what they wanted in Texas’ relatively laissez-faire regulatory climate. In 2015, the Houston Chronicle examined a sampling of permits issued to developers, and found that more than half the developers had failed to follow through on Army Corps of Engineers directives meant to mitigate the destruction of wetlands.

Two years ago, Erin Kinney, a research scientist with the nonprofit Houston Advanced Research Center, wrote that 65 square miles of freshwater wetlands had been lost in the Houston-Galveston Bay region, largely because of development and sinking land, and that 30 percent of Harris county was covered with impervious surfaces like roads, parking lots and roofs.

Much of the development in recent years has occurred on the Katy Prairie, a vast stretch of land west of town that was once covered in native grasses and wildflowers, a place where rainwater often pooled before soaking into the ground or slowly running into creeks and bayous.

Gavin Smith, the director of the Coastal Resilience Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said some of the land in the Houston area had been made more vulnerable to flooding because of the amount of groundwater that had been pumped out of it. That, he said, actually caused the land to sink, a process called subsidence.

Even before Harvey, Houstonians had become acutely aware that the flooding question was central to the discussion about their city’s future — although political solutions have not always been easy to come by.

National Guard troops looked over a wall along a flooded section of the Loop 610 highway in Houston.CreditAlyssa Schukar for The New York Times

Critics have debated the efficacy of regulations, dating to the 1980s, that require developers to build “detention ponds” to store rain water.

In 2010, city voters narrowly passed a major financing mechanism, ReBuild Houston, to improve roads and an out-of-date drainage system. But some have bridled at the idea of the new taxes and fees involved, and the program has been the subject of at least two lawsuits.

New, devastating floods kept coming — on Memorial Day in 2015, and in April 2016 (the so-called “Tax Day” flood) — killing a total of 16 people and causing more than $1 billion in damage. They were major local news at the time: “Is this the new normal?” the Chronicle asked in an April 2016 headline.

The way forward is not clear. In May 2016, Mayor Sylvester Turner appointed Houston’s first “flood czar,” Stephen Costello, an engineer and former at-large City Council member. Mr. Costello was too busy with the unfolding crisis on Wednesday to comment for this article.

Gerald E. Galloway, an internationally recognized expert on flood risk management and water policy at the University of Maryland, said that Greater Houston could benefit from effective regional planning, with the patchwork of local governments working together to take into account their developments’ effects on their neighbors.

“But that’s not the style in Texas,” Dr. Galloway said. “You drive and drive and drive, and you’re going from one community to the next. How do you get all those communities to agree on what needs to be done?”

A number of experts have said that local governments will have to consider buying out homeowners who live in flooded areas, returning the land to green space that can absorb the floodwaters. But as Katrina proved, such efforts can generate tremendous pushback.

And if the region begins to put stricter regulations on building, there is a chance that one of Houston’s great lures — affordable housing — may disappear. This is a concern for Joel Kotkin, the urban theorist and author who has been a great champion of Houston’s lax regulation policies.

“If you put the kind of super-strict planning shackles on Houston, that would be the way to kill it,” he said. “Why would you live in a hot, humid, flat space if it was expensive?”

Like many others, he was quick to praise Houston’s energy and optimism, and said the city would recover. The Texas author Larry McMurtry, a former Houston resident, agreed.

“Houston will accept anybody who’s got hustle — it respects energy more than any place,” he said. “Houston is a very resilient city, and it will overcome.”

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