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article imageOp-Ed: Houston has a golden opportunity to come back as a 'smart city'

By Karen Graham     Sep 1, 2017 in Technology
Houston - Before Hurricane Harvey hit the southeast coast of Texas, the U.S. had already been through nine weather and climate disaster events that saw losses exceeding $1 billion each, according to NOAA. The big question — Will Houston be smart when it rebuilds?
As the nation's fourth largest city, Houston has been called a "can-do" city, with the goal of getting something done right now and asking questions later. And as officials begin assessing the damages to homes, businesses and infrastructure, the mistakes made in past city planning stand out like a sore thumb.
There is no reason to go through a list that would probably run to many pages, but if the city is to survive future extreme weather events brought on by our changing climate, city officials, city planners and the public sector will need to focus their rebuilding efforts on a "smart city" strategy.
And with President Trump's stalled trillion dollar infrastructure plan, and his dismantling of climate change policies put in place by the Obama administration, cities like Chicago, Miami, New York and others are learning how to protect themselves without the federal government's help, turning instead to the technological innovations developed by multiple startups and the forward-thinking visions of young companies in the private sector, devoted to architecture and infrastructure planning.
Flood damaged drywall is removed as residents begin the recovery process from Hurricane Harvey in Ho...
Flood damaged drywall is removed as residents begin the recovery process from Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas
Brendan Smialowski, AFP
Houston has balked at doing any actual planning
With the media coverage of the hurricane's impact on Houston, the public saw, for probably the first time, the extensive damage that has been done to the city and surrounding area. Houston sprawls across the Texas plains. Full of bayous and streams, Houston has always been wet.
Harris County, where Houston is located, has added more people than any other U.S. county for eight straight years until 2016 when it fell to second. Reservoirs were constructed in a willy-nilly manner, with tracts of new homes built on their edges. Houston is the only major city in the U.S. without a zoning code. This means skyscrapers can be built right next to family homes. But this is the voter's fault because Houstonians have always opposed zoning laws.
Let's go a step further. Texas is one of four states along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts with no mandatory statewide building codes, and Texas has no statewide program to license building inspectors, either. Corpus Christie does use a national standard for its building codes, but they don't require that homes be built 1 foot above expected 100-year-flood levels.
Vehicles lie abandoned beside the Barker Reservoir after the Army Corp of Engineers started to relea...
Vehicles lie abandoned beside the Barker Reservoir after the Army Corp of Engineers started to release water into the Clodine district as Hurricane Harvey caused heavy flooding in Houston, Texas on August 29, 2017
MARK RALSTON, AFP/File
Michael Talbott spent 35 years with the Harris County Flood Control District, trying to protect Houston from flood damage. Even today, he resists the notion that climate change has anything to do with flooding. He gave an interview recently with the Texas Tribune in which he disputed the effect of global warming and said conservationists were anti-development. “They have an agenda … their agenda to protect the environment overrides common sense,” he said.
There is a very powerful group in state politics that literally governs what legislation is allowed to be passed into law in Texas. The Texas Association of Builders strikes down anything that increases costs, and they are very successful. Ned Muñoz, the vice president of regulatory affairs for the Texas builders’ organization, says cities are already doing a good job choosing which parts of the building code are right for them, so there is no reason to change.
Where will Houston go from here?
Despite the ongoing debate over climate change between climate deniers and environmentalists, the real fact staring us in the face is that Hurricane Harvey and its destruction was unprecedented. Never has the U.S. seen rainfall in excess of the amounts that came down in Houston and later in Beaumont and Port Arthur.
The stakes on climate change have never been higher as Earth's average global temperature scale...
The stakes on climate change have never been higher as Earth's average global temperature scales new heights, sea ice retreats and extreme weather events become more frequent
EITAN ABRAMOVICH, AFP/File
Believe what you will, but all around the globe, climate change is creating massive storms and other extreme weather events that are bringing countries and regions to a standstill, economically and in the loss of human lives. In the U.S. the federal government has spent more than $350 billion on disaster recovery in the past decade.
A large chunk of that $350 billion went to replace homes that had previously been damaged. Over 1.3 million households have received federal aid at least twice, most of them in the same areas hit by natural disasters. And this month, the government's National Flood Insurance Program is up for reauthorization. Many lawmakers are debating the wisdom of repeatedly giving money to homeowners who have homes that repeatedly flood.
So we now throw the ball back in Houston's court. Will the city opt for true planning to make the city safer, or will folks have to go through a repeat of Harvey all over again?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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