Hurricane Harvey – a Tragic Yet Teachable Moment

Texas National Guard Soldiers respond to the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Tim Pruitt)

By Joyce Coffee

Like Houston and its neighbors, many municipal governments are painfully aware they are at risk when an extreme storm hits.  The devastation from Hurricane Harvey is of biblical proportions, and we mourn the loss of lives and livelihoods that it has caused. Still, there are valuable takeaways from it, and here are 10 that we should take to our city departments and city councils immediately:

  1. Coordinate federal, state, and local planning, building and rebuilding requirements and review them to prepare for such a disastrous storm. This should help speed up in assisting property owners seeking post-disaster assistance.
  2. Establish building restrictions and setbacks through zoning codes that consider a once-in-500-year weather-related catastrophe occurring. These changes will only affect future structures, but they will help protect a community for future generations. Also, set property owners’ expectations for the future value of their property, potentially including a “savings” clause so that a setback won’t remove all value from smaller lot owners.
  3. Prohibit private coastal armoring at the development-permit-process stage.
  4. Educate the public about the risks associated with coastal living and the ways in which building restrictions address those risks. Conduct education campaigns when and where possibly.
  5. Establish a policy about repetitive loss, limiting the number of times a building may be severely damaged by coastal events before it must be demolished.
  6. Put plans in place for a buyout program that would go into effect soon after a disaster for residents most affected by a flood or other weather-related disaster.

Speaking of buyouts, here are four actions that can be taken in Houston and other cities to help their flood-ravaged residents:

  1. Move quickly. As families are weighing their options and trying to find normalcy for the short and long haul, buyout programs are most successful when initiated immediately after a natural disaster
  2. Determine where you want development to occur and assist homeowners in relocating to those areas
  3. Identify those areas that have experienced repeated loss and prioritize the homes there for buy out. 
Also, consider where continuous areas of land can be returned to their “sponge” function with buyouts of contiguous properties turned into dry-until-rain floodplains. Make these areas multifunctional (e.g., parks, bike paths) to provide community amenities.
  4. Raise awareness about the benefits and costs of remaining in vulnerable areas, clarifying the benefits of acquisition. Be transparent and work with trusted nonprofits and community groups – listening first and then speaking in a unified voice to raise this awareness.

In addition, create a standard formula to determine property values that are fair and avoid costly and time-consuming negotiations.

Thanks to the “Managed Coastal Retreat Handbook” from the Columbia Center for Climate Change Law for many of these ideas.

Joyce Coffee is president of Climate Resilience Consulting, working with leaders to create strategies that protect and enhance markets and livelihoods through adaptation to climate change.

Image credit: The National Guard

Climate & Environment

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