Disasters Waiting to Happen

Coastal cities like Houston are inherently vulnerable to deadly storms and need to be better prepared

When Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on Aug. 25, it brought winds of 130 miles per hour and torrential rain all along the state’s Gulf Coast. By the time it reached Houston, it had been downgraded to a pummeling tropical storm that brought catastrophic flooding. By all measures, it is the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in more than 50 years. 

At Tufts, Justin Hollander, A96, an associate professor of urban and environmental policy and planning in the School of Arts and Sciences, has written widely on city planning and policy issues. A deadly storm like Harvey, he said, underscores the inherent vulnerability of coastal cities and what’s needed to protect their future.

“Most large American cities were settled in low lying areas for the benefit of transportation and access to goods and other ports,” he said. “If the early settlers had been settled on higher land, Houston would not be flooded—but then it would not be the global city that is today. Coastal cities have been successful, but when storms like Harvey strike, their elevation works against them, and they will have flooding. The best they can do is find ways to keep people safe and to get them out of danger quickly.”

More than a decade ago, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, catching most communities unprepared. Evacuation was haphazard at best, highways clogged with cars, turning roads into virtual parking lots. By contrast, with Harvey some Texas cities were better prepared, Hollander said. In a Corpus Christi evacuation staging area, families were given bar codes to keep track of them, a safety precaution developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and San Antonio pulled all city buses into action to help move people and their pets to an Alamo City reception center and on to shelters.  “There has been a lot of progress in how we respond to evacuation, but Harvey demonstrates that we have a long way to go,” he said.

Hollander said cities that hug the coasts and that are sited along major rivers are beginning to reduce catastrophic impact of flooding by designing for resilience. Some have adopted stricter codes that focus on preventive safety measures; electrical systems, for instance, should never be located on the first floor. Cities are also getting smarter about infrastructure, designing streets and parks “that can be washed over and not ruined.”

Houston does have city planning, but not zoning, noted Hollander. “Some have argued that the lack of zoning has contributed to the current disaster,” he said. “It’s a hard claim to substantiate. Cities all over the U.S. with zoning suffer major flooding damage. The larger critique of Houston has been its generally, low-density sprawling development pattern. But it is equally unclear whether that development pattern is to blame for the current disaster. What is clear is that such a development pattern—automobile-oriented and low on public transit—makes large-scale evacuations quite difficult.”

The havoc wreaked by Katrina and Hurricane Sandy have contributed to a larger cultural change regarding preparedness. “Under the Obama administration, there was a big push to make funding available to make cities ready for flooding,” Hollander said.

Still, preparedness is expensive. “It remains to be seem how committed government leaders and developers will be,” he said. “Developers have a short time frame—they want to get an immediate return on their investment.”

From a broader, historical perspective, he said, the challenges experienced by coastal and river cities are not new; pioneers who chose to settle close to water (think not only Houston but Boston, New York, St. Louis, New Orleans) always gambled the vicissitudes of nature. Proximity to water is, in fact, embedded in the human psyche, said Hollander. Civilizations and modern cities have sprung up and thrived next to coasts and riverways because they are places where human culture and commerce prosper.

“There are too many advantages for people to being close to the coast to ignore or pass up,” Hollander said. “I’ve done some research on the psychology of water, and there’s an evolutionary benefit of being able to see a far distance. It’s called the ‘primal vista’—the opportunity to be able to see far away. You understand how it gave the earliest humans am evolution advantage. Today, there is no question we are still in love with water, and despite the perils, people will not stop trying to be close to it.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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