Houston exulted in sprawling, hands-off growth. That’s no way to prepare for natural catastrophes.
Aug. 31, 2017 (Bloomberg) -- Houston has been wet since birth. In the 1840s, the German explorer Ferdinand von Roemer described the Brazos River prairie just outside the young town as an “endless swamp” that mired the wheels of his wagons. He reported that some people who’d intended to settle in Texas turned around and left after seeing the “sad picture.” But Houston never let itself be hampered by its hydrology. It spent billions patching together a mess of dams and drainage projects as it grew and grew. It’s the fourth-biggest city in the U.S., boasting one of the world’s largest medical centers, oil refineries, a stupendous livestock show and rodeo, highbrow culture, vibrant economic growth, and speakers of 145 languages. The consolidated metropolitan statistical area surrounding Houston and extending to Galveston is larger than the state of New Jersey.
Harvey is a devastating reminder to Houston that nature will have its due. The Category 4 hurricane that hung around as a stationary tropical storm punished greater Houston with rainfall measured in feet, not inches. No city could have withstood Harvey without serious harm, but Houston made itself more vulnerable than necessary. Paving over the saw-grass prairie reduced the ground’s capacity to absorb rainfall. Flood-control reservoirs were too small. Building codes were inadequate. Roads became rivers, so while hospitals were open, it was almost impossible to reach them by car.
Harvey’s damage was selective. It’s a minor event for the $19 trillion U.S. economy, since most of the economic activity that was interrupted will be made up later. It was a light hit for insurers, because few underwrite flood insurance and the wind damage they do cover was minimal; insurers’ stock prices barely fell. The refining and petrochemical industries lining the busy Houston Ship Channel also got off fairly lightly (this time), because they’ve invested heavily in storm defenses.
The impact on taxpayers is more serious, because Harvey is likely to generate tens of billions of dollars in emergency federal aid and claims on the money-losing National Flood Insurance Program. In the short run, the precautionary shutdown of refineries drove wholesale gasoline prices traded in New York to a two-year high.
Above all, Harvey is a humanitarian disaster. Ordinary Texans were defenseless against rising waters contaminated by sewage and dotted with floating colonies of fire ants. The confirmed death toll, 20 as of Aug. 30, is expected to rise as rescuers discover more bodies. Residents will return to damaged homes vulnerable to the spread of mold. Much of the damage, which could run to $100 billion or more by one estimate, is uninsured. “This will be the worst natural disaster in American history” in financial terms, Joel Myers, founder and president of AccuWeather, predicted in an Aug. 29 statement.