After Hurricane Harvey, don't empower the engineers. Please.

When I hear people talking about an event like Hurricane Harvey and how we were unprepared for it, that Houston filled wetlands and sprawled all over the countryside in a way that only magnified the flooding, I cringe. Not because these analyses are de-facto wrong (I've said they are right in a certain context, just not in the extreme event of Hurricane Harvey) but because they present a limited understanding, one that — if not corrected — I fear will prompt us to divert scarce energy and resources into activities that will be destructive.

I am immediately skeptical of the notion that more stormwater management and/or zoning regulations would have had any significant impact on the extent of the damage from Harvey. This reflective response certainly frames, if not clouds, my analysis of the situation. When it comes to both stormwater management and zoning regulations in these kind of extreme events, I am a skeptic in our ability to ever translate intentions into meaningful action, if that were even possible.

That's my bias. In my defense, I'll point out that it's the 180-degree opposite bias I had twenty years ago. Back then I would have — like many of our readers — looked at a flood and asked, why can we not prevent that? I would have considered projects I have worked on and extrapolated them to the scale of the problem in front of me. My faith in the spirit of American ingenuity (and my own abilities) would have driven me to think that anything is possible and that if I were properly empowered and supported, I could prevent the next disaster and limit the needless suffering.

In reflection, my attitude towards my and my profession's abilities was very much like that of Anikan Skywalker, the tragic hero of Star Wars in his pivotal transition to the dark side. I'm going to build a more powerful project than any engineer has ever dreamed of.....and I'm doing it to protect you. Don't you see? We don't have to fear congestion / flooding / ___(insert malady here)___ anymore. We can make things the way we want them to be. 

That may seem melodramatic in our context, but it's not. Citizen Jane, the documentary that pits Jane Jacobs against the evil Robert Moses did a real service in humanizing Moses. In much the same way (although with less fandom controversy) that the Star Wars prequels gave the evil of Darth Vader a sympathetic back story, Citizen Jane told how Robert Moses was an advocate for parks and fountains and art and beauty and all the things we'd like to associate with a city that Jane Jacobs would have loved. It was only later, when given the power and the mandate, that he began to do things that today we look at as destructive.

Do we doubt that Robert Moses truly believed he was working for the greater good? Did he go to the dark side or did he just believe strongly that what he was doing was the right thing, all other considerations being lesser?

Now I'm not suggesting that engineers and planners are the equivalent of Darth Vader or Robert Moses, but Star Wars and Citizen Jane both highlight a character flaw that engineers, planners and many of us charged with shaping the world around us hold in common: a lack of humility. 

This problem looks like a big nail. Thank goodness I have this huge hammer and can solve it for you. Just give me the money and get out of my way.

There are three real world ramifications of the lack of humility that come into play with Hurricane Harvey.

1. Flooding is not the real problem that needs solving.

I think it is very seductive to look at Houston's flooding as a simple engineering and planning problem. Let's just build a bunch of stormwater management systems and increase our development regulations and we'll handle this. Again, when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

A levee breaks during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. (Source:  FEMA )

A levee breaks during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. (Source: FEMA)

So, did the people of Houston's past not also think like this? Were the stormwater reservoirs sold as half-measures when they were built? Were the pipes they laid and the retention areas they constructed simply a false front or did they really believe them adequate?

Did the people of New Orleans not do this? Were their dikes that failed not constructed in anticipation of the largest storm they felt reasonable?

What happened?

Without a sense of history and a proper sense of humility, we just assume that the people of the past were ignorant fools, that those in the intervening years were greedy and selfish, simply unwilling to do the proper things to ensure their own security. Somehow we are different in our enlightenment. Maybe at last society will heed our expert warnings.

I think a more difficult challenge — the real problem — goes beyond the engineering or planning and gets into human nature. It's very plausible to me that the dikes in New Orleans were built to handle the worst event anyone could remember, plus a little more. Then complacency set in. Not only were there always more urgent things to do than maintenance, but having *solved* the problem we no longer needed to worry about it. Go ahead and build there, we've got you covered. What's one more? And one more?

We've written here about the Oroville Dam and our seemingly-genetic predisposition to de-prioritize maintenance (see "A Dam Mess"). We've also written a number of times about risk compensation, how making things safer and more protected only prompts us to extend the risks we are willing to take (see "Texting in Your Risk Gap" and "More on Risk Compensation").

Much like traffic congestion is a complex problem that cannot be solved by building more lanes, neither can flooding be solved by simply constructing more elaborate, complicated and violent stormwater management and regulatory systems. To think otherwise leaves out the human element. It also puts more people at greater risk.

2. Flooding is not the whole problem that needs solving.

While I have a hard time understanding it, there might be some good reasons why someone chooses to buy a house in a floodplain. Perhaps they got a good deal, don't plan to stay there long, believe it won't happen to them. Lots of these decisions that look terrible in retrospect can be easily rationalized along the way.

What's more difficult to understand is how a bank can make a loan on such a house. How can you get a mortgage in a flood prone area without flood insurance? 

Well, answer this one: Why does your pension fund own mortgage backed securities containing homes in flood zones without flood insurance?

Or how about this one: Why does the Federal Reserve swap U.S. Treasuries for mortgages when those treasuries are highly rated and secure but some of the mortgages are in flood prone areas without flood insurance?

There is a chain of soft corruption shielding people from the feedback that should come with their decisions, from the way we structure and sell mortgages to the entire system of moving risk from private balance sheets to the public sector.

There is a chain of soft corruption shielding people from the feedback that should come with their decisions, from the way we structure and sell mortgages to the entire system of moving risk from private balance sheets to the public sector. In a world where banks and insurance companies were expected to experience losses, even failures, when they got things wrong, flood insurance would be both mandatory and cost-prohibitive for most people in these kind of flood prone areas.

Are we really going to subsidize flood insurance at the national level and then turn around and spend tens of billions — maybe more — constructing stormwater management and mitigation systems to protect these same homes? If we insist that the problem here is a lack of engineering and planning, that is exactly how we're going to respond.

The actual damage from the flooding in Houston is more about flood insurance, mortgage regulations and bank bailouts than it is about engineering or planning. Failure to grasp that only ensures that future disasters will be greater than those in the past.

3. Flooding is not the only problem that needs solving.

After 9/11, the only problem we needed to solve was terrorism. We spent trillions — insane sums of money — ensuring that no terrorist action would ever happen again. In a civilized nation where people must be protected, how could we do anything less? We've fought (and are still fighting) wars around the world, armed our local police with military weaponry, created a domestic spying apparatus that would make the Stasi blush, established a theatrical production at each airport and major public building where we pretend to screen people and, after all is said and done, I can still carry the same exact weapon that the hijackers used on 9/11 (a box cutter) onto a plane. 

Source: US. Dept. of Homeland Security

Source: US. Dept. of Homeland Security

A commonly asked question we like to debate is: Are we any safer? The history of terrorism tactics and the repeated inability of governments to stop terrorist acts using brute force suggests we are not, but whether or not you agree, that debate keeps us from a more important set of questions:

  • Are we more prosperous as a result of this focus?
  • Was this the best way to spend our resources?
  • What things have we not done, what actions have we not taken, because we focused on solving that one problem?
  • What are we incapable of doing now because we've committed to a certain approach, one that we culturally can't back down from?

I was in New Orleans a few years after Katrina and got a tour of the billions of dollars worth of flood prevention and mitigation systems that were built miles away from where anyone lived or would ever live. To me, this was the ultimate case of asking the engineers and planners to solve a one-dimensional problem. See nail, apply hammer.

And they solved it, or at least we think they did. New Orleans has not been tested since Katrina and, statistically, is unlikely to be tested again until we've long become complacent again about flooding there. Think there will be any pressure in the coming days to divert New Orleans maintenance money to Houston or Florida? Who is going to stand up and oppose that? Yet Katrina is still raw in our minds; what kind of anguish will we experience over a budget cut to maintenance two decades from now?

The last time I was in New Orleans (2012) large parts of the city were abandoned and had not recovered. The population is down and, tragically if you value the unique Cajun culture, has been dramatically altered demographically. If our flood mitigation efforts had been more focused, could we have invested more in an actual recovery? Could we have built greater resiliency in a way that improved the lives of people instead of simply providing them with pipes, concrete and steel over an enormous area they will now struggle to maintain?

Organizations like the American Society of Civil Engineers are salivating at the opportunity for Congress to summon the experts to Houston with billions of dollars and a one-dimensional set of solutions. The city of Houston was financially on the brink before Harvey. They had way too many roads, streets, sidewalks, pipes and ditches for their tax base to sustain, let alone create wealth for paying pensions and other obligations. If our solution to this tragedy is to give them even more infrastructure, we have failed.


Many of you are angry — to put it mildly — that I've called Hurricane Harvey an extreme event, one that transcends our ability to plan for or mitigate through better engineering and more aggressive planning regulations. I respect your feedback and, while I still believe in everything I've written on the subject, I've taken extra time to examine my biases. I acknowledge that I'm definitely skeptical of, and hostile towards, those who would narrowly define this event as a nail only to empower — intentionally or not — destructive people to deploy a very large hammer. I see a broader set of forces at play and much more at stake.

Many people are so confident they not only understand what happened in Houston but have a clear sense of what now needs to be done. I find these people dangerous.

Many people are so confident they not only understand what happened in Houston but have a clear sense of what now needs to be done. I find these people dangerous. I also find that a lot of people speaking on this subject have little real knowledge of what it would take to do accomplish what they claim they want to see happen. I've found myself questioning the sincerity and motives of experts that I think should know better and I've found myself annoyed with a long list of non-experts who, nonetheless, have expert opinions they (rightly) feel empowered to share, often in a rather derogatory and pompous manner.

I'm not proud of my immediate internal reactions to this. I've found myself counting to ten — sometimes a hundred — more often than normal. I don't need (or want) any more fatherly/motherly emails written so as to help this wayward child you believe is suffering a momentary lapse in judgement. If Strong Towns to you is a movement about deploying more planners and engineers to implement a top/down strategy for doing more of what we are doing today, only marginally better, you might want to dig a little deeper. 

I've gotten out my old hydrology books and, in my next article, I'm planning to show you just what it would take to manage a rainfall event on the scale of Harvey for a typical residential parcel. You might be surprised.

(Top photo source: Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr.)

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