Houston Passes New Flood-Plain Construction Rules

People evacuate a neighborhood inundated by floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Houston, Texas. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

HOUSTON (CN) – In what Houston’s mayor called a defining moment for the city, the City Council passed an amendment Wednesday that mandates stricter height requirements for homes and buildings within flood plains.

“Every time a weather front comes through, I don’t know about you, but I get a little nervous,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Turner asked council members to recall the chaotic days last August when Hurricane Harvey dumped record amounts of rain on the city, flooding thousands of homes and forcing residents to climb to their rooftops to avoid drowning.

By a 9-7 vote Wednesday, the council amended the city’s flood plain management ordinance, increasing the area it covers and the height in which new structures within that area must be elevated.

Under the old rules, new structures had to be built 1 foot above the 100-year flood plain, in which structures are defined by federal maps as having a 1 percent chance of flooding in any year.

With the passage of the amendment, the city’s construction rules will be governed by the 500-year flood plain, wherein federal regulators estimate buildings have a 0.2 percent yearly chance of flooding.

Starting Sept. 1, all new structures within the danger zone must be built 2 feet above the 500-year flood plains.

According to a city study, 84 percent of homes Harvey flooded in Houston’s flood plains would not have flooded if they had been built at the revised height standard.

Council member Mike Knox, a former Houston policeman, faulted Mayor Turner for pushing for passage of the ordinance based on flood plain maps.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency produces the maps for its administration of the National Flood Insurance Program, and is working on updating the maps, but has not said when it expects to finish.

Experts say the current maps are outdated in light of new studies that indicate rainfall is increasing due to climate change.

Hurricane Harvey followed rainstorms in the spring of 2015 and 2016 that also caused widespread flooding in the city. Some Houston homes flooded in each of those three storms.

“We need to be making decisions not out of emotion, but a dispassionate approach. Our problem is not Hurricane Harvey, but chronic flooding. We are missing the chance to look beyond flood plains, to chronic flooding. … We need to focus on researching where chronic flooding is not within the flood plain but outside the flood plain as well,” Knox said.

Houston and Harris County officials released data in March showing that of the more than 204,000 homes and apartment buildings that Harvey damaged within the county, 147,932 were outside the 100-year flood plain. Houston is Harris County’s seat.

Homebuilders and developers also opposed the amendment. They said it will raise construction costs, increasing the price of homes in a city where home ownership is already out of reach for many residents.

The median price for a single-family home in Houston was $226,200 in February, the highest median price ever for a February, according to the Houston Association of Realtors.

Some council members said they preferred to delay a vote on the amendment to further study its potential impact.

“We don’t know what the costs will be to the homeowners, to our city, and to its tax base … So that being said, I cannot support this,” said Councilman Greg Travis, an attorney with HooverSlovacek in Houston.

But Turner, who took office in January 2016, would not be swayed. He said the city can no longer wait for regulations to make it more resilient against hurricanes and severe storms because lives are at stake.

“Having gone through several floods since I’ve been mayor, what stands out more than anything else is the potential to lose lives in our city through flooding,” Turner said.

He said he supports any effort to make residents safer.

“I don’t think you can go wrong with that.”

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