Hurricane Harvey makes Houston reassess
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[November 30, 2017]
By Andy Sullivan
HOUSTON (Reuters) - Melinda and Joel Loshak
raised two children in a stylish ranch house in Houston's upscale
Meyerland neighborhood and planned to retire there. Now they are hoping
the government will knock it down.
After Hurricane Harvey pushed oily floodwaters into their house in
August, the Loshaks asked local officials to buy them out, joining more
than 3,000 other Houston-area homeowners who grew weary of ripping out
waterlogged drywall and ruined refrigerators after three devastating
floods in three years.
"I call the house my albatross. It just follows us; it's hanging from
our necks, pulling us down," said Melinda Loshak, 61.
The buyout program is just one way Houston hopes to better protect
itself against future floods. But even as the city prepares to demolish
thousands of homes in low-lying areas, developers are putting up
Experts and some elected officials say the region needs to take a hard
look at the growth-friendly policies that have increased the risk of
flooding even as they have helped keep housing affordable in the United
States' fourth-largest city.
"There's no indication that we're going to do anything philosophically
different," said Jim Blackburn, an environmental law professor at Rice
University. "With a few modifications, it's business as usual."
As Houston rebuilds from the most expensive hurricane in U.S. history,
local officials plan to dredge waterways, build new reservoirs and a
coastal barrier to protect against storms that experts say are growing
in intensity due to a warming climate. They have asked Washington for
$61 billion to pay for it all.
Some local leaders, such as Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, have called
for development rules to be tightened and for new taxes to fund flood
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner recently said his government would take a
closer look at development projects.
But that has not stopped one developer from moving ahead with plans to
build 900 houses on a former golf course in a flood zone. Local
activists say it is a prime example of runaway development that will
make flooding worse.
"That water now doesn't have a place to go, and it has to go somewhere
else - more likely into older neighborhoods that may or may not have
flooded prior to this," said Ed Browne, chairman of a grassroots group
called Citizens Against Flooding. "It's incredibly unfair to allow this
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Developer Meritage Homes says the project includes bigger retention
ponds than are required by law to stop stormwater spilling into the
surrounding community. The development "will have zero negative
impact on downstream flooding," the company said in a statement.
Since 2010, more than 7,000 homes have been built in flood zones in
Harris County, which includes Houston, according to a
ProPublica/Texas Tribune investigation.
Some developers say they are willing to consider tougher guidelines
- up to a point.
"Any time you have a big storm like this, it's not a bad idea to
look and make sure you have the right answers," said Augie Campbell,
president of the West Houston Association, a local business group.
"It's just important that you don't rush to judgment too quickly."
In the meantime, Harris County officials have allocated $20 million
to buy 200 homes that flooded during Harvey and are asking the
federal government for another $800 million, which would let them
purchase another 5,000 houses.
Some 3,636 residents have applied for the buyouts, Harris County
Flood Control District spokeswoman Karen Hastings said.
The money, if it wins approval from Congress, is not likely to come
through for months.
Meanwhile, the Loshaks have torn out the waterlogged kitchen
cabinets they installed after their house flooded for the first
time, back in 2015. They have plugged in dehumidifiers and fans to
fend off mold. They do not want to have to rebuild again.
"I just would like it to be gone, because it's so stressful and
depressing to see the house and see the neighborhood and know that
it's just going to happen over and over again," Melinda Loshak said.
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Cynthia
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