Houston Faces Flood Risk with 500-Year Floodplain Management

As Houston remained in disaster recovery mode, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced a proposal to restrict development below the 500-year floodplain along with temporary transitional housing strategies.


Editor’s Note: Updated May 22, 2018. Houston revised Chapter 19 regulations to the 500-year floodplain standard in April 2018. Not all district representatives agreed with the measure, and the fighting over new housing developments continues.

According to some urban planning experts, mismanagement of community development created sprawl in the floodplain, exacerbating stormwater runoff and increasing flooding, resulting in millions of dollars of impact on the Houston’s infrastructure, housing and resources, and a high toll on residents’ lives.

But before Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston, the city has more often than not dealt with flooding throughout its history. Since the city was founded, flooding along its main stormwater repository -- Buffalo Bayou -- was a thing. It’s a vulnerability that has overwhelmed Houston public works and infrastructure time and again.

According to an in-depth two-part series about Hurricane Harvey as Houston’s “reckoning” in December, 2017, by the Houston Chronicle:

Houston’s deference to developers was evidenced by the thousands of homes built in known floodplains and floodways, clogging the path of rushing floodwater and causing it to rise. Developers not only had built out to the bases of the reservoirs that once sat on the far western flank of Harris County, but inside them — within their flood pools — and right up to their emergency spillways. Over time, Houstonians became desensitized to the risks of living about 50 feet above sea level.
Increased Floodplain Restrictions to be Proposed

While others disagree that sprawl is a chief driver of Harvey’s disaster quotient and point to factors like the Brazos River reaching record levels, the charge levied at the city that allowing continued development in certain floodplains was a bad idea for this particular city and its unique variables are being considered.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced to City Council he will propose a change in zoning ordinances, requiring new construction in Houston to be built two feet above the 500-year floodplain, according to ABC.

Andrea Fox is Editor of Gov1.com and Senior Editor at Lexipol. She is based in Massachusetts.