Hurricane Ida has struck the Gulf of Mexico. As with Houston’s near-miss with Hurricane Laura last year, Ida veered far enough east to spare our region from its worst impacts.

The traumatic imagery left behind by Hurricane Harvey — submerged houses, freeways turned to rivers, and evacuees being loaded on anything that can float — mean these storms are no longer just nebulous blobs on a grainy weather map. Every tropical disturbance that glides into the Gulf is enough to stir a drumbeat of heart palpitations and make us cling tightly to our hurricane emergency kits.

Will this be the year that Houston gets another direct hit? That’s our perennial obsession this time of year. Yet we’ve learned the hard way through countless disasters that there’s nothing we can do to influence a storm’s path. The whims of Mother Nature are unpredictable, undeterred and undefeated.

When it comes to a major storm, there are basically three options: hide, run and learn from it. Houston is pretty good at the first, proficient at the second and in need of intensive remedial lessons on the third.

Four years after Harvey, Houstonians have mostly moved on and major reforms that once seemed so urgent in preventing another disaster are plodding along. Our culture itself remains largely the same: people in the Houston region have generally not become soldiers of resilience as the Dutch have. There are climate change evangelists among us but skepticism tempers action.

We are still a tragically optimistic, economically opportunistic people more comfortable with risk and remote contingency plans than with the inconvenient, even painful, process of prevention through systemic changes in land use, personal responsibility and protecting the vulnerable.

While real estate development standards have been tweaked and a massive down-payment placed on hardening infrastructure, in many respects the recovery is mired in partisan squabbles, maddening layers of bureaucracy, and a lack of political will to rethink where we build.

Housing recovery has been a notable boondoggle, a confusing array of programs that has frustrated homeowners across the city. Nearly 700 are still waiting to receive aid from a city-run $12.7 million emergency fund to reimburse for repairs not covered by insurance. Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat in a nonpartisan position, and the Texas General Land Office, run by Republican Commissioner George P. Bush, have engaged in a protracted battle over control of the city’s Homeowner Assistance Program, which was criticized for being slow and unproductive. Homeowners and Turner say the state is coercing them to rebuild their homes smaller, diminishing property values, while the GLO insists it is adhering to federal standards, and “not rebuilding McMansions.”

We can’t be certain whether this bad blood led to the state’s egregious oversight in disbursing federal Harvey aid, but it couldn’t have helped. Bush’s agency came under fire in May for inexplicably snubbing Harris County out of more than $1 billion in federal funds in a first-round disbursal, apparently relying on metrics that penalized the city and county for having a large population. Harris County’s voter-approved $2.5 billion bond to strengthen flood mitigation was designed to leverage matching federal funds, but that plan collapsed when the GLO left the county empty-handed.

Bush played blame game roulette, pointing fingers at the federal government, and when that failed, claiming the city and county applied the wrong way. Bush ultimately requested the federal government send $750 million in relief funds directly to Harris County, though it is unclear exactly when that money will arrive.

These fights obscure the fact that federal disaster recovery continues to favor the wealthy. The federal formulas for funding are based on the value of property, not the impacts on people. Renters were also left virtually unassisted, in part because state and federal officials did not do a proper assessment of which individuals most urgently needed housing. Every level of government must work harder to keep an eye out for the most vulnerable.

Amid the political turmoil, patterns of residential development in Houston continue to defy logic. For some reason, floodways — areas with the highest risk of floods, such as the channel of a bayou and the land next to it — are still considered prime real estate. A recent Kinder Institute report found as many as 2,000 homes were built in floodways in Harris County in 2019. Houston adopted a new standard after Harvey, requiring the base level of buildings two feet above what was the 500-year flood plain. Harris County adopted a similar standard, authorizing the county attorney to go after violators without approval from commissioners court.

But merely building higher can’t be a substitute for building smarter. Nature-based solutions — such as preserving wetlands and restoring prairies — need to be a much larger part of building resilience. Instead, weakened federal regulations left over from the Trump administration are making it even easier to get risky developments approved.

The increasing number of single-family and multifamily housing in flood-prone areas is an acute concern for poorer communities, many of which are unlikely to have flood insurance. When Harvey flooded Meyerland, an affluent area, many homeowners rebounded quickly thanks to insurance coverage. In lower-income Kashmere Gardens, many homeowners continue to live in moldy houses because they couldn’t afford insurance. While flood insurance policy purchases increased by 16 percent after the storm, a considerable number of homes remain vulnerable while the Kinder Institute study estimated that only 1 in 4 housing units in a flood plain has an insurance policy.

Yet this uneven recovery has still yielded encouraging steps. Houston’s Multifamily Program has funded construction of 11 housing developments, with more projects in the pipeline. Once completed, the program will fund 3,900 new rental homes, with about 85 percent reserved for low- or moderate-income renters. According to the county, work on all 181 flood bond projects — including widening and deepening our bayous — has begun, though completion timelines remain unclear. County buyouts have cleared 11,000 homes in flood plains, with another 662 in progress.

The region’s long-delayed White Whale for storm surge protection — the coastal spine known as the “Ike Dike” — is also inching toward reality. The $26 billion project, a system of dunes, sea gates and levees, will soon be unveiled in its final form when the Army Corps of Engineers issues its Chief’s Report sometime next month, the final step before it is sent to Congress to consider funding.

These projects were not designed to move quickly but they are nonetheless vital. What we really need is to upend Houston’s culture of “build now, ask questions later.” It’s not fair to taxpayers across the country to have to bail us out of our risky developments simply because we refuse to remove floodways from the pipeline of development. We must heed the dire warnings from the International Panel on Climate Change that every degree of global warming means “100-year storms” such as Harvey will happen more frequently.

Whenever the next big storm happens in this volatile climate, it will provide the true test for whether the incremental progress we have made since Harvey was good enough.


Wyndi Veigel is the editor of The Marshall News Messenger and a 2007 graduate of Texas A&M University-Commerce. She has been a reporter, photographer, page designer and social media expert for several publications.