When the waters of Hurricane Harvey receded, a staggering number of Houston-area residents were left with steep cleanup costs — and no insurance to help them out. That’s because, as Next City has covered, their homes weren’t located in the region’s supposed flood plain, so they hadn’t been required by FEMA to buy flood insurance.
Now, Houston officials want to effectively widen the region’s flood plain parameters — a sentiment that deviates from Houston’s historically hands-off approach to zoning.
City councilors voted 9-7 Wednesday to mandate that all new homes built in the region’s floodplains be elevated two feet above the projected water level in a 500-year storm, the Houston Chronicle reports. Current regulations stipulate only that buildings built in the 100-year floodplain be constructed one foot above the flood level projected for those (less severe) storms.
“This is a defining moment,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in his pitch to the council before the Wednesday vote. “Can we undo what was done with Harvey? No. But can we build looking forward? Yes. Does it mean it may cost more financially? Yes. But if it has the probability of saving lives, and if it has the probability of letting people know in our city and those who are looking to come to our city that we are taking measures to be stronger, to be more resilient, then that’s positive for the city of Houston.”
The 2017 hurricane season showed in no uncertain terms that FEMA’s city-by-city flood maps were no match for climate change, as Next City has covered. And while the federal agency has begun redrawing New York City’s flood-risk maps with rising sea levels and stronger storms in mind, it hasn’t yet gotten to the country’s other major cities.
In Houston, Republican City Councilor Greg Travis suggested the city roll back the new rules so they only apply to the 100-year floodplain once FEMA releases new maps. Turner, however, opposed the move, “arguing against binding city regulations to maps that do not yet exist,” according to the paper.
The fact that Houston’s move pre-dates the maps was commended by a FEMA representative, who sent a letter to the city this week, the Chronicle reports.
“In order for the nation to be more resilient, many communities will need to take these forward leaning steps,” the representative wrote. “We will be looking to Houston to lead the nation in its resilience and capacity to shape policies that keep citizens safe through all hazards.”
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.