In Houston, a Rash of Storms Tests the Limits of Coping With Climate Change

After Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, Houston jumped to the front of the pack in adapting to the threat of climate change. It passed tougher building codes, offered more buyouts for flood-prone homes and budgeted billions of dollars in new funding for flood control.

It even poached a well-regarded urban planner from Los Angeles to help guide a city once famously averse to planning.

Then, two weeks ago, Tropical Storm Imelda hit, flooding at least 1,700 homes in Houston and surrounding Harris County. The scope of the damage raises hard questions: Were the efforts able to make a difference and can cities act quickly enough for what’s coming?

The misfortune of the Houston area, combined with its relative wealth and experience with disasters, has made it a test case for climate resilience. The result could be a model for other places threatened by climate change — or a lesson in the limits of cities’ ability to adapt.

“It’s a race against time,” said Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in Harris County, who talks about the pace of construction projects not in years, but in hurricane seasons. “We’re being battered.”

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Imelda hit parts of the county with two and a half feet of rain, killed five people and caused an estimated $8 billion in damage across the region, according to AccuWeather. The storm, which struck two years and two weeks after Harvey, means Harris County has now suffered one 500-year rainfall event and two 100-year events since 2016.

“Things are moving forward,” said Stephen Costello, Houston’s chief recovery officer. “We just obviously didn’t anticipate that you would have something pretty close to a Harvey two years later.”

Houston’s challenge reflects the dilemma facing cities everywhere: As the climate changes, disasters aren’t just becoming more severe, but also more frequent. So even as the amount of damage increases, governments and residents have less time to repair before the next storm hits. And structural changes that might reduce cities’ exposure require years or decades to complete.

“Implementation is going to take way longer than a single hurricane season,” said Shalini Vajjhala, whose company Re:Focus works with local governments to address the physical risks of global warming. “The rains come every year.”

Some of the changes after Harvey happened quickly enough to make a difference this time. Harris County increased by 160 percent its fleet of high-water rescue vehicles, making it easier to reach people trapped by flooding. That helped keep the number of deaths from Imelda down, Ms. Hidalgo said.

But most of the steps weren’t far enough along to matter, according to interviews with current and former city and county officials.

One example: Shortly after Harvey, the county and city each increased the so-called freeboard requirement for homes, which dictates how high a building’s ground floor must be above the height of an expected 100-year flood. But those rules affect only new or rebuilt homes, and so will take decades to ripple through to most houses.

And large-scale infrastructure projects, such as deepening drainage canals or building pits to store rainwater, often take years to complete. In August 2018, Harris County voters approved a $2.5 billion bond to fund such projects. But most are still in the design phase. Then environmental permits must be obtained, as well as the acquisition of property rights. Only then can construction begin.

“You run into environmental permitting timelines that we can’t speed up,” said Ms. Hidalgo. “Even though we have 254 projects or so slated, you can’t do them all at the same time.”

The rush of disasters has strained the Harris County Flood Control District, which had finished repairing just one-quarter of the flood infrastructure damaged by Harvey when Imelda hit. And now it has to manage a 10-fold increase in spending.

“We will grow from $60 million a year to $60 million a month,” said Matthew Zeve, the flood control office’s deputy executive director. His staff, he said, “just look tired. They look stressed out. It’s not sustainable.”

It’s not just construction projects that move slowly. Officials have sought to buy the homes of some people flooded after Harvey, with the intention of tearing those homes down so they can’t flood again. But the average buyout funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency nationwide takes more than five years, according to data compiled by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In the meantime, many homeowners give up and instead repair or rebuild in place — setting themselves up for future pain when the next storm strikes.

“About 40 percent of the people that were interested have decided to repair their homes and stay put,” said Mr. Costello, Houston’s head of recovery, who is responsible for coordinating post-Harvey recovery efforts and whose job description includes making the city “less vulnerable to the next record-breaking storm.”

Ms. Hidalgo, the Harris County executive, said she remains hopeful about the area’s ability to adapt. “We’re not powerless against this,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of smart, dedicated people.”

Still, others noted that even with unlimited funds and political support, there’s only so much anyone can do. “When you get 36 inches of rain right on top of your house,” said Robert Eckels, the county’s top elected official until 2007, “you’re probably going to flood.”

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