Houston's relaxed approach to development should not be blamed for the destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey, an unprecedented storm that dumped as much as 50 inches of rain on the city, say planning experts and engineers.
"In America today, any time there is a disaster, we say somebody did it," Wayne Klotz, a Houston civil engineer who is a former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, told the Washington Examiner. "It's very convenient in Houston to say we would not have this level of flooding if we would not continue to allow people to build subdivisions, shopping centers and things like that. If I live in a low-lying area of the city, I may think that, too. But I do this for a living, and we just had an unprecedented, 1,000-year storm. In a 1,000-year storm, you are still going to flood."
Klotz echoed leaders of the Harris County Flood Control District, which covers Houston, who say stricter building rules and better runoff systems would have had limited ability to curb major flooding.
Mike Talbott, the former longtime leader of the flood control district who retired last year, disagrees development is making flooding worse.
Talbott told the Houston Chroncile just before he retired that massive floods are not the "new normal" and he criticized conservationists as "anti-development."
"They have an agenda ... their agenda to protect the environment overrides common sense," Talbott said.
Other engineers and scientists note Houston has no zoning laws, which encouraged building in vulnerable, low-lying floodplains as the city's population grew, with subdivisions, roads, and parking lots covering the land's wetlands and pastures that naturally absorb excess rainfall.
Houston has endured the most urban flooding of any city in the country over the last 40 years, according to Sam Brody, a professor at Texas A&M's Department of Marine Sciences.
"People characterize it as the wild west of planning, but that's a little harsh," said Gerry Galloway, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Maryland and a visiting professor at Texas A&M. "They delegated to a local approach that led to communities building to varying standards," Galloway told the Washington Examiner. "There wasn't a long-standing plan they followed."
Marc Scribner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says Houston is not completely devoid of development regulations even though it lacks a formal zoning code. He says Houston's geography makes it prone to flooding.
"While Houston lacks the single-use zoning code common for generations in American cities, it does impose minimum lot size requirements on single-family homes, minimum off-street parking requirements, and other regulations that encourage outward urban growth and impermeable pavement coverage," Scribner said in an email to the Washington Examiner. "In addition, Houston is low-lying, very flat, and sits on a layer of soil rich in clay, natural factors that limit drainage."
Houston and Harris County have rejected calls for tighter building regulations. Proposals for major flood-control projects after Hurricane Ike in 2008 failed to advance. And city residents have voted multiple times to not enact a zoning code.
So, instead, Houston has moved to improve its drainage system.
Developers are required to build retention ponds, which can store rainwater when it hits pavement and does not soak into the ground.
Those regulations went into effect in the 1980s, and the developments built under the new standards have not been affected much by flooding, Klotz said.
"Part of the struggle we have in Houston is that in the first 100 to 130 years of the city's history, things were built to lower standards because people didn't know," Klotz said. "Those older areas are prone to flood quicker because they were simply designed under different criteria. Over time, as a city has to replace infrastructure, it applies to higher standard, but that's a long-term process."
Others say the city can do more.
Ed Brown, a Houston engineer, belongs to the group "Residents Against Flooding" that sued the city and a local tax reinvestment zone last year, demanding better drainage.
He says the rules to install retention ponds are not strongly enforced. He argues new homes should be elevated and construction should be barred in some areas prone to flooding.
Since 2010, at least 7,000 residential buildings have been constructed in Harris County on properties that sit primarily on land the federal government has designated as a 100-year floodplain, meaning there is a 1 percent chance of flooding happening in any given year.
"Houston is the can-do city," Brown said. "We do things no one else can do. So, why are we such wimps with flooding? No, you can't stop everybody from flooding, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to stop most flooding."
Jim Blackburn, co-director of Rice University's research center on severe storm prediction and disaster evacuation, says city officials should consider buyout programs to homeowners in vulnerable areas to encourage them to move elsewhere.
"Houston's limited regulatory environment has created legacy problems that are part, but not all of, the Houston damage story," Blackburn told the Washington Examiner in an email. "No United States urban drainage system could have accommodated [this] much water."
Blackburn and Klotz agree Houston faces unique challenges.
They say the 100-year floodplain used by Federal Emergency Management Agency and local governments has become obsolete in a city such as Houston. They argue builders should have to follow stricter rules that would be enforced if it had to abide by a 500-year standard for example, representing more severe flooding that is supposed to have a 1-in-500 chance of occurring in any given year.
Harvey is Houston's third "500-year" flood in just the last three years.
But even tighter standards may have been no match for Harvey.
"Let's say we build to a 500-year standard, that means in most storm events there will be less flooding because we have built more capacity in the system," Klotz said. "But if we have a Harvey intensity event, we are going to flood, we are just going to flood. You can't put that much water on the ground and tolerate it."