Hurricane Harvey Puts Dallas' Claptrap Projects Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Projects in Dallas defy the logic of flood control.EXPAND
Projects in Dallas defy the logic of flood control.
Joe Pappalardo
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Whenever Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been asked questions about the state’s lack of preparedness for the catastrophe now eating Houston, he has deflected to expressions of gushing admiration for the bravery of all Texans. And he’s not wrong about Texans. Particularly among rural Texans, there is a powerful all-hands-on-deck ethic in the face of natural disaster.

CNN, meanwhile, expends a lot of airtime showing its reporting staff saving people. The anchors give broad reassurances and encouragement to people who have phoned in from homes in which they are trapped. Yesterday, one anchor told a young mother, who had children trapped with her without food or water, that the anchor would be speaking soon with the mayor of Houston and would pass along the woman’s address.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with empathy for people in dire straits, but at some point I feel that all of them, the politicians and the TV people, are saying things that make themselves look good to their audiences while failing to take the audience in deep to see the hard truth.

The Harvey story is not uplifting. The terrible damage that Houston is suffering will not be solved or even addressed by pep talks. We need to face head-on the truth about Harvey. Harvey is a nightmare of man’s own making.

Harvey represents the defeat, the end, the natural physical limit of humankind’s ability to occupy the planet heedlessly. This won’t be fixable with concrete and rebar, with digging and dredging, with scratching at the surface of the earth and sticking structures into the planet’s skin. This storm is the earth flexing, heaving, vomiting up all of those manmade restraints.

What we are doing does not work. The way we live is not sustainable. There are no solutions to Harvey. There are only compromises that we can make with nature, and that terrible truth has been known for long decades, during which time we have done nothing to prepare.

For the last two years, Pro Publica and The Texas Tribune have been cooperating on a series of stories about Texas and its lack of preparedness for this kind of catastrophe. For those stories, reporters interviewed a battery of scientists who told them the same things scientists have been telling reporters and the world for at least a quarter-century.

We have talked about it here because, for the last 20 years, the old elite in Dallas pushed a project that flew in the face of the known science on flood control. A new, younger, more environmentally sophisticated leadership team in the city just killed that project, the Trinity toll road, but we still dwell among the shadows of the old regime and its claptrap flood-control system.

The basic science is known, nailed down, not controversial. It is the basis for a national policy and philosophy in the Netherlands called “Living with Water.” This science is news again every two years or so in this country only because nobody here ever believes it or acts on it.

Our nation has ignored science, and it has done so at the peril of exactly what we see unfolding in Houston. People here and in metropolitan areas all across the country are fools if they believe they are in any way immune from what Houston is suffering today. We are all connected in this.

In fact, in the days ahead, watch closely what happens with dams and reservoirs both here and in Houston. I haven’t seen any public discussion yet of the fact that Dallas is preparing for rain here by releasing large volumes of water from its reservoirs, sending that water downriver on the Trinity toward Houston. More on that, maybe, in the days ahead.

Meanwhile — and for the sake of getting the conversation going — let’s stipulate to something odd. Let’s agree to ignore half of the scientific picture, which has to do with global warming and the effect that warming seas have on storm generation.

It’s a lot to ignore. After all, the fact that the Gulf of Mexico has been warming is a simple matter of measurement, and the fact that a warmer gulf gins up bigger storms is a simple question of physics.

But let’s steer clear of that side of the issue because anything to do with climate change tends to push people’s ideological buttons, and then reason is out the window, curiosity is dead, the conversation is over and there will never be another Thanksgiving Day dinner. We can’t have that.

Every square inch of concrete poured in the Dallas area in the last quarter-century that was not offset by new drainage somewhere else brings us another step closer to a flooding disaster like what Houston is suffering.
Every square inch of concrete poured in the Dallas area in the last quarter-century that was not offset by new drainage somewhere else brings us another step closer to a flooding disaster like what Houston is suffering.
Austrini, Creative Commons

The side of the question we ought to be able to talk about — and the side that was so relevant here in our 20-year debate over building a new expressway inside our flood-control system — doesn’t necessarily depend on climate change. This piece is entirely about population growth, land use policy and sprawl.

The first story The Dallas Observer published about the Trinity toll road, on January 22, 1998, talked about a national White House study usually called “the Galloway report” after Gerald E. Galloway, a former academic dean of West Point and chairman of the commission that produced the report in 1994.

The big news in the Galloway report, based on a global review of scientific and engineering data, was this: All of the money the United States had paid for massive public works to control flooding over the previous half-century not only had failed to improve flood safety at all, but the spending and the big public works projects actually were making flooding much worse.

The Galloway report was no global warming screed. Like the Dutch national policy based on many of the same findings, it dealt almost entirely with land use and population growth. Or to put it in more accessible terms, the 'burbs.

And to simplify even more, the basic finding of the report could be expressed as a popular line from an old Broadway musical: “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.” According to the Galloway report, the rain that nature visits upon us must fall mainly upon vast, permeable areas of soil that are capable of sponging it up. The planet just can’t handle the volumes of rain unleashed from the skies any other way.

Rivers and streams are mere overflow mechanisms, like rain gutters at the edges of a roof. When we shut off the sponging mechanism of the soil by capping and hardening it with rooftops and concrete, we begin to increase the volumes of runoff by a steep geometric progression.

And then we build stuff to try to squeeze the water even more. Push it over here with a levee. Stop it there and pile it up behind a dam. Tell nature what to do with her water.

The Galloway report showed how those kinds of public works projects goose up a bad game more quickly by facilitating faster sprawl and more development. All of a sudden, according to the claims of local politicians and people making money off sprawl, vast new territories have been rendered safe from flooding by each newly completed project. So more previously permeable soil gets capped off and sealed, and that algorithm of disaster gets kicked up another notch.

The lie in all of this is Harvey. Someday, Mother Nature comes back to survey her lost terrain, sneers at the ditches and dikes that mankind has scribbled across the land, and takes it all back in one voracious, roaring bite.

The only answer — what the Dutch began doing decades ago — is to make a deal with nature. OK, Mother, we will give you back these vast, muddy plains that will be left forever soggy and permeable, undeveloped, in other words, if you will let us protect these dense urban centers.

And why haven’t we done that in this country, reined in the 'burbs and piled people up in towers in the city? I think you and I — certainly those of us who live in Texas — know that answer. Since the late 1970s, Texas probably has been the planet’s biggest experiment ever in uncontrolled suburban sprawl.

Sprawl, after all, is what people usually mean when they talk about the American dream. The dream is that a middle-class family — people who are not the owners of great wealth — can own a mini-castle with a lawn, forest, body of water, moat and media room. All of that depends on cheap land. All of that depends on sprawl.

Giving it up is too much for us. The meteorologists say Harvey is stuck on the land because the storm has lost its “steering currents.” The suburban mini-castle is America’s spiritual steering current.

In Houston right now, nature is saying, “Give it up, or I will kill you.” I don’t think even the CNN anchors or Abbott can spin that one.

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