HuffPost: How Houston Can Become Stronger After Hurricane Harvey

The following is an excerpt from a piece that originally appeared in HuffPost on September 19, 2017. Read the full article here.

By Anna Almendrala

Now that hurricanes Harvey and Irma have subsided, cities in Texas and Florida are grappling with public health emergencies in the form of a toxic soup of sewage, poisonous chemicals from Superfund sites and runoff from petrochemical industrial complexes.

It will take months, if not years, to restore things to the way they were. And if officials want to safeguard the health of their citizens before the next natural disaster, they’re going to have to take a generational approach to urban development ― that is, thinking about its effects not just on today’s children, but on their children’s children, experts say.

The silver lining to Houston’s devastation is that the city is now in a position to rebuild, from the ground up, such that its communities are better prepared for natural disasters and catastrophic events. The question is whether the city will seize that opportunity.

“How do you build it in the first place to be more resilient?” said Jeffrey Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. “Those things take generations and require a long view that is much longer than quarterly earnings reports, or much longer than election cycles.”

Urban centers are denser and too heavily developed

Floodwaters left in the wake of Hurricane Harvey begin to recede in an industrial area on Aug. 31, 2017, near Houston. Credit: Scott Olson via Getty Images.

Fifty-four percent of the world’s citizens live in urban centers, and that figure is expected to rise to 66 percent by 2050. But even as living conditions are becoming denser, catastrophic weather events are growing in frequency and intensity, to the point that weather models based on historical patterns can no longer accurately forecast the future.

We also increase our vulnerability to natural disasters when we destroy the habitats that act as a natural barrier between human beings and extreme flooding. Hurricane Harvey’s floods were unprecedented, but the situation was made worse by Houston’s lack of zoning laws, and its consequent overdevelopment on wetlands that would have absorbed that storm water, says Sacoby Wilson, director of community engagement, environmental justice and health at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Failing infrastructure, the increasing density of cities and the growing frequency of extreme weather events create public health risks on a massive scale. In Houston, improperly maintained Superfund sites ― that is, profoundly polluted hazardous-waste sites ― could not withstand the waters that rose as high as streetlights in some areas. Drainage systems failed. Poisonous chemicals and dangerous bacteria spread via floodwater through residential areas. In the wake of a flood, mold can bloom inside devastated structures, putting people at risk of allergies, asthma and other respiratory problems.

As with Houston, overdevelopment in Florida is making people more vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding, as precious swampland and marshland is encased in concrete and high-density residential zones are built in risky areas like barrier islands. Hurricane Irma, which made landfall in Florida on Sept. 10, knocked out power for between 60 and 80 percent of residents across the state, underlining the need for more diverse kinds of energy infrastructure.

Read the full article on HuffPost.