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In Harvey's Wake

Houston council approves changes to floodplain regulations in effort to reduce flood damage

"To do nothing is not an option," said Mayor Sylvester Turner, who pushed the new rules requiring new homes within the city's 500-year floodplain to be built 2 feet above the floodplain.

The Houston home of Marni Axelrad and her family being elevated and repaired on Feb. 21, 2018, after sustaining flood damage  during Hurricane Harvey.

In Harvey's Wake

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More than seven months after Hurricane Harvey’s destructive floods damaged hundreds of thousands of homes across a wide swath of southeast Texas, the Houston City Council on Wednesday approved the first overhaul to floodplain regulations in a decade.

Originally proposed by Mayor Sylvester Turner in late January, the new regulations, which passed in a 9-7 vote and take effect Sept. 1, are meant to reduce future damage in the flood-prone city.

Currently, homeowners in the 100-year floodplain are required to have flood insurance and build new homes 1 foot above the floodplain. Turner’s proposal will increase that to 2 feet and expand it to homes in the 500-year floodplain.

The ordinance covers new construction and any existing home that’s expanded by 33 percent or more — existing homes are grandfathered and don’t have to be elevated.

It is the first significant regulation the city has enacted in response to the historic flooding that crippled the sprawling metropolis last August. It also comes after an extensive Texas Tribune/ProPublica investigation into the city's extreme vulnerability to flooding. 

Council member Jack Christie on Wednesday said he feared that expanding building regulations to the 500-year floodplain would force homeowners with no prior history of flooding to elevate their homes. And because the city is waiting on updated floodplain maps to be released, council member Greg Travis voiced concerns that the city may be jumping the gun. Both voted against Turner’s proposal.

“I think we’re overreaching here,” Travis said. “We’ve only looked at 5,000 houses in the 500-year floodplain. There’s not enough data. Nobody here is saying, ‘Don’t do anything,’ we’re saying, ‘Do the right thing.’

The drive to include the 500-year floodplain — where there is only supposed to be a 0.2 percent chance of flooding each year — came after homes in that floodplain flooded in three consecutive years. During Harvey, a third of homes in the 500-year floodplain were damaged by flooding and, according to a city study, 84 percent of the structures in the 100-year or 500-year floodplains that flooded during Harvey may have avoided damage if the proposed regulations had been in place.

Jamila Johnson, managing engineer of the city’s floodplain management office, said that the additional cost to elevate buildings will be more than offset after “just a single flood.”

A 2017 report from property information company CoreLogic found that more than half of Houston’s moderate- to high-risk homes for flooding are located outside of FEMA-designated flood zones and aren’t required to have flood insurance.

“To do nothing is not an option, and this is one time that we must rise above the voices that say do nothing and do what is in the best interest of the people who placed us here,” Turner said. “Because frankly, I think the public is no longer tolerant of us not doing anything.”

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