To adapt, we need to get the fundamentals right

Houston floods

As Houston and Louisiana start the long recovery process following Hurricane Harvey, and the Caribbean and Florida brace for Hurricane Irma, I’m reminded that in order to even start thinking about adaptation we need to get the fundamentals right.

Hurricane Harvey generated record-breaking rainfall totals, and Hurricane Irma also looks set to shatter records for intensity. The role of climate change in strengthening these hurricanes and their impacts, in particular through sea-level rise and higher sea-surface temperatures, is clear, and has been widely reported. What is also clear, however, is that Houston’s rapid and poorly regulated growth has exacerbated the impacts of the flooding associated with Hurricane Harvey.

Houston has no zoning laws, meaning that development is essentially a free-for-all, and there are no restrictions on building in flood-prone areas, or on developments which affect the city’s natural drainage systems. As Jim Blackburn, of Rice University puts it:


‘You would have seen widespread damage with Harvey no matter what, but I have no doubt it could have been substantially reduced’


There are simple planning requirements which could easily have reduced the impact of the floods. Restricting building in floodplain areas, requiring new building to include a ‘crawl space’, formulating a comprehensive flood management and evacuation plan for the city area as a whole – all of these are best practice in many parts of the U.S, and all of these would have lessened the impact from Harvey.

Good Development is the first stage in our Adaptation Continuum, and forms the foundations on which to build resilience. Houston’s approach to urban development and flood management shows that just ensuring good development as a minimum would be a significant improvement in many areas. Rolling back the requirement to consider future flood risk in infrastructure projects, and slashing planning regulations in general, is a false economy, and simply increases climate risks in the future. In order to adapt to increasingly extreme events, we would well to begin with what we know works already – here’s hoping that Houston’s recovery reduces rather than exacerbates the risks from the next storm to hit. 

Making the case for investing in adaptation
The Adaptation Academy 2017