The St Louis Contrarian

Providing Independent and Intelligent Insight on St. Louis Public Policy Issues

Archive for the category “Environmental Issues”

Flooding Ditto

Hurricane Irma one of the most lethal storms in history is threatening Florida. I am very familiar with the Miami, Fort Lauderdale area because close family members live there and I visit often. While the area has better zoning than Houston growth has still been unchecked. The oceanfront which is particularly flood prone is all built up with high rises.

Miami, has been for some years felt the effects of global warming. I have stayed in an area of Miami Beach where the streets are being raised due to flooding from Biscayne Bay. Written by Paul Dribin


Why Dumb Growth Made the Flooding in Houston So Much Worse

The New York Times had a great article with maps which showed why the flooding was so bad in Houston. Here is the article:

As floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey recede in Houston, one thing that’s been revealed is that some of the damage — financial, physical, emotional — could have been avoided.

Flood hazard maps by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, showing the 100-year floodplain, an area with a 1 percent risk for flooding in any given year, mark where homeowners are required to have federally sponsored flood insurance. This is one of the few early warning signals the United States has for flooding. For Houston, those maps were thoroughly inadequate. Early assessments show many homes were flooded even though they were located far from the designated floodplains. Many homes in what’s known as the 500-year floodplain — with a 0.2 percent chance of flooding in a year — are also flooded.

Areas surrounding the Katy Prairies, sprawling grasslands in western Harris County, provide one such example. The region has been heavily developed over the past 30 years, sometimes overlapping or abutting floodplains. Local officials did not do enough to preserve native grasses, set aside open spaces or improve drainage.





Sources: Beyond Floods and FEMA (floodplains); Google (satellite imagery); FEMA (building damage, through Sept. 2, 2017)

Damage around Katy was not restricted to floodplains identified by FEMA.

“It gives people a feeling of complacency if they are not required to buy insurance,” said Howard Kunreuther, the co-director of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He would like to see FEMA provide people the “gradation of their risk.”

Less understandable is how often these flood maps were ignored in Houston, where policies encouraged development in flood-prone areas while reducing the region’s natural defenses to flooding.

And while the region has its own unique history, geography, economy and approach to growth, the lessons it will be learning in the coming weeks would apply to many other areas of the country.

FEMA flood risk zones

Building Damage








Jersey Village







East Houston






Damaged buildings

outside floodplains

Source: FEMA (building damage); Beyond Floods (floodplains)

Houston’s Rampant Development

With Houston’s economy booming, thanks in large part to oil and gas industries, residential and business development spread. As developers carved out new neighborhoods, they sometimes overlapped or abutted the floodplain — zones highly susceptible to flooding. Elsewhere, roads, parking lots, homes and businesses covered over wetlands and prairies that absorb flood waters.

An area east of Katy was submerged in floodwaters after rainfall breached the Addicks Reservoir. One neighborhood, Westlake Forest, was built in what the FEMA designated a floodplain.

Westlake Forest


Civilians patrol for residents in need of evacuation in the Westlake Forest neighborhood of Katy, Texas.

Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times


A newer development located on the south side of Kingwood, a community in northeast Houston, was constructed throughout the late 1990s and 2000s directly inside the floodplain. Satellite photos show the area overwhelmed by floodwaters after the storm.

Other regions, like Cypress in northwest Harris County, or Willow and the Woodlands on the northern side of Houston, also show heavy development throughout the late 1990s and 2000s. Both areas experienced heavy flooding during the hurricane.




Sources: Beyond Floods and FEMA (floodplains); Google (satellite imagery)




Sources: Beyond Floods and FEMA (floodplains); Google (satellite imagery)

The Woodlands



Sources: Beyond Floods and FEMA (floodplains); Google (satellite imagery)

FEMA maps are updated infrequently because Congress has not appropriated enough money for the work. The maps do not take into account the future impact of climate change or the impact of likely real estate development in the area. In addition, FEMA has not created flood maps for the entire country, leaving some home buyers unaware of flooding risks, said Larry Larson, a senior policy advisor at the Association of State Floodplain Managers.

A more nuanced view of flood risk may be possible. Data by Syndeste and Beyond Floods considers factors like previous flood damage and land cover as part of a risk assessment, showing many properties in downtown Houston not in the floodplain are still at significant risk.

FEMA flood risk zones

Flood outlook score per block










Greater Heights


Rice Military

Fourth Ward


Hyde Park

Sources: FEMA (floodplains); Beyond Floods (flood outlook)

Damage for Many, Insurance for Few

Right now, more troubling is how ill-prepared even those in the current floodplain are to deal with Harvey’s aftermath. The vast majority of residents across the 30-county region struck hardest by hurricane Harvey also did not have insurance, according to Beyond Floods, a company that tracks and analyzes flood data.










Source: Beyond Floods

While federal flood insurance will help some whose homes have been ruined, only about 15 percent of homes in Harris County had policies under the flood insurance program, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Some choose not to buy policies because of the cost, and they are not eligible for subsidies.

Houston and St. Louis

The hurricane in Houston is an unbelievable tragedy and our hearts go out to the many residents involved. There are at least two factors affecting Houston which made the effects of the storm worse. Both of these factors also effect St. Louis.

The first factor is climate change. I am not a scientist but it is sufficient to say that the consistently warm water in the gulf made the storm worse. Scientists are predicting an increase in bad storms due to climate change.

Second, the utter lack of zoning in Houston made the situation significantly worse. The rapid growth in the area with no allowance for open space or other plans for water runoff is common. Houston is now the fourth largest city in the United States and it is largely build upon swampland that is prone to flooding. I have not seen much discussion about this second factor in the national media.

The implications for St. Louis are significant. While we do have zoning, in our wisdoms, communities have chosen to ignore it. Just look at all the development in the Chesterfield Valley which is extremely flood prone. Second we are affected like everywhere in the world by climate change.

Hurricane Harvey was a natural disaster made far worse by human practices. Written by Paul Dribin

Sometimes the Good Guys Win

Several stories in St. Louis indicated the good guys can at least win some of the battles if not the wars. Here are the cases:

1. Chesterfield MO- The council stood up to a well funded developer group who wanted to put a soccer park in Chesterfield with a huge investment of public funds. The council said no.

2. Chesterfield MO- I have written before about a mobile home park in Chesterfield which largely houses low income people who rent their spots. It has been in that location for years. A developer had a plan to build 290 apartment units on the site which required re zoning. The Planning Commission this week reject the re zoning request. Advocates for the residents of the park, led by my friend Jim Moore, are working on a plan for a land trust on the site.

3. St. Louis County-A hairbrained scheme led by the St. Louis Blues Hockey Club was trying to build a hockey facility on an ecologically fragile site in Creve Coeur Park. Once again, free land is involved. County Executive Stengel and his people tried to ramrod this proposal through. The County Council has at least temporarily put the proposal on hold.

4. St. Louis City- A plan for the public to pay for renovations to the Scottrade Center where the Blues play has been put on hold due to a lawsuit by my friend Jeanette Mott Oxford and the courageous work of City Comptroller Darlene Greene.

Written by Paul Dribin

The Blues and Creve Coeur Park

As most of you know the hockey Blues have proposed putting a practice rink and ice skating facility in Creve Coeur Park, a gem of a location, which is environmentally fragile. Environmental groups are massively organizing in opposition. Well now we hear that construction has started on the facility without approvals. Tony Messenger wrote about this issue today in the Post. The county denies that the construction is for the arena even though the city of Maryland Heights gave a building permit for construction of an ice arena.

I don’t know why the arrogance and greed have dominated this issue. My take on the issue is that public support for this endeavor may be ok if the public gets use of the facility, but it can easily be located someplace else. Engineers say the park location is prone to flooding. Written by Paul Dribin

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