KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Houston had the worst flooding the city has ever seen. Record-breaking rainfall dumped as much as 51 inches across Harris County. It's estimated well over a hundred thousand buildings were swamped. Many say a bad flood became catastrophic because of the area's runaway development and the extensive paving over of wetlands. Now a critical debate begins. Can Houston reimagine its growth? Here's NPR's Melissa Block.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: A network of muddy bayous snakes through the heart of Houston. During Harvey, one of them, Brays Bayou, rose swiftly out of its banks, and 2 feet of water swept right into the tidy brick ranch home of Kate Brusegaard (ph).
KATE BRUSEGAARD: With each flood, it takes a little bit more away from you. It's like the water's just coming. They snatch your life away bit by bit.
BLOCK: Brusegaard's life is now piled in a moldy, sodden heap by the street - her antique hope chest, her late mother's knitting. Her house sits in the 500-year flood plain, which means there should be only a 1 in 500 chance of it flooding in any given year. That's the theory. The reality - she's now been badly flooded twice in a little over two years. And she's thinking it might be time to leave Houston.
BRUSEGAARD: I know people that are walking away. They don't want to come back. We're too afraid that's going to happen again.
BLOCK: And it likely will, says environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn, if Houston doesn't get smarter about growth. We walk down along Buffalo Bayou, the central spine of Houston's bayou system, normally a sluggish creek. When we visit nearly two weeks after the storm, it's still a raging river.
JIM BLACKBURN: It got as high as probably another 15 feet above our heads.
BLOCK: Blackburn co-directs the Severe Storm Center at Rice University.
BLACKBURN: We I think underestimated how much impact humans can have on water, and we certainly underestimated how big our storms will get.
MCEVERS: It's a bad combination. A warming Gulf of Mexico means storms can carry more rainfall. Meantime, Houston has ballooned to become the fourth most populous city in the country with 3 to 4 million more people expected over the next 30 years. Where do they all go - farther and farther out from the city's center into sprawling new subdivisions and shopping centers and office parks built on what used to be prairie and wetlands, a vanishing landscape that Blackburn calls a wonderful natural sponge.
BLACKBURN: The native prairie we used to have and that we've largely built over had 15-foot-deep root systems. And these areas actually could hold a lot of water. And we've always had flooding here, but as we've developed and covered a lot of these areas up with concrete, it's made our problems worse.
BLOCK: Blackburn estimates that three quarters of that original prairie has been lost to development. He warns the Houston of the future has to put a brake on explosive growth. Wetlands have to be preserved and restored. Also, he says Houston needs to build a new reservoir for flood control. The two existing reservoirs date back to the 1940s when the city was much smaller. During Harvey, they couldn't hold the high volume of rainfall. And Blackburn wants to see a massive buyout program for houses in harm's way.
BLACKBURN: I think we're going to have a - over the long term a reshuffling of where people live in this town.
BLOCK: For a different view, we go 12 stories up in a Houston office tower.
LEO LINBECK III: So we're looking out west over...
BLOCK: Real estate developer Leo Linbeck III gazes at the skyline his family's firm has helped to build. Department stores, hotels and gleaming high-rises stretch off into the distance.
LINBECK III: When I was a kid growing up in Houston, that was all pastureland. There were cattle that were grazing in fields out there.
BLOCK: As Linbeck looks out, he likes what he sees. Putting artificial restraints on growth, he says, will choke off opportunity.
LINBECK III: The community is healthier if there's more opportunity for more people, and that means keeping housing prices affordable, which means allowing development to proceed in a responsible way.
BLOCK: For some in Houston, Harvey has already forced a change. We find Chris Bell watching movers wheel away his family's belongings. Harvey pushed 5 and a half feet of water into their house. They had to be rescued by boat. It was their third flood in less than three years.
CHRIS BELL: This one has put us over the edge, and it's time to move on and start a new chapter.
BLOCK: Bell calls himself a recovering politician. He's a former Houston city councilor and U.S. congressman. He says the city must redesign its infrastructure, which will have to mean new taxes.
BELL: When I was in politics, nobody came up to me and asked me to look for ways to raise their taxes, and I get that. And nobody relishes that. But that's how we pay for projects.
BLOCK: Think of it this way, Bell says. You'll pay one way or the other. You can spend money wisely on flood control now, or you'll spend untold billions recovering from the next disastrous storm and the one after that. As for the Bell family, they're moving downtown to a Houston high-rise. They'll be living on the 23rd floor.
BELL: As my priest says, well, you don't have to worry about water anymore. All you have to worry about is King Kong.
BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News, Houston.
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