Houston requires developers to elevate new buildings in floodplains

Seven months after hurricane Harvey's extreme flooding, the city of Houston has approved a law that requires new construction in floodplains to be built above ground level. More than 25 percent of Harris County is located within the 100-year floodplain. 

David J. Philip/AP/File
Juan Minutella helps friend Gaston Kirby clear out his flooded home in the aftermath of hurricane Harvey on Sept. 4, 2017 in Houston. Had the city's new building regulation been in effect last fall, more than 80 percent of damaged homes could have avoided flooding, officials say.

Houston officials on Wednesday approved a rule for new homes and other buildings in the city's flood plains that will require them to be elevated higher off the ground to avoid floodwaters.

The regulation comes more than seven months after hurricane Harvey flooded thousands of homes in the nation's fourth-largest city, which has long had a culture that's resistant to regulation and remains the only major US city without zoning. The City Council approved the rule 9 to 7 during a sometimes contentious meeting.

City officials say that of the homes in Houston's flood plains that were damaged by Harvey, more than 80 percent could have been protected had they been built at the height required in the new regulation. Such homes would typically be built on pier and beam foundations that put them above ground.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who championed the effort, called changing the rule a "defining moment" for the city, parts of which got nearly 50 inches during Harvey last August.

"Can we undo what was done with Harvey? No. Can be build looking forward? Yes," Mr. Turner said. "If it has the probability of letting people know in our city and those who are looking to come that we are taking measures to be stronger, to be more resilient, then that's positive for the city of Houston."

Critics of the regulation, including several council members and many home builders, argued it will drive up home prices and stifle economic development.

"It will hurt the city as a whole," said Councilman Greg Travis." We have not taken the time to find out what the ramifications will be."

Under the rule, new structures in the 100-year and 500-year flood plains must be constructed 2 feet above the ground or above the projected water level in a 500-year flood, an event in which 17 to 19 inches of rain falls in 24 hours. There's a 0.2 percent chance of such an event happening in any given year.

The city's previous rule required buildings to be constructed 1 foot above the water level in a 100-year flood, an event in which 13 to 14 inches of rain falls in a 24 hour period. It also applied only to property in the 100-year flood plain.

Turner said the new rule, which will take effect on Sept. 1, was prompted not just by Harvey but by serious flooding that took place in Houston in 2015 and 2016.

The Greater Houston Builders Association said the new rule will add more than $32,000 to the cost of an average home. The city estimated the cost to be much lower – about $11,000. Officials say higher construction costs would be offset by insurance savings and by avoiding costs associated with flooding.

Turner said the new regulation shows Houston is "not going to put profit over the lives of people."

Flood maps show that more than 25 percent of Harris County, where Houston is located, is in the 100-year flood plain and more than 33 percent of the county is in the 500-year flood plain.

County officials approved a similar regulation in December.

Roy Wright, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's deputy associate administrator for insurance and mitigation, congratulated the city for its new rule in a letter to Turner, saying the agency would be looking to Houston "to lead the nation in its resilience and capacity to shape policies that keep citizens safe through all hazards."

Turner said the city will still need to look to infrastructure projects such as a new reservoir, more detention basins, ongoing expansions of local bayous, and home buyouts to address flooding issues faced by older buildings not covered by the new rule.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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