Houston's Explosive Growth Amid Disregard Of Flood Preparedness
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
By now we'd like to stay on the subject of why all this is happening. And for another perspective on this, we've called Neena Satija. She is an investigative reporter for The Texas Tribune. And she's in Houston covering the floods. But long before this storm, she's been reporting on the Houston area's vulnerability to flooding.
Her 2016 investigation "Boomtown, Flood Town" points the finger at Houston's explosive growth. She says this has been allowed to take place with little regard for measures to mitigate flooding, such as maintaining green space. Neena Satija thanks so much for interrupting your own reporting to join us.
NEENA SATIJA: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So your team is staying in a hotel across from a Red Cross emergency shelter. I understand that you've been checking in. What's the scene like there?
SATIJA: Yeah. Well, a couple hours ago when we were there, there were several hundred people in the shelter. I think that number is only going to get larger. Things seemed pretty calm for the moment. A lot of folks who were there were able to kind of self-evacuate. They knew they were living in apartment complexes - you know, homes with just one story in low-lying areas. And they decided to get themselves over there, which is great news. So we'll just see what it continues to look like in the future.
MARTIN: All right, so to your deep dive reporting. You know, Houston is prone to flooding - always has been. But your report says it's getting worse. Let me read a disturbing quote from your piece where you say, (reading) "more people die here than anywhere else from floods" - that according to Sam Brody, a researcher at Texas A&M - "more property per capita is lost here. And the problem is getting worse." Why is it getting worse?
SATIJA: Yeah. And, you know, everything in our story is coming from scientific research. Basically, I think there are two reason flooding in Houston is getting worse according to scientists and experts and public officials that we talked to. Number one is unchecked development. As you mentioned kind of at the top, we - a lot of this pasture land, prairie land that used to absorb these floodwaters when they came over Houston has been paved over. And that has caused some of this flooding to get a lot worse. And, of course, development also means you've got more in harm's way.
You got more people living in Houston than you did 10 years ago. You've got more pavement and more of structures in Houston than you did 10 years ago. So that's, obviously, going to put more in harm's way when you have these kinds of torrential rain storms. And then the next factor is climate change. It's seeming increasingly clear, according to scientists, that because of climate change, these storms are going to get more frequent and they're going to get more severe. So you put those two things together, and you've got a big problem.
MARTIN: Now, obviously, you're reporting on the immediate disaster here. But if you had a chance to check back with some of the sources that you consulted for this project - and I was wondering what they said - did this flooding - was this expected? Did they expect this? Or did this catch them off guard, too?
SATIJA: Yeah. We were actually just on the phone with a couple of the scientists who we quote in our story. And, you know, I think everyone was probably caught off guard by how quickly this escalated. You know, that's always the case with a storm. And this has also been a really unpredictable storm in terms of the radar. We haven't known exactly what direction it's going to go. So much in Houston depends on where exactly the rain falls, at what rate it falls, you know, how long, of course, the storm system stayed over Houston. So I don't think anyone really predicted what was happening and what's going to happen today.
MARTIN: Now, you did another piece with ProPublica on 2016. It was titled "Hell And High Water," which looked at the next big hurricane and possibly catastrophic effects on the city of Houston. What did you find there?
SATIJA: Yeah. Well, we - in that - again, using scientists' models, we looked at what the worst case scenario hurricane would be for Houston and, likely, for the country. If a hurricane were to make a direct hit on Houston, it would send a catastrophic surge up a number of residential communities as well as the Houston Ship Channel, which is home to, you know, one of the largest petrochemical and refining complexes in the world - so a huge deal.
Thankfully, that did not occur. The hurricane did not make a hit - did not make landfall in the area that would have caused that worst case scenario. Of course, scientists say it's still only a matter of time. It could happen in five years. It could happen in a hundred years. We know it's going to happen, and we're not ready.
MARTIN: You know, I take it that most of the local officials you interviewed for your projects over the course of 2016 did not agree with many of the experts that you consulted. They said that the issue is not overdevelopment in floodplains or the fact that - or, perhaps, that the flood maps are outdated, which is what your experts suggested. But they suggested it's really more a matter of the infrastructure being outdated. And I'm just wondering, you know, after you've laid it all out, are you seeing any of their minds change? Or do they still view - do they still disagree?
SATIJA: Yeah. That's a good question. We're going to be calling some of them for sure over the next few days. You know, I think what they've always said is, along with the fact that infrastructure is out of date, which it certainly is, is these are rare events. That's what they've told us. And they don't see the point. They're not sure people are going to be willing to spend the billions of dollars necessary to, you know, mitigate from this type of flooding.
I think the big question is, how rare is this type of event going to be in the future? This is certainly a rare and potentially unprecedented event for Houston. You know, let's not say this is going to happen every year. But last year Houston saw a crippling flood. The year before, Houston saw a crippling flood. Both of those floods were things that you would think, you know, only have a 1 percent or less chance of happening every year. And we've had now, you know, back-to-back floods for the past three years that have paralyzed the city of Houston. So, you know, what's the appetite going to be for the public spending a lot of money on this? Well, we'll see. You know, if these storms are going to get more frequent, maybe that's going to have to change.
MARTIN: That is Neena Satija, investigative reporter for The Texas Tribune. Neena, thanks so much for speaking with us.
SATIJA: Thanks a lot for having me.
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