This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal
Progressives blame Houston’s success for the hurricane disaster.
The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board
Who says progressives don’t believe in religion? They may not believe in Jehovah or Jesus, but they certainly believe in Old Testament-style wrath against sinners. Real Noah and the Ark stuff. Witness the emerging theme on the media left that Texas, and especially Houston, are at fault for the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.
This has happened even faster than usual, perhaps because the Katrina II scenario of emergency mismanagement didn’t pan out. The state, local and federal governments have done a competent job under terrible conditions, and stories about neighborly charity, racial goodwill, the heroism of rescuers, and Big Business donating money and goods don’t fit into any agenda. Whinging over Melania’s heels also lacks political legs.
So our friends on the left have had to look elsewhere to score ideological points, and they believe they’ve found the right target in the political economy of those greedy Texans. Specifically, Houston is a global hub of the oil and gas industry, and it has allowed “laissez-faire” development without zoning laws. This has brought the righteous wrath of Harvey down on their own heads.
“Harvey, the Storm That Humans Helped Cause,” said a headline in one progressive bellwether as the storm raged. An overseas columnist was less subtle if more clichéd: “Houston, you have a problem, and some of it of your own making.” In this telling, Houston is the Sodom and Gomorrah of fossil fuels, which cause global warming, which is producing more hurricanes.
The problem is that this argument is fact-free. As Roger Pielke Jr. has noted, the link between global warming and recent hurricanes and extreme weather events is “unsupportable based on research and evidence.” Mr. Pielke, who is no climate-change denier, has shown with data that hurricanes hitting the U.S. have not increased in frequency or intensity since 1900, there is no notable trend up or down in global tropical cyclone landfalls since 1970, and floods have not increased in frequency or intensity in the U.S. since 1950.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently said that “it is premature to conclude that human activities—and particularly greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming—have already had a detectable impact on Atlantic hurricane or global tropical cyclone activity.”
No less than the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it lacks evidence to show that global warming is making storms and flooding worse. But climate scolds still blame Harvey on climate change because, well, this is what the climate models say should happen as the climate warms.
In other words, Houstonians, you’d better go to climate confession, mend your sinful ways, and give up all of those high-paying oil-and-gas jobs. Maybe all those drillers and refiners can work for Google or Facebook .
Then there’s the political assault on Houston’s pro-growth development policies. “Harvey Wasn’t Just Bad Weather. It Was Bad City Planning,” shouts a piece in Bloomberg Businessweek: “Sprawling Houston is a can-do city whose attitude is grow first, ask questions later. It’s the only major U.S. city without a zoning code saying what types of buildings can go where, so skyscrapers sometimes sprout next to split-levels. Voters have repeatedly opposed enacting a zoning law.”
How dare those Texas hicks reject the political controls over building that zoning laws represent. How dare they prefer lower construction costs and affordable housing. The average rent on a one-bedroom home in Houston is 60% lower than in San Jose, Calif., in part because the city issues permits once builders satisfy a health and safety checklist. They don’t have many mandates that raise costs. Tens of thousands of people move to Houston and its swampy climate because they can get good jobs and afford to live there.
Zoning also has little or nothing to do with flooding. Some on the left blame roads built over wetlands. But according to Joel Kotkin’s Center for Opportunity Urbanism, the main problem is Houston’s topography. Its clay soil doesn’t absorb water well and the flat city doesn’t drain well. In the 1800s when there were no highways or parking lots, parts of the city were often flooded.
The loss of wetlands since the early 1990s has reduced Houston’s capacity to absorb water by some four billion gallons, but Harvey dropped trillions of gallons of rain. Harris County which surrounds Houston has expanded storm-water retention ponds. But no amount of flood control could have prevented damage from a once-in-500-years storm.
New York City has plenty of zoning and building limits, yet it suffered $19 billion in damage from Hurricane Sandy that dropped only a half inch of rain. Fifty-one square miles of New York were flooded by Sandy’s storm surge, 300,000 homes and 23,400 businesses were inundated. “Smart growth” plans didn’t prevent that.
All of this shows the folly of trying to force-feed natural disasters into neat ideological categories. Major storms cause major damage, and sometimes even the best mitigation plans can’t prevent it. No doubt Houston will learn lessons from Harvey about drainage and building that might reduce the damage the next time. Risk-based insurance for property would also help reduce taxpayer losses.
Texans are used to being sneered at by coastal elites, and we trust they’ll reject this attempt at their moral improvement too. Their rebuilding will be that much faster, and cheaper, because they have a resilient economy built on energy and zoning laws that make housing affordable. They also know the difference between an act of nature and progressive political opportunism.