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Ellory Monks

Co-Founder of @TheAtlas4Cities. Yes: infrastructure, cities, environment. Also: USMC, real food, women engineers, Rice University. No thanks: running.

Created: Wednesday, January 16, 2019 | Updated: Monday, April 8, 2019

Hoping Houston becomes more resilient post-Harvey

While our attention shifts to Hurricane Irma, the Caribbean and much of the Florida Coast, and while wildfires rage out of control in much of the West, our hearts remain firmly planted in Houston. Houston, where Sean was born and raised. Houston, the home of Rice University, our alma mater, and where we first met on Ellory’s second day of Orientation Week. Houston, home to the best food in the United States. Houston, home to much of our immediate and extended family and friends.

Houston is still hurting and we’re still hurting with it. The road to recovery will be long.

As our hearts ache for the city we love, we are nonetheless filled with hope about not just what Houston has shown itself to be, but also about what it could become.

Our feelings after Hurricane Harvey are complicated: a strange combination of grief, relief, pride, guilt, and anger. Like so many Houstonians away from their families during Harvey, we spent most of last week glued to our phones and televisions, horrified, as we watched neighborhoods we love destroyed. Our family was incredibly lucky — everyone is safe — but so many people lost everything, including one of Sean’s aunts, whose house was flooded with 14 feet of water.

Sean's parents at their family home in Houston post-Harvey.
Sean’s parents during Harvey. That’s Sean’s childhood home in Houston (thankfully spared!) behind them. Texas Spirit encapsulated.

Before looking to the future and what we hope it holds for Houston, we give thanks. We give thanks, in no particular order, for:

  1. Emergency responders, official and volunteers, and those who gave their lives helping others to safety
  2. The Cajun Navy and Texans with boats
  3. All of the companies that have given weeks of time off to employees to volunteer and help with response and recovery efforts
  4. Mattress Mack
  5. The outpouring of support — in the form of volunteers and donations — from the Gulf Coast and the rest of the Nation
  6. H-E-B, the world’s greatest grocery store chain
  7. The local, state and federal bureaucrats who undertook nearly a decade of renewed disaster response planning and preparation after Hurricane Katrina
  8. J.J. Watt, a Houston and national treasure
  9. Rice University and other local students and alumni (UH and TSU!), especially the student athletes who have gone home to home lending out their muscle to relief efforts
  10. The incredible spirit of the Texas Coast

And despite the catastrophic flooding, we give thanks that Harvey wasn’t worse. Because it could have been.

We pray that affected citizens are able to get the emergency relief they need, especially in neighborhoods that are still underwater. Top of mind and deep in our hearts is concern for our most vulnerable neighbors: the homeless, mentally ill, drug addicted, recent and undocumented immigrants, those who have suffered trauma before. Those who truly cannot afford to rebuild. We’re worried about the family pets who have already been or will be abandoned as circumstances force families to make difficult choices, and the lost and stray animals who have nowhere to go.

Moving forward, we hope that the destruction of Hurricane Harvey can lead to positive, comprehensive action to address the greater Houston region’s fatal vulnerability to floods.

And while no amount of planning or preparation could have protected Houston (or any city!) from 50 inches of rainfall, we hope that Harvey is the impetus for action to increase the region’s resilience.

Specifically, we hope that:

Citizens

  1. Educate themselves about flood risk and how flood events may impact them in the future
  2. Seriously and skeptically question: why is flooding happening, seemingly with more severity and more often?
  3. Understand that, while of course no city can weather 50 inches of rain unscathed, humans and human development patterns have everything to do with the type of catastrophic flooding that occurred during Harvey
  4. Establish a steely resolve, the kind only seen in Texas, that flooding will plague the region no longer
  5. Conclude that the right approach to increasing the Houston region’s resilience will involve a combination of green (detention basins, coastal restoration, wetlands conservation) and grey (levees, pumps, upgrading Addicks and Barker dams) solutions — that the solution is not to simply build more
  6. Get involved: go to community planning meetings, repeatedly call your elected officials, actively support common sense policies like building codes and buybacks for properties that have suffered repeated losses
  7. At the very least, vote for folks who take the Houston region’s resilience seriously and have committed to action Small Businesses
  1. Remember this maxim: what’s good for business is what’s good for Houston
  2. As a group, appreciate just how much economic and political power they hold
  3. Communicate their flood-related losses — of course from Harvey, but also from less severe, recurring flood events — to elected officials
  4. Educate others, especially elected officials, about how flooding affects the ability to do business in Houston by relaying both direct (e.g. damaged equipment) and indirect (e.g. employees couldn’t get to work, rising insurance prices) costs

State and Local Elected Officials

Show some of that grit Texas is so known for…commit to tackling the Houston region’s problems head-on

  1. Stop denying climate change
  2. Take a systems approach to resilience that also addresses, for example, Houston’s pending financial crisis and how the insurance and reinsurance industries can be partners in addressing traditional resilience concerns like flood risk
  3. Understand that, broadly, there will not be a quick or cheap fix. But also understand that there are key flood mitigation projects ready to go
  4. Listen to the experts who have been working on these issues in Houston for decades. For example, see recommendations from Jim Blackburn (Rice University) about how to prevent another Harvey-like flood here
  5. Commit to making a strategic, region-wide buyback program work
  6. Halt development in precious native prairies and wetlands (which have an incredible natural capacity to absorb rainwater and prevent flooding), especially in northwestern Harris County
  7. Fix Addicks and Barker Reservoirs Federal Government
  1. First, fully fund recovery and rebuilding efforts. Don’t play politics with disasters
  2. Use the best available science to inform rebuilding, including updated floodplain maps
  3. Build upon prior recovery strategies. The Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force spent tremendous time and energy laying out principles and strategies, grounded in best available science, for increasing resilience after natural disasters
  4. Pursue policies and programs that incentivize risk reduction at the state and local level, for example, FEMA’s proposed Disaster Deductible
  5. Finally, once and for all, fix the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)

Looking forward, we’re surprisingly hopeful about the future of Houston.

Because while the kind of comprehensive action we hope for may be unprecedented in Texas, if there’s anything our Nation learned during Harvey…it’s that Texas has got grit, y’all.

This article was written by Ellory Monks (Co-founder of The Atlas). She studied civil/environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston. The article was also written by Sean Monks, who is a captain in the United States Marine Corps, where he works as a judge advocate. He is a proud Houston native and alumnus of Rice University and the University of Houston Law Center.

Views expressed in this article are solely the views of the authors, and in no way reflect the views of the Department of Defense or United States Marine Corps.


Are you in a financial position to help? There are lots of lists floating around about how to help the greater Houston region. See one of those lists via NPR here.