Remember Harvey? Houston remains unprepared for the next big flood. [Editorial] – Houston Chronicle

There’s something uniquely Houston about the fact that one of the most flamboyant celebrations the city ever held was in commemoration of a bayou infrastructure project.

In 1914, upon completion of the Houston Ship Channel, city leaders organized a massive carnival on the scale of Mardis Gras, which involved hundreds of revelers riding decorated floats down Buffalo Bayou, a football game between Texas A&M and Rice (final score: A&M, 32; Rice 7) and a cannon to be fired via telegraph by President Woodrow Wilson himself. The Deep Water Jubilee, as it was known, may seem like an over-the-top way to mark a glorified dredging project — but it was an appropriate response to Houston’s single most important piece of 20th century infrastructure.

Don’t expect a similar celebration for post-Hurricane Harvey infrastructure plans. We’re nowhere near completing the projects that Houston needs. Keep that in mind as the Texas Legislature prepares to pass a trio of Harvey recovery bills targeting the next generation of bayou work, emergency response plans and flood management.

That’s not to say Senate Bills 6, 7 and 8 — and the Senate Bill 500 that funds the whole thing — are a bad package. Texas should be impressed, and relieved, that the three key bills sped through the Senate. Senate Bill 6 will ensure that localities plan for the next big storm, requiring training and planning for the inevitable cleanup and recovery. Senate Bill 7 creates mechanisms to tap $1.6 billion in state dollars to help finance flood projects and speed local governments’ ability to tap federal dollars. That’s less than the $3 billion plan advocates say we need, but it’s a good start. Senate Bill 8 creates a statewide flood plan to coordinate related projects across Texas. Water doesn’t recognize political boundaries. Neither should our floodwater infrastructure.

Speaker Dennis Bonnen must now speed these bills onto Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk as quickly as possible.

But even as we applaud those bills, it’s worth noting that they hardly make good on what we were promised after Harvey. Where’s the broad, bold ambition that 51 inches of rain once inspired?

The unprecedented flood was supposed to have forced the nation’s fourth-largest city to admit we aren’t prepared for inevitable deluges that would strike our swampy landscape. Having admitted where we were, we were supposed to begin rethinking, reimagining and rebuilding with the future in mind.

It was our seawall moment — our opportunity to seize upon a disaster and reconstruct with a foresight that would serve residents for generations to come.

That didn’t happen. Brave new post-Harvey political leadership never emerged. We’re still waiting for recovery dollars apparently stuck in the federal bureaucracy. Developers stymied local attempts at rewriting development codes to plan for future floods. And only after heated debate did City Hall join the county in regulating new construction in the 500-year floodplain.

Gaping holes remain on a 15-point post-Harvey list drafted by former County Judge Ed Emmett. A third reservoir remains on the drawing board. Neither the state nor federal government created a Katy Prairie preserve. The Legislature has yet to confront unsustainable growth in the unincorporated Harris County.

Meanwhile, the Houston Ship Channel is still vulnerable to a storm surge and the completion date for the Ike Dike plan is many years away. The final study won’t be completed until 2021.

Like some bizarre version of Noah’s rainbow, consider the black plume from the burning ITC chemical tanks as a promise that another flood will come and our refineries, plants and storage facilities clustered along the coast remain unprepared for the worst-case scenario.

Imagine a 25-foot tall toxic wave of seawater and carcinogens. When that happens, the flotsam in Buffalo Bayou won’t be a celebratory procession. It’ll be chemical tanks and long-haul trucks, homes and corpses. Our city’s hopes for the 21st century will be washed away.

Until then, remember this and repeat it like a mantra: There will be another flood and we are not prepared.

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