Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
While cities along its rivers are growing the most dramatically, the state continues to forego any and all central planning for floods.
Houston is buckling down as a major storm sweeps east in Texas. Between Austin and San Antonio, that system has led to the worst flooding in more than 30 years. Aerial footage captured by a drone shows the bucolic waters of Barton Creek in downtown Austin rushing like a raging river.
Central Texas hasn’t suffered a storm this severe since the Memorial Day Flood of 1981, when severe storms in Austin claimed 13 lives and caused tens of millions of dollars in property damage. That year, Shoal Creek surged from a flow of 90 gallons per minute to more than 6 million gallons per minute—one of many rivers that flooded dramatically, as the Austin American-Statesman recalls.
In the three decades since, Texas has done little to secure its floodplains against torrential downpours. At the same time, the population in many of Texas floodplains has skyrocketed—including Hays County, a stretch of fast-growing cities between Austin and San Antonio, where 12 people are still missing after the storm.
Texas ranks among the worst of any state for flood-control spending. According to the Texas section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the state is second only to Louisiana the U.S. in terms of dollars paid out in flood claims. The state does not require communities to enroll in the National Flood Insurance Program (a part of FEMA), even though Texas ranks second only to Florida in its number of total flood insurance policies across its communities.
Wherever possible, the state leaves it to individual cities and counties to protect themselves against flooding. Texas require cities and counties to meet the eligibility requirements for NFIP, but it does not require cities to enroll, as some states do. (Many Texas cities and counties are enrolled in the program.) More to the point, though: Texas doesn’t fund flood-control infrastructure directly. And Texas doesn’t have a statewide floodplain management plan.
Three Texas agencies are responsible for flood mitigation across the state: The Governor’s Division of Emergency Management, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and the Texas Water Development Board. But none of these has true authority to devise or implement flood-control policies for the state’s 23 river basins, according to the Texas ASCE.
These oversights led the ASCE to give Texas a “D” on flood control on its latest infrastructure report card. That grade will only drop if Texas continues to forego any and all central planning for natural disasters while the state’s population booms—especially since cities along rivers prone to flooding are growing the most dramatically.
A failing grade for flood control and prevention is worse than embarrassing for Texas. It’s dangerous, expensive, and potentially fatal.
This post has been updated to add information about flood insurance for cities and counties.