HOUSTON (Reuters) - Melinda and Joel Loshak raised two children in a stylish ranch house in Houston’s upscale Meyerland neighborhood and planned to retire there. Now they are hoping the government will knock it down.
After Hurricane Harvey pushed oily floodwaters into their house in August, the Loshaks asked local officials to buy them out, joining more than 3,000 other Houston-area homeowners who grew weary of ripping out waterlogged drywall and ruined refrigerators after three devastating floods in three years.
“I call the house my albatross. It just follows us; it’s hanging from our necks, pulling us down,” said Melinda Loshak, 61.
The buyout program is just one way Houston hopes to better protect itself against future floods. But even as the city prepares to demolish thousands of homes in low-lying areas, developers are putting up hundreds more.
Experts and some elected officials say the region needs to take a hard look at the growth-friendly policies that have increased the risk of flooding even as they have helped keep housing affordable in the United States’ fourth-largest city.
“There’s no indication that we’re going to do anything philosophically different,” said Jim Blackburn, an environmental law professor at Rice University. “With a few modifications, it’s business as usual.”
As Houston rebuilds from the most expensive hurricane in U.S. history, local officials plan to dredge waterways, build new reservoirs and a coastal barrier to protect against storms that experts say are growing in intensity due to a warming climate. They have asked Washington for $61 billion to pay for it all.
Some local leaders, such as Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, have called for development rules to be tightened and for new taxes to fund flood defenses.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner recently said his government would take a closer look at development projects.
But that has not stopped one developer from moving ahead with plans to build 900 houses on a former golf course in a flood zone. Local activists say it is a prime example of runaway development that will make flooding worse.
“That water now doesn’t have a place to go, and it has to go somewhere else - more likely into older neighborhoods that may or may not have flooded prior to this,” said Ed Browne, chairman of a grassroots group called Citizens Against Flooding. “It’s incredibly unfair to allow this to happen.”
Developer Meritage Homes says the project includes bigger retention ponds than are required by law to stop stormwater spilling into the surrounding community. The development “will have zero negative impact on downstream flooding,” the company said in a statement.
Since 2010, more than 7,000 homes have been built in flood zones in Harris County, which includes Houston, according to a ProPublica/Texas Tribune investigation.
Some developers say they are willing to consider tougher guidelines - up to a point.
“Any time you have a big storm like this, it’s not a bad idea to look and make sure you have the right answers,” said Augie Campbell, president of the West Houston Association, a local business group. “It’s just important that you don’t rush to judgment too quickly.”
In the meantime, Harris County officials have allocated $20 million to buy 200 homes that flooded during Harvey and are asking the federal government for another $800 million, which would let them purchase another 5,000 houses.
Some 3,636 residents have applied for the buyouts, Harris County Flood Control District spokeswoman Karen Hastings said.
The money, if it wins approval from Congress, is not likely to come through for months.
Meanwhile, the Loshaks have torn out the waterlogged kitchen cabinets they installed after their house flooded for the first time, back in 2015. They have plugged in dehumidifiers and fans to fend off mold. They do not want to have to rebuild again.
“I just would like it to be gone, because it’s so stressful and depressing to see the house and see the neighborhood and know that it’s just going to happen over and over again,” Melinda Loshak said.
Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Cynthia Osterman