The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey brings up questions about how similar Houston’s building boom is to Seattle’s, and what people can do to prepare for our own possible disaster.
A few days into the Houston flooding, Charlene Strong called me with questions that she has every right to ask.
In 2006, heavy rains and flooding caused the drowning death of her partner of nine years, Kate Fleming, who was trapped in the basement studio of their Madison Valley home while the water rushed in. It was a tragedy that resulted in the construction of a $32 million retention pond in the neighborhood.
In the time since, Strong — who lost a bid for a seat on the Seattle City Council in the last primary — moved to Magnolia, one of the highest points in the city.
It is from that perch where Strong frets about whether the city has done enough to prevent deaths like Fleming’s, and surveys an ever-growing city of tall buildings and construction projects. A boomtown.
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Houston has been called a “boomtown,” too. It’s the fourth-largest metro area in the country, with oil at the center of its economy.
Most of the area is now underwater, and deep in recovery debt, estimated in the tens of billions and one of the nation’s costliest disasters.
“I am looking at how Houston has been built, and I keep thinking of our civic planning,” Strong said.
There’s really no comparison. Houston has no zoning laws, something The Washington Post called “growth that is virtually unchecked,” which has lessened the land’s natural ability to absorb water.
In that sense, we’re way ahead on planning and permeability.
But this region ranks first in the country in terms of the number of hazards we face — winter storms, landslides, flooding and earthquakes.
The latter is a threat that Seattle Times science reporter Sandi Doughton covered not only in the paper but in her 2013 book, “Full Rip 9.0.”
We’re also primed for some devastating landslides, according to a 2013 University of Washington study.
And yet we build and build, Strong said.
“Where is the responsibility of cities?” she asked. “It’s not just about greed and building. What happens if we have a catastrophic event? Is it just going to be raining glass on people?”
I shared all this with Barb Graff, director of the Seattle Office of Emergency Management. When I started to explain who Strong was, and her concerns, Graff cut me off.
Yes, I said. Kate.
The city learned from that loss, Graff said.
Seattle Public Utilities has volunteers who monitor rain in certain vulnerable areas, and there is a “rain watch” program developed with the University of Washington, “So we have a much better handle on what the flood gates look like.”
Want to see for yourself? Emergency Management has posted a “Seattle Hazards Explorer,” an interactive way to see how natural disasters will hit certain parts of the city.
And while Graff’s office does a “pretty deep analysis” of the frequency and impact of all the hazards Seattle faces, “The one thing that is going to be the hardest to respond to is an earthquake.”
After Hurricane Katrina, the federal government funded better emergency planning in 10 cities, including Seattle. The city hosted an eight-county planning effort to take emergency plans up to a catastrophic level. It includes evacuation plans for assisted-living facilities — something we’re seeing Houston struggle with — and transportation recovery plans.
So when the I-5 Skagit River Bridge collapsed in 2013, “They just pulled the recovery plan off the shelf,” Graff said.
That’s great to hear. But I’m with Strong in worrying about the cost of digging deep and building high on a fault that, if shaken by a quake, could trigger more than 30,000 landslides if it strikes when the ground is saturated, as the UW study described.
A magnitude 6.7 quake on the Seattle Fault could kill 1,600 people and cause $33 billion in damage, according to the study.
Graff insisted that those at City Hall who are approving all this construction are aware of the risks — and the costs of rebuilding.
“That’s all taken into account in the permitting and development process,” Graff said of the threats we can’t control. “The people who issue permits are members of the citywide disaster committee.”
So new buildings must be engineered and designed to stand up to earthquakes, so they won’t collapse — even though building to code doesn’t guarantee that the buildings will be stable after a quake.
“They know exactly the hazards we face,” Graff said of city planners. “And we are continually addressing those gaps. So we are always better prepared than we were the year before.
“And I will say that every year.”
I called Strong to share all this, and she was relieved — mostly.
“I’m encouraged with what I am hearing, but is there more that we should be doing? And how do we get the people in the city to be proactive in their own lives?”
They can start by taking a lesson from Houston — and from Strong’s loss.
“To say, ‘Oh, it will never happen here’ is just foolish,” Strong said. “That’s what I thought. But this is a start.”