One of the best things about leaving Washington, D.C. is that you never again feel compelled to watch shows like PBS’s Washington Week, where the first question on host Robert Costa’s mind Friday night was whether Hurricane Harvey had “changed everything in Washington.”
The important thing about all this suffering was that it had pre-empted some previously scheduled debt ceiling Kabuki show. However, that wasn’t even the worst failure of perspective on display Friday, not even close.
That dishonor goes to Abby Livingston, Washington correspondent for the Texas Tribune, an Austin-based news outlet that takes money from the people it writes about, for blaming the Houston flooding on Houston.
“The main issue that created this flood was overdevelopment during — over flood lands where the plants were paved over that absorb all the water,” Livingston said. “So this is as much a man-made disaster as a natural one, and I think there’s some serious conversations going on.”
So, the plants were paved over that absorbed all the water.
Weird claim, right? If Houston had hurricane-absorbent plants, that would be amazing, and if it got rid of them, that would be an even more staggering story. But the first anybody is hearing about it is on this talk show. Shouldn’t it have occurred to Costa to press his guest on this point?
Livingston was no doubt referring to a couple of stories the Tribune published last year, in collaboration with ProPublica, which won Peabody and Murrow awards. The graphics for the series are amazing. The journalism is silly, although not quite as silly as it seems when Livingston summarizes a story she didn’t write.
Livingston was simply repeating a hot take that Tribune editors and reporters had been flogging all week in stories and on social media, telling readers to go back and read the prize-winners if they want to understand how and why Houston is flooding.
That story claimed that global warming and the paving of wetlands put Houston at risk for more flooding. My own take is that crypto-Aztecs have been sacrificing too many children to the rain gods. And now that the floods have come, I guess we can both claim to be right.
We showed last week why the Tribune is empirically wrong: a little more permeable surface would have absorbed about 0.02 percent of the deluge, at best. As one fellow put it on Twitter: 24.5 trillion gallons of water — Harvey flooding is not a runoff problem.
But reporters tend to struggle with numbers, with scale, with abstract relationships.
The original story, of course, was written before Harvey, and couldn’t have predicted the hurricane. It did raise the issue of Houston’s susceptibility to floods, which wasn’t exactly going out on a limb following two major floods a year apart.
So to be fair, Houston obviously needs more drainage capacity. And indeed, in the middle of the last century until about 30 years ago, Houston was built out in some areas that probably should have been left vacant.
The question is what to do about it. The city now requires retention ponds on new developments; it may need more enforcement. But the Tribune skips over the boring wonky questions regarding flow volumes and code enforcement in favor of telling some irrelevant fairy tale about how things came to be.
In the Tribune’s telling, the two options are (absorbent) open space and (runoff-producing) pavement, and Houston has committed the sin of too much pavement, never mind the fact that Houston has more green space than any of the other 10 largest cities in the country.
They interview flood control officials who explain how they work to offset the additional runoff that comes with development, but the reporters simply scoff at them. Then they quote experts that appear to be disagreeing, but the actual points of disagreement get lost in the reporters’ paraphrasing.
It’s a whole lot of bait-and-switch.
You get passages where the reporters cite the officials saying that retention ponds, etc., are “so effective that an acre of commercial strip mall would discharge stormwater at the same rate as an acre covered in prairie grass….”
“But scientists vehemently disagree with those claims,” they follow, and right where you expect a scientist to be doing so, you get a professor saying “he couldn’t be sure that’s what’s happening to (a resident), but a graduate student of his… is researching that very question right now.”
Read the whole thing. Look at all the places the reporters insist that “scientists say.” And then look for any direct quotes of scientists actually contradicting city officials on a specific question.
“(M)any residents say (floods) are becoming more frequent and severe, and scientists agree,” the reporters write.
Ignoring the silliness of citing residents for the frequency of recorded floods, is that what scientists are saying?
“‘More people die here than anywhere else from floods,’ said Sam Brody, a Texas A&M University at Galveston researcher…”
That’s not the same thing. At all.
There’s a serious conversation to be had — about where to build another reservoir, about the urbanization of bayous, about siting retention ponds, about national flood insurance and perverse incentives, and more.
It would be nice if the local press would sober up and join that conversation.
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