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Here's the most important thing about rebuilding Houston after Harvey

  • In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, all efforts and attention now should be focused on rescuing the victims.
  • But when it's time to think about rebuilding, Houston and the rest of the country must learn from this all-too-common disaster.
  • One lesson is stop building in a way that makes floods more likely.
Residents wait to be rescued from the flood waters of Tropical Storm Harvey in Beaumont Place, Houston, Texas, U.S., on August 28, 2017.
Jonathan Bachman | Reuters
Residents wait to be rescued from the flood waters of Tropical Storm Harvey in Beaumont Place, Houston, Texas, U.S., on August 28, 2017.

Most Americans are rightfully focused on the rescue efforts in Houston and the other parts of Texas facing life-threatening flooding because of Hurricane Harvey. The situation has already proven deadly, and more lives are still in serious danger as the storm is threatening to make landfall again.

With this still potent storm still raining down on the Gulf region, no expense should be spared in the actual rescue efforts. Thankfully, it doesn't seem that anyone is trying to skimp on this part of the process and that includes both government efforts and private sector/volunteer groups rushing to assist those in dire need.

But in order to save even more lives in the future, it's time to start coming to a hard realization that these deadly floods aren't just an act of God; they're disasters that Americans aren't doing enough to prevent in the first place.

One of the biggest problems is the way we look at these disasters, particularly in Houston. We keep hearing terms like "100 year floods" when in fact, Houston has suffered at least three disasters described as "100 year floods" since 2001. To be specific, we saw massive flooding from Tropical Storm Allison in June of 2001. Then Hurricane Ike brought similar damage to the area in 2008. The spring of 2013 saw massive thunderstorms that also did significant damage to the city.

In other words, terms like "100 year floods" are less than meaningless. Let's face it, Houston is a city susceptible to major floods every few years. If insurance agents want to continue using actuarial terms for floods that make them sound much less common than they really are, that's literally their business. But normal people and their families need real statistics to plan their lives accordingly.

"The added costs of doing a smarter rebuild will have to be compared to the costs of these all-too-frequent flood events. But one look at what Houston is dealing with today seems to make that trade off easy."

But once a major city like Houston is built and inhabited, it needs to be preserved and protected. So anyone calling for the the massive displacement of our country's fourth largest city by refusing to rebuild it is wrong. Instead, a smarter rebuild is called for. But so too are smarter plans for developing other cities and suburbs.

Let's start with the smarter rebuild. Houston is in such trouble because of its vulnerability to massive rains. Unlike New Orleans, Houston is above sea level and isn't threatened by coastal tides, etc. But because Houston is one of America's most sprawling cities with such little water-absorbing grasslands, rain water has nowhere to go when it comes down this hard.

Luckily, there are ways to do this better and a city's regular asphalt or concrete can be replaced with more natural ground cover in many areas or with newer materials like semi-permeable pavement. China is experimenting with many of these solutions in its "sponge city" program. You don't have to be a fan of Beijing's particular brand of undemocratic central planning, (I'm not), but that doesn't mean the materials and new inventions being used should be ignored just because they're being utilized by a government program.

Not one brick or street should be replaced in Houston until its city planners take a good hard look at what the Chinese are doing or at least at all the alternative building materials now available. The added costs of doing a smarter rebuild will have to be compared to the costs of these all-too-frequent flood events. But one look at what Houston is dealing with today seems to make that trade off easy.

The Houston rebuild effort should also guide our urban and suburban development efforts in the rest of the country. Remember that the U.S. census tells us that America's cities are only getting bigger, as inner city living has become more popular. The danger is that more flood-absorbing land will be covered up with pavement and put more of us at risk. Unless we want more Houstons, this is just one of the alternatives that all public and private developers must consider.

And that's crucial as President Donald Trump and others push a massive $1 trillion infrastructure plan they promise will boost the overall economy and modernize the country. As more and more critics point out that the nation can't afford that project, perhaps everyone is doing the math wrong.

Looking at the costs of these very frequent disasters in Houston, Louisiana, and Florida just to name three, maybe the price of rebuilding these areas properly would be more than worth it if those rebuilding efforts produce less disaster prone cities. And if new construction follows a similar pattern in other parts of the country, disasters that we're not even expecting could also be diminished.

Again, this exact hour isn't the time for longer term thinking. There will be more time for that when this immediate rescue effort in the Gulf area is over. But if we want to avoid or at least cut down on the number of times brave and selfless Americans are forced to do this all again, smarter planning must begin soon.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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