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2017 Excellence and Innovation in Visual Digital Storytelling, Medium Newsroom finalist

Boomtown, Flood Town

About the Project

Houston is America’s fourth-largest metropolitan area. It’s home to 6.5 million people, major seaports, as well as the nation’s largest refining and petrochemical complex. The area is critical to America’s energy industry and an irreplaceable component of the economy of Texas and of the entire country.

It’s also a symbol of America’s inability to make tough economic choices in an era when climate change is an urgent reality. More frequent and more potent storms are already hitting the region, bringing unprecedented floods. But unchecked development remains a priority in the famously unzoned city, creating short-term economic gains for some while increasing flood risks for everyone.

“Boomtown, Flood Town” is the continuation of an innovative collaboration between ProPublica and The Texas Tribune which started with 2016’s “Hell and High Water” project. In this part of the series, we specifically take a closer look at two potent storms — the Memorial Day Flood of 2015 and the Tax Day Flood of 2016 — and how the loss of undeveloped prairie and wetlands is making areas that haven’t flooded in decades, and are outside the risk areas delineated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more prone to inundation.

Our project exposes the bureaucratic nightmare that leaves Texans in grave danger: a process plagued by politicians passing the buck, by university researchers more interested in winning arcane arguments than solving the problem and by the strange psychology of large disasters, which are often considered academic problems until it’s far too late.

Every year, the likelihood increases that a Katrina-like storm could bring terrible and almost certainly lethal consequences. If nothing is done to protect Houston, its current boom time may simply be the first chapter in a tragic story.