Is Houston Ready for the Next One?
Four years ago, Houston experienced the worst rainstorm in the nation’s history. Hurricane Harvey’s 50 inches of rain flooded 150,000 homes. Voters responded by approving $2.5 billion in drainage improvements. Some flood control work has been completed; some remains on this vital to-do list.
“We’re doing it as quickly as possible,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told the AP during hurricane season last September. “And these storms keep coming.”
HOUSTON – By Ralph Bivins, Editor of Realty News Report. (An excerpt from “Houston 2020: America’s Boom Town.”. Copyright 2018 Fifth Estate Media.)
Hurricane Harvey was not noted for its wild winds. It was a rainstorm, the likes of which the nation has never seen before.
The rain began like it often does in Houston, in fitful starts followed by unimaginable intensity.
Continuing for days, the deluge turned roads into rivers across Houston. By the time the skies cleared, Hurricane Harvey had deposited more than forty inches of rain over ninety-six hours during the last week in August 2017. Some places registered more than 50 inches. By measuring how much the earth had been compressed, scientists calculated that the record-breaking storm has dropped thirty-four trillion gallons of water on the state — equivalent to filling 26,000 New Orleans Superdomes.
Harvey was the most significant tropical cyclone rainfall event since reliable rainfall records began around the 1880s, according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm directly killed at least sixty-eight people, all of them in Texas, and indirectly killed some thirty-five more. It was the most damaging storm in US history, causing about $125 billion in damage, reported the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. More than 150,000 homes were flooded, as well as hundreds of businesses. The storm destroyed more than 300,000 vehicles in Houston, according to media reports.
Beyond the devastation, the images of Harvey that most people around the globe remember are that of neighbor helping neighbor, of individuals with pickup trucks pulling boats and trailers driving to Houston to help rescue residents, and of the indelible, undefeatable spirit of Houstonians during a time of extreme hardship.
The People of Houston Respond with Fortitude – Mayor Bill White
“The city and the people of the area responded to Harvey with fortitude and resilience,” said Bill White, Houston’s sixtieth mayor, serving from 2004 to 2010. “It was neighbor helping neighbor and that was no surprise to those who lived here. To those outside the city, our citizens’ responses to Harvey, Ike, Allison and Katrina showed the true character of the people who live here.”In the months that followed the storm, Houston leaders demonstrated a new sense of urgency. Being cloaked with a reputation for flooding can choke off growth and discourage would-be newcomers and corporate relocations.
Environmentalists believe new development west of Houston is a culprit. As more homes, streets, and parking lots are built, drainage is impacted in the city. Every day more concrete is poured in the flat Katy Prairie west of Houston, causing the disappearing grasslands to lose more of their ability to be a sponge for rainwater. Solutions need to arrive soon or the economy will suffer and homeowners could become flood victims again.
At the Crossroads of Houston’s Economy
“We’re at a crossroads for the future of Houston economically — that is where I see biggest challenges and opportunities, trying to rethink our approach to flooding,” explains Jim Blackburn, professor, environmental law at Rice University and co-director, Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disaster (SSPEED) Center.
“Flood control isn’t the right term. Flood management is. Here in Houston, we will have to learn to live with water and learn to integrate water into our future. We have put down a lot of concrete that, over time, has increased flooding. Secondly, rainfall patterns are changing; they are becoming more intense and will get more intense in the future. Before all the concrete, the Katy Prairie held a lot of water naturally, but now it dumps a great deal of water into the bayous,” Blackburn said. “We need to raise the money to buy out all the houses that are affected and cannot otherwise be protected and dedicate this land to hold and manage the water.”
Residents heeded the call. Voters in Harris County passed a $2.5 billion bond measure in August 2018 to overhaul the region’s flood-protection system, a year after Hurricane Harvey battered the Bayou City. The funds include $919 million for channel improvements, $386 million for detention basins, $220 million for floodplain land acquisition, $12.5 million for new floodplain mapping, and $1.25 million for an improved early flood warning system. Time will tell whether the spending plan can solve the problem.
The EPA: Texas Warmed Up About 1 Degree in Last Century
“Texas’ climate is changing. Most of the state has warmed between one-half and one degree Fahrenheit in the past century,” says “What Climate Change Means for Texas,” a report by the US Environmental Protection Agency. “Rainstorms are becoming more intense, and floods are becoming more severe. Along much of the coast, the sea is rising almost two inches per decade. In the coming decades, storms are likely to become more severe.”
The severe storms are not the only threat hovering over the future of coastal Texas. Climate change is expected to bring rising sea levels, endangering the coastal properties eroding the beaches and destroying wetlands.
Studies and models for flood gates, seawalls and dikes continue to be discussed, although it will be years — or decades — before the proper solutions can be identified and constructed. Big storms will come again. Will Houston be prepared? Will any future storm be as big Hurricane Harvey?
Harvey started as a wave off the west coast of Africa in mid-August of 2017. It had escalated to a Category 4 storm by the time it slammed into Texas two weeks later. Harvey rapidly weakened and stalled over the area for four days, pouring down record rainfall over a very large area. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported the highest storm total rainfall — 60.58 inches — was found in Nederland, a town east of Houston near Beaumont.,Officials in Bunker Hill Village in Houston’s Memorial area reported fifty-four inches between August 24 to September 1. Harvey-included rain surpassed the previous US rainfall record of fifty-two inches, set by Hurricane Hiki in Hawaii in 1950.
With rain rates outpacing the drainage capabilities in Houston, water levels in the bayous and streams rose abruptly overnight to record highs. Rivers and creek levels rose, inundating neighborhoods, washing out roads, and forcing residents to seek shelter on higher ground — or on the second floor of their home. Houston’s flat landscape and hardpan clay do not absorb intense rainfall the way places with sandier soil do. And 50 inches of rain would swamp virtually any city in the world.
The city was simply not prepared for Harvey and is not ready for the storms in the future, says Blackburn.
“We’ve got to figure out what we need to do to get ready for the storms we know are coming,” Blackburn continues. “Basically, we need to clear dangerous areas of homes and dedicate the land to naturally retaining water — to flood management. We need a future where Houston adapts to the changing forces of nature, and that’s not where we are right now. If Houston continues to wallow in flooding, no one will want to come to the city. We need to be quite different in the twenty-first century than we were in the twentieth century.”
An excerpt from Houston 2020 – America’s Boom Town – an Extreme Close Up. Author: Ralph Bivins. Copyright 2018 Ralph Bivins through Fifth Estate Media.
Aug. 23, 2021 Realty News Report Copyright 2021
For more about Texas real estate, check out the book Houston 2020: America’s Boom Town – An Extreme Close Up by Ralph Bivins. Available on Amazon http://tiny.cc/4a2g6y
“Houston 2020” Ebook version https://tinyurl.com/4xm7z8b5
File: Four Years After Hurricane Harvey – Aug. 25-29, 2017
File: August heat and the hurricane season.
Image: Courtesy NOAA