Flooding and the Future of Houston
Hurricane Harvey claimed 75 lives in Texas and dumped more than 50 inches of rain on Houston, leaving thousands displaced and billions of dollars in damages.
First responders, neighbors, friends and strangers pulled together during some of Houston’s darkest days to rescue people by boat and helicopter. Massive shelters at the George R. Brown Convention Center and NRG Park opened to welcome those who were displaced from the storm.
“I think we handled the disaster part of it great,” said Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University (SSPEED) and director of Rice’s undergraduate minor in energy and water sustainability. “The emergency response, the first responders, the Texas National Guard, the Coast Guard, federal, state, local, I think we all did as well as the volunteers—one of the finest moments I think I’ve seen in Houston.”
But given that most of Houston is just 50 feet above sea level, Blackburn believes better city planning is essential for the future.
“Our planning is not nearly as good as our emergency response, so I think that’s where our long-term work is,” Blackburn said. “Thinking about how we approach flooding and living with flooding as opposed to controlling flooding, I think our philosophy is sort of backward here. No one is going to control a 40-inch rain, but we can manage it. We can live with it.”
According to Blackburn, “living with flooding” means understanding the severity of future storms, buying out large portions of the city that are prone to flooding, imposing regulations on new developments and creating better flood warning systems for the city.
“As bad as Harvey was, it was not the worst case,” he said. “We have to consider in the future that the sea level is going to be higher and that storms are going to be getting bigger. The oceans are getting hotter—the Gulf is getting hotter, and that is just a fact. These storms run off of the heat of the ocean and if the ocean is getting hotter, the storm is getting bigger. Period.”
Blackburn noted several areas in Houston that have flooded multiple times since Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, including Cypress Creek, Brays Bayou, Friendswood, Clear Creek, Mary’s Creek, Greens Bayou, Halls Bayou, Hunting Bayou and White Oak Bayou. To mitigate the losses of flooding, Blackburn suggests a massive buyout of areas that have flooded multiple times.
“We’ve never really wanted to admit we couldn’t protect some areas, but I think we have to admit that and turn them into green space,” he said.
Blackburn proposes a combination of local, state and federal funding for the buyout, including taxing Harris County citizens.
“I think there are several things that need to be done,” he said. “We need new reservoirs, we need buyout money, we need money for improving the overall system and we are going to have to raise some of that locally. Local, state and federal will be the combination. We are looking at needing several billion dollars. It is not small money; we had major damage and we have had recurring major damage.”
Responsible building and accurate planning will make a big difference in avoiding massive flooding in the future.
“I think it is primarily the development community who has benefited from the past rules,” he said. “That has allowed cheaper housing to be provided, and it has been subsidized in part by flooding people downstream.”
Most new developments in Houston are also built according to a 100-year floodplain, Blackburn explained. The problem with that? We have endured three 100-year floods in the past 20 years.
“We had a huge rainfall during Harvey and probably no city in the world could have handled that much rain,” he said. “But it’s a lot more than we have been planning for and we have known for a long time we weren’t planning for large enough rains. We have to figure out what number we need to plan for and then we need to use it across the board.”
Blackburn also suggests looking at the areas of Houston that did not flood during Harvey to gain insight about future development in the city.
“There is a lot of the city that didn’t flood,” he said. “Let’s figure out what we’re doing right and which areas we don’t have problems in and perhaps focus future development planning there. We help the ones we can, we buy out the ones we can’t—we turn that into green space—and we try to build new reservoirs to the west. We try to find native prairies and coastal areas to protect. It’s just a different philosophy. It’s not all about engineering in the future.”
The Texas Medical Center (TMC) was the area best prepared for Harvey, Blackburn said. After the devastating damage Tropical Storm Allison unleashed in 2001, the TMC took enormous measures to ensure damage like that would never occur again. Floodgates were installed across the campus and the TMC enlisted the help of Philip B. Bedient, Ph.D., Herman Brown Professor of Engineering at Rice University, to develop a real-time flood alert system for the campus.
“The whole county needs the flood warning systems that the Texas Medical Center has,” Blackburn said. “The medical center has got the best flood warning system certainly in the state of Texas if not the United States, and there is no reason we shouldn’t have that for the whole Harris County.”
Technology to implement real-time flood alerts across Harris County is already available, he added.
“It’s really all a matter of getting the infrastructure set up across all of the different watersheds, getting the gauges tied in,” he said. “It’s all keyed off of radar imagery and gauge flow, most of which Harris County already collects. I think Harris County had excellent information internally, it’s just that the focus has never been about providing that information to the public as well as I think it could be provided.”
Blackburn believes the way Houston responds to Harvey, long-term, will decide the fate of the city.
“I really see this as being a pivotal moment in Houston’s history,” he said. “I think that the city is really at a turning point and if we get this right, I think it will be a fabulous place to live in the future and we will continue to grow. I think if we don’t get this right, it’ll be the beginning of a long decline.”