What lessons can Hurricane Harvey teach us?

Harvey was definitely not the first hurricane to cause devastation on American soil. Indeed, Harvey follows several such major storms that caused billions of dollars in damages including Katrina (2005), Sandy (2012), Ike (2008), Wilma (2005) and Andrew (1992). Hurricanes are certainly not a new phenomenon. In fact, Christopher Columbus encountered one in 1495 near Hispaniola (SunSentinel, 2017). We have had 522 years to prepare more effectively for huge storms and, yet, we are often not ready or, at least, not as prepared as we ought to be. The question is why that is so.

Hurricane Harvey is said to have caused a once in 500,000-year flood in parts of Texas that are already flood-prone, such as Houston (Ghose, 2017). Some have argued that no measures could have been taken to soften the blow of such a rare disaster. I would beg to disagree. It is true that the amount of rainfall dumped by Harvey was epic, but the damage that precipitation wrought did not have to be as bad as it turned out to be.

In a nutshell, Harvey’s massive rain fall in low-lying Houston had nowhere to go, which is why so much of the city experienced such damaging flooding. This geographic challenge was only exacerbated by the approach, or, rather, non-approach, to urban planning taken by city officials for roughly a century: e.g. “let’s build anywhere we can and THEN we can think about the consequences and take corrective measures.”  For instance, the city had long permitted building in low-lying flood-prone areas (Grabar, 2017) and also broadly increased impermeable surfaces across the community in the name of expansion. That choice alone made it difficult for rainwater to permeate, which led to widespread flooding. Remarkably, in modern-day city planning (as evidenced in Houston), too often, the potential impact of natural disasters remains an after-thought.

More generally, ongoing climate change all but guarantees that the number and intensity of major storms and hurricanes that will affect Houston will rise in the future at an increasing rate. In light of this growing likelihood and past political unwillingness to stop construction that would help to allay the future consequences of that likely trend-line, what can analysts learn from Harvey that will help to prepare Houston for its next super-sized storm?

There is no single solution to address effectively what happened in Houston when Harvey hit and deluged the city and its metropolitan area with 33 trillion gallons of water that ultimately covered at least 444 square miles of surrounding Harris County and caused at least 60 billion dollars in economic damages (Witthaus, 2017). Nonetheless, it seems likely that a more holistic view of disaster preparation and mitigation could have helped the City of Houston and its surrounding environs at least soften the hurricane’s blow to some degree. Here are some possible steps that might help the nation’s fourth most populous city manage future hurricanes more effectively:

Stop building in flood zones

City officials must begin to limit and, in some cases, disallow, construction in low-lying and flood prone areas and concentrate instead on encouraging expansion on higher ground. More, when building permits are issued in such locations, Houston’s public decision-makers must ensure that business owners and residents fully understand the risks they are taking by building or living there. Such a step would at least modestly diminish losses from flooding damage.

Pervious = impervious

A pervious surface, such as an undisturbed plat, allows rainwater infiltration. Pervious = impervious indicates that one acre of green space should be allotted for every acre of building footprint. In addition, single family/multifamily residential housing, office buildings, commercial and industrial spaces should make use of “green roofs,” rainwater harvesting systems, raingardens and open green spaces whenever possible. Such an initiative would require public and private sector cooperation and implies shared responsibility for storm response planning between city officials and property owners of all sorts in the city. In fact, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has tried multiple times to encourage land-use controls to avert or diminish flooding in Houston, but local officials and politicians have rejected those proposals (Vartabedian, 2017).

Increasing Houston’s resilience in the face of major storms

In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) assigned the state of Texas a D grade for its flood control planning overall as part of a review of the state’s infrastructure. That body assigned a C- to Houston’s efforts to plan for flood control and ensure effective drainage of heavy rain and run-off  (Infrastructurereportcard, 2017). The main culprit for the D grade was the lack of a “central authority” in Texas to manage the state’s flood preparation plan. The report argued that the City of Houston and Harris County flood management infrastructure needs to be updated, such as, planning for more frequent storms and more rainfall.

While resilience and some measure of self-reliance normally go hand-in-hand to strengthen and sustain a community, the ASCE report contended that making Houston more resilient to major storm events will also require increased collaboration with neighboring counties and, indeed, the state, in planning and preparation for flood control and mitigation. The City, should also upgrade its existing storm infrastructure by increasing the number of existing channels and creating new ones in flood sensitive areas  (Vartabedian, 2017). City efforts to raise residents’ awareness of potential flooding and needed storm water mitigation would also increase the likelihood of their compliance with, and support for, major infrastructure projects.

City, county and state officials need to be prepared by shifting from the “old” mantra of “we can do this on our own” to “we have to get public-private cooperation in the planning and preparation for major storm events” hat happened to the City of Houston could very well happen to any coastal community prone to hurricanes, including many urban areas along the Eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico, mainly because 1) most of the infrastructure in the U.S. is old and not well maintained, hence the ASCE D+ overall grade for storm water infrastructure in the country and 2) even when large investments are made to upgrade flood control measures, officials too often fix on engineering as a solution rather than involving all affected stakeholders to effect significant change. For evidence, one need only observe that New Orleans flooded in 2017 despite the 14.5 billion dollars spent on fortifications to prevent that possibility since 2005 (Burnett, 2015; Domonoske, 2017). Hurricanes are increasing in number and intensity; a Harvey-scale storm will happen again and planners and elected officials in affected communities need to work together to prepare their communities better for these calamitous events. 

References

Burnett, J., 2015. Billions Spent On Flood Barriers, But New Orleans Still A ‘Fishbowl”. [Online]
Available at: http://www.npr.org/2015/08/28/432059261/billions-spent-on-flood-barriers-but-new-orleans-still-a-fishbowl
[Accessed 21 September 2017].

Domonoske, C., 2017. Hit By Flooding And Pumping System Crisis, New Orleans Braces For More Rain. [Online]
Available at: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/08/10/542606964/hit-by-flooding-and-pumping-system-crisis-new-orleans-braces-for-more-rain
[Accessed 21 September 2017].

Ghose, T., 2017. Hurricane Harvey Caused 500,000-Year Floods in Some Areas. [Online]
Available at: https://www.livescience.com/60378-hurricane-harvey-once-in-500000-year-flood.html
[Accessed 2017 September 2017].

Grabar, H., 2017. Houston wasn’t built for a storm like this. [Online]
Available at: http://www.slate.com/articles/business/metropolis/2017/08/houston_wasn_t_built_to_withstand_a_storm_like_harvey.html
[Accessed 21 September 2017].

Infrastructurereportcard, 2017. 2017 Report Card GPA: C-. [Online]
Available at: https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/
[Accessed 21 September 2017].

SunSentinel, 2017. Hurricane timeline: 1495 to 1800. [Online]
Available at: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/weather/hurricane/sfl-hc-history-1495to1800-htmlstory.html
[Accessed 21 September 2017].

Vartabedian, R., 2017. For years, engineers have warned that Houston was a flood disaster in the making. Why didn’t somebody do something?. [Online]
Available at: http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-harvey-engineering-20170828-story.html
[Accessed 2017 September 21].

Witthaus, J., 2017. Harvey’s impact: This is how much it’s going to cost Houston. [Online]
Available at: https://www.bizjournals.com/houston/news/2017/08/29/harveys-impact-this-is-how-much-its-going-to-cost.html
[Accessed 21 September 2017].

Mary Semaan is pursuing a PhD in Environmental Design and Planning at Virginia Tech. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in Computer and Communications Engineering at Notre Dame University in Lebanon and her master’s degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of Miami. She is interested in changing current water infrastructure planning processes by involving residents in all elements of such decision-making. She also loves traveling and hopes to visit all of the countries in Latin and South America during the next five years. She is seen in her photograph accompanying this essay at the top of the pre-Hispanic pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan, Mexico, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

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