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THOUGHTS ON HURRICANE HARVEY AND THE FUTURE

Posted By ACEC Texas, Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Hurricane Harvey was a tragic and catastrophic event for the Greater Houston area and the state. The current focus of energy and resources is clearly on recovery through support to residents and businesses, repairs to damaged infrastructure and restoring the vibrant economy of our state.  The use of emergency funding from the federal government implemented through state and local entities will be the spark to move us forward on this path of recovery. This is the immediate challenge.,

However, an equally important challenge will be establishing a vision for the Greater Houston area – and the State of Texas – about how to address the long-term needs of drainage infrastructure.  This vision must include (1) a comprehensive plan of capital projects and development guideline upgrades that reduce the incidents of flooding, (2) an enlightened awareness of all renters, homeowners, and business owners on their risks of flooding, and (3) a program to provide adequate funding to implement the necessary changes in our flood control systems in a reasonable time frame.

The Houston area is flood-prone based upon its geographic location in the flat subtropical zone. The rainfall amounts experienced in three days of Hurricane Harvey averaged 36 inches and exceeded 50 inches in some areas.  Absolute protection from this kind of event is probably unaffordable.  However, the impact it had on the greater Houston area and much of Texas highlights the insufficiencies of our drainage infrastructure.

The design of drainage infrastructure since Houston’s founding has changed over the years, based upon drainage criteria considered acceptable at the time.  Today, older areas in the greater Houston area can flood following a 6-8 inch rainfall event because the storm sewers, street, and streams were designed for less intense flows in an earlier time.  Addressing the problems in these areas will require expensive retrofits and, in many cases, buy-outs of particularly flood-prone areas.  This needs to happen quickly.  Strategic and timely buy-outs will prevent rebuilding in areas that can be utilized to support drainage improvements along bayous and tributaries.

Investment in flood mitigation and protection works.  There are many small-scale and large-scale examples across the region.  Had the Harvey rainfall been something less than the largest rainfall event in history – or if the Addicks and Barker reservoirs had been larger, better maintained, or supplemented with additional flood mitigation improvements – the reservoirs would have protected homeowners along Buffalo Bayou.  Levees across southeast Texas protected numerous homeowners.

Different levels of flood protection have different costs – in terms of the cost of necessary flood control infrastructure projects, in building and housing costs, in economic development foregone, in human and economic impacts.  Policymakers in the Greater Houston area will have to determine what is the desired and acceptable level of protection based on the cost.  Then a plan can be put in place to achieve that goal, with specific projects and outcomes charted and adequate funding identified to execute the plan.

This vision must be clear and concise.  It must be understandable and widely accepted as the right direction for the region. For example, a goal might be the effective management of one foot of rain in a day (24 hours), every day.  Or there might be different goals for different watersheds that address the different conditions in each.   

But there must be a plan with specific projects and specific desired outcomes that gains public trust.  This would include understanding the current status of existing infrastructure, developing alternatives, evaluating the feasibility of alternatives, and recommending solutions.

This may require changes in design criteria for new development. An event such as Harvey was outside the realm of reasonable design criteria.  But in light of the magnitude and impacts of rain events in the past 3 years in the region, discussion of changes in criteria for development – based on good science and policy - seems merited.

Implementation of any plan will require significant new funding.  Efforts are already underway to seek federal and state funding for projects.  However, those funds will need to be supplemented at the local level.  Given the political pressure on property taxes, it is unrealistic to consider that this plan can be funded with property taxes. It is time to revisit the idea of a local option sales tax for infrastructure, an idea that came before the Legislature a decade ago. 

The order of magnitude of needed funding is in excess of $30 billion.  This will require a long-term commitment dedicating a reliable funding stream for planning, obtaining rights-of-way, and funding projects. The impacts on mobility, public services, and business operations, in addition to the homes flooded and lives impacted, are too broad to ignore. 

We must beware of simplistic answers.  This event was not about unregulated development or lack of zoning.  Developers have been required to mitigate the impact of development on downstream watersheds in recent years.  And Houston’s approach to development has yielded some of the lowest housing costs and highest quality of life of any major American city.  

Furthermore, Americans are not going to retreat from the coast (or from earthquake prone areas).   Houston and New Orleans and Florida are not going to be abandoned.  There will always be natural disasters that exceed the best laid plans of men.  The value of Houston to the national and global economy must be protected.  This is a big challenge that will require utilizing the ingenuity of many professionals, including the engineering community, and the involvement of every citizen.   Texas survived the most catastrophic rainfall event in US history.  Now that same spirit must be focused on developing a plan for the future.

Hurricane Harvey has highlighted the drainage insufficiencies of the Houston region and the state. It is now time for leadership to define the vision, define the plan, and commit to the funding to ensure the continued growth and sustainability of the state’s economy, create a place for residents to live, work and play, and provide an environment where businesses can prosper.

Tags:  Flooding  Harvey  Infrastructure 

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