With Hurricane season weeks away, can Houston handle another Harvey?

by | May 13, 2019 | Environment, Policy

Houstonians got a taste of hurricane season last week as they faced widespread torrential downpours and flooding. The rainfall undoubtedly brought back memories of Hurricane Harvey, the superstorm that struck Houston almost two years ago and submerged 25–30 percent of Harris County underwater.

With hurricane season less than a month away, many Houstonians are wondering if their city will be able to handle another destructive storm. Flood mitigation efforts come many places, including the federal and state government. But how have the local mitigation efforts fared? Is Harris County ready for another one of Harvey’s magnitude?

One good sign and perhaps the most significant change since Harvey is the use of major funding to revamp infrastructure around the city. Last year, Houston voters agreed to fund $2.5 billion in bonds for flood-control projects in the area.

With that money, the county aims to finance 237 flood risk reduction projects. Already, that includes the repairing of ship channels and bridges, building of retention ponds, the widening of parts of the bayou, and even the removal of hundreds of pounds of dirt to allow floodwaters to pass more easily.

Most recently in April, the Harris County Commissioners Court approved $22.1 million in repair projects in the Spring Creek, Cypress Creek, and Willow Creek watersheds.

Rice University’s Jim Blackburn, an expert on flooding disasters, told the Texas Signal that he believes Houston is on the right track to handle more flooding since Harvey but not from another storm of that size.

“If we were to have Harvey-type rain, we would have flooding again,” Blackburn said. “There’s no question, with a Harvey-type flood— and even if we spent the $2.5 billion and built the projects— you’d still have flooding.”

Blackburn pointed to Harvey’s rainfall totals which reached as much as 50 inches in parts of the Houston as a figure far too extreme for any city to handle.

Aside from taxpayer-funded projects, another change since Harvey has been Houston City Council’s approval of stricter development regulations in floodplains.

Experts have long pointed to Houston’s undeveloped prairie land as a crucial natural tool for flood prevention because of their ability to absorb rainwater, unlike hard surfaces like concrete.

“We got those [development] regulations passed… but what I’m concerned about is that city council turned around and aided a developer by developing in a floodplain,” Blackburn said referring to City Council’s unanimous vote last April to approve the building of hundreds of homes in a west Houston floodplain.

Those city-approved homes aren’t the only construction happening in flood-risky areas. One in five homes currently being developed in the Houston area are still being built on floodplains, an analysis last year by the Houston Chronicle found.

“We need to develop an ethic that floodplains are not safe places to build,” Blackburn said.

He said other improvements Houston should seek are better warnings systems and better information for people in high flood risk areas. Some of those changes are already approved on the 2018 bond project list.

Over the next decade, Harris County officials plan to purchase as many as 3,600 buildings within the region’s various floodplains. Roughly $730 million in local and Federal Emergency Management Agency funds are being devoted to that task, Houston’s most ambitious buyout program to date.

Many of the major flood mitigation projects being worked on are still in the earliest of stages and have only just recently gotten approval from county officials.

This most likely means that this time around, Houston may not be fully ready for another major storm since it will take some time for the green-lit investments to begin in earnest and reflect real flood prevention gains.

Blackburn said Houstonians needed to get serious about climate change.

“Preparing for climate change is admitting that it’s real and talking about it honestly and openly,” Blackburn said. “We’re still in denial at the federal government and state level. We can’t address climate change if we are denying that it exists.”

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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