Houston after Harvey: From chaos to opportunity
Waiting for Hurricane Harvey to hit the Gulf Coast was like being on the Titanic – trapped and reduced to intense anticipation, all too aware that Houston would flood in a matter of hours.
On Friday afternoon of Aug. 25, I was one of the many Houstonians who anxiously gathered our families together as Hurricane Harvey approached the Corpus Christi coast. We were defenseless to the oncoming deluge, waiting impatiently as news reports filled our homes with grim reports about Houston’s inability to cope with an event of this magnitude.
When Harvey landed in the Rockport and Port Aransas region, the first symptoms of the storm clearly materialized in a matter of minutes. While there were many predictions about the course of action Harvey could take, it was clear that the Houston-Galveston region would be severely impacted and that days of heavy rain would follow. What was not clear, however, was exactly how much rain Harvey would bring to this area, and whether Houston had the capacity to cope with whatever nightmarish amounts of rain did come.
Four days after the Harvey’s first strike, Houstonians were left with a scenario never seen or experienced before. An unprecedented amount of water, the amount of water that Houston typically receives in one entire year, had fallen in Houston in just a few days. On Tuesday, August 29, the National Weather Service declared “Harvey sets a preliminary US record with 51.88 inches.” Although this amount varied across the Greater Houston area, most of these areas received totals that surpassed the 30-inch mark. Flooding was reported in matter of hours, as most of the city drowned at the feet of Harvey’s cyclical pattern, which was moving slowly and returning to the very same battered areas.
On Monday, August 28, after being indoors for three full days, due to either the heavy rains, or the tornado and flash flooding warnings that occurred every ten minutes, I awoke to a new city. Armies of volunteers rapidly formed through social media posts, shelters were quickly being filled, schools and groceries closed – and throughout it all remained the feeling of being trapped. Not being able go anywhere due to flooding all around. Even areas that never flooded were flooded. I was one of the lucky ones.
The real cost of Hurricane Harvey
In the news, Mayor Sylvester Turner was already talking about the “cost” of Harvey to Houstonians. He explicitly remarked that our recovery would not just require a monetary cost for Houstonians, but an “emotional cost.” His words resonated in me as we rarely speak about the emotional cost in the world of business. For many years now, we have prioritized money and cost-effectiveness as the number one mechanism to justify programs and projects, even sustainability ones. We have turned our backs to the “real” cost of things. The cost of losing what we have. The cost of having polluted waterways and bays. The cost of losing lives. The cost of struggling and fighting for our lives. The cost of not knowing what to do or where to go. That is a cost that doesn’t have a price tag on it.
Houston is now paying that cost as it awakens to this new reality. Hurricane Harvey is now being considered the “worst flooding event in state history” and a “once-in-1,000-year flood,” which means the probability of a similar event occurring in any given year is supposedly 0.1 percent. But is this really a 1,000-year event?
When researchers and statisticians calculate these probabilities they do so based on historical data, and this data is based on the variables that were observed years and centuries ago. However, these variables – the landscape and hydrology around cities – have significantly changed from a hundred years ago, and continue to change. This has significantly increased the chances of flooding in any given year.
Rapid urbanization in the Greater Houston area has altered the way in which water flows, as well as its infiltration and percolation rates – the rates at which water enters the soil and reaches the groundwater table.
In addition, climate change could increase the frequency of these extreme weather events. According to scientist Kevin Trenberth from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, climate change could cause events like Harvey to become a 50- to 100-year event, rather than a 500- or 1,000-year event.
Rebuilding smarter and stronger
The question now is, is Houston prepared to take on events like Harvey that may happen closer and closer together, allowing less time for financial and emotional recovery? This is a question that needs to be answered holistically and in the context of how we will do things from now on, starting with prioritizing sustainability projects that both minimize change to our natural environment and improve Houston’s permeability and drainage systems. Low-impact development approaches should play a role.
Houston’s ability to react to Harvey-like storms in the future will largely depend on how Houstonians do things from now on. Looking at both sides of the “cost” – the financial cost and the cost of things that cannot be priced, such as people’s lives and livelihoods – should help determine the new pathway.
The Texas Living Waters Project and its team of experts will help by working to identify innovative solutions for Houston and Gulf Coast resiliency that empower Texans to enjoy a more sustainable future. Finding solutions that protect our Texas legacy, our kids and all the kids to come is not just a policy priority – as a mother and a Texan, it’s personal.