Six years after Hurricane Harvey, Houston is still vulnerable to the next big storm. How can our elected officials help Houstonians prepare for another round of severe flooding?
First, let me say that we have improved our situation since Harvey. The bond issue passed by Harris County has invested more than $2.5 billion to work on flood control. Several federal projects are also underway. Mayor Sylvester Turner recently decided that the Department of Public Works would maintain culverts within open ditch drainage systems, rather than requiring homeowners to do so, which was a big deal. But we have much more to do.
The first priority is to understand our changed rainfall patterns and integrate that knowledge into every aspect of the city’s thinking. We all have seen heavy rains occurring in a short period of time. These new patterns are linked to climate change, a topic we as a community have ignored, dismissed, or ignored for decades. However, this issue is not going away, and the sooner we attack it head on, the better. We cannot solve what we reject.
The second priority is the development of adequate planning and engineering tools to deal with our changing climate. Because we haven’t discussed climate change, we haven’t developed tools that will help us understand how to plan for the changes that will come in the lives of the projects we are building today.
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Changing rainfall patterns affect almost all aspects of a city’s infrastructure – roads, sewage treatment plants, underground and above-ground storm water systems, flood plains and general drainage flow patterns. We must challenge our design professionals to explain how they are considering these changing patterns.
Third, we need better information about floods. We don’t talk enough about our flooding problem partly because we worry that such discussions will depress house prices. Well, of course it will interfere with house prices. it Needed, This is an issue to be thoroughly examined to determine whether we are really concerned about protecting our citizens from floods.
Thus, we must have better flood warning and prevention systems. I saw an example from Japan regarding their tsunami warning system, which used six different routes to deliver information to the public. We should be getting warnings of upcoming floods from TV, radio, email, text, social media and loudspeaker vans.
We also need serious evacuation plans for future floods that are well publicized. We need a buyout plan immediately after a flood event when people need help most, not three years later when repairs have been made and mortgages have been renegotiated because that was the only practical option. .
Fourth, we need equity in our flood protection. Historically, Houston and the northeast area of Harris County have not received their fair share of flood improvements. Halls and Greens Bayou requires a major relief project, such as underground tunnels connecting major flood areas to the San Jacinto River.
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Equity would suggest that these historically disadvantaged areas should get a larger share going forward, at least for some time, to compensate for past omissions. Residents in these areas are right to ask when and how we will provide them with the same level of flood protection that is available in other parts of the city. That’s what equity is all about.
Although many of us don’t realize it, Houston is a coastal community, and Clear Lake and the eastern portion of Houston are vulnerable to violent storm flooding. Very little attention has been paid to this problem of floods. The US Army Corps of Engineers has a current plan called a coastal barrier. This will help on smaller storms but will not protect Houston from larger storms.
We must protect our coastal communities and major industrial areas that could send millions of gallons of oil and hazardous substances into East Houston neighborhoods and the Bay. The city, along with the county, port and Joe Swinbank, a private entrepreneur, are currently funding the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center at Rice University to develop the “In the Bay” collaborative project in the coastal area. Are nourishing. backbone that can help protect our industrial and residential sectors.
The bottom line is that we have a lot of work ahead of us to adequately respond to floods. Our mayoral candidates should talk about these issues. Our lives and livelihood depend on it.
Jim Blackburn is a faculty scholar at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, a professor in the practice of environmental law in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University, and a practicing environmental attorney with the Blackburn & Carter law firm in Houston.