When Hurricane Harvey was finished with Houston, it had dumped a record 51 inches of rain, exceeding the average total yearly rainfall by one inch. Overall, approximately 27 trillion gallons of water fell from Harvey after making landfall. To those familiar with the eighth wonder of the world, the Houston Astrodome, Harvey’s rain would fill the Astrodome 86,000 times.
Current estimates for property loss across Texas is valued at $150 billion to $180 billion, about 10 percent of the total GDP of Texas. This number does not take into account loss of economic activity and productivity, displacement of families, or injury and illnesses directly associated with the storm and its aftermath.
There is considerable discussion about what could have been done to prevent such a catastrophe. It is easy to look back after the storm and second guess previous decisions that led to the current region’s footprint. We have been asked whether any City could have prevented the flooding. I would suggest not. Cities don’t build to 40,000 year flood events or storms large enough to place the entire City of New Orleans under 128 feet of water.
That being said, the Houston metropolitan area did heighten its flood risk. The 9,000 square mile region has paved over large portions of coastal prairie and swampland with impermeable surfaces and allows development along the bayous and reservoirs without flood mitigation standards. The Houston region been able to develop in this manner because 500 plus year storms have been infrequent and due to local, state and federal resources, recovery has been relatively quick. However, we have now seen three 500 plus year storms in the last three years and the strain of providing loss recovery from FEMA, the insurance industry and state are starting to show. A shift from business as usual will require a change in mentality from loss recovery to storm risk mitigation, and by all indications from FEMA Director Long, communities should make this shift sooner rather than later.
There is a lengthy list of items the Houston region could have done to limit damage. For example, limiting development on the reservoirs, increasing building foundation heights, low impact development, on-site storm water detention and placing on-site generation above ground level. In recent years some of these standards have been put in place for new construction. However, a substantial amount of funding must be identified, as well as infrastructure design standards updated, to rebuild this infrastructure to mitigate storm risk. Fortunately, communities can begin to look into the growing number of resilient design standards, such as ASCE’s Envision and look to resilience bonds to fund this work.
Rebuilding is already underway in Houston. As Mayor Turner stated, “we are a can-do City” and “we are not going to engage in a pity party.” As the City begins these efforts, it cannot ignore the coming storm risk due to climate change, nor can any surrounding communities. This rebuilding effort should not be done in silos. Development in one community impacts the viability and livability of other communities. Currently, there are a patchwork of jurisdictions with varying building standards and infrastructure requirements. As communities look to rebuild, it is imperative that they begin to coordinate with their neighbors to implement strategies that can enhance the adaptability and resilience of all communities. Regional collaborative models have been developed across the country to improve adaptive capacity and resilience of communities. These collaboratives are not mandates or regulations. We all know that regulation and mandates are fighting words in Texas. Rather, these are frameworks and strategies that can identify cost effective, market-driven solutions. There are a variety of local, state and national resources that have experience developing these strategies. It is in the region’s best interest to begin to reach out to these organizations to rebuild a more resilient community.