Three years, three floods

Over the last three years, the Houston region has experienced three 500 year plus rain events.  Will we see another three storms in the next three years? No one can really say. What we can say is that there will be more large flooding events and they are likely to be

Port Arthur, TX – US National Guard

more commonly occurring and more intense. According to the National Climate Assessment, communities that are already vulnerable to weather extremes will be stressed further by even more extreme weather events.

The recent major flooding events and the likelihood of future flooding events, does not look good for Houston’s economic viability. People are watching what the City and region will do to start mitigating the impact of these flooding events.

Could Houston or any other City for that matter, have prevented flooding from 51 inches of rain or rain events with a 95% Probable Maximum Precipitation (PMP)? No, they couldn’t.

The 95% PMP was mentioned at a recent event at Baker Institute where Jeff Lindner, Harris County Meteorologist, discussed the rain total amount from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston. Check out what 95% PMP means, it is mind blowing  to think of that amount of rain falling at one time.

It is not helpful, however, when we have project developers and construction companies, many of them who helped get us into this mess, saying that everything is fine and we don’t need to do anything different. We don’t want to ruin the Texas Miracle with California land-use regulations and other heavy handed government regulation.

Harvey dog
Hurricane Harvey Dog – DOD

Unfortunately, this line of reasoning and belief is not correct, helpful or productive. Things aren’t fine with business as usual. The Texas Miracle, in Houston is under siege, Low cost of doing business and low cost of living does not last if there is regular disruptions to business and our community. Ongoing and regular recovery has a cost and it will be felt across the entire economy, not just in higher taxes, or loss of productivity but a decreasing desire by new companies to locate their business here. Houston is already under a double climate risk. Double in that we are facing increasing intensity of storms and that we have an economic threat as more companies, cities and nations make pledges to be carbon free. We need new industry and companies moving to Houston to diversify the economy. Still 70% of the Houston economy is tied to the oil and gas sector.

I am by no means arguing for heavy handed regulations or the mandating of requirements for land development and stormwater management. These are fightin’ words in Texas and will just end up getting everyone in an uproar. What I am suggesting is that we start looking at development and deployment of voluntary resilience standards; described in a previous post.  These standards are demonstrated techniques that will improve the ability of our storm water management systems, both grey and green infrastructure, to limit the impact of major rain events. By simply building capacity in the market through education and demonstration projects these ideas can be introduced into the market, tested by the market and the ones that make the most sense will get implemented.

Former Houston Mayor Bill White set a great model of how to introduce potentially controversial ideas in the Houston market through the 2004 Green Building Resolution. This resolution mandated that all City building be built to LEED certification standards. What this mandate did to some degree was allow local engineering firms, architects and builders to have the incentive to learn how to build to LEED in a cost effective manner so they can win City projects. The outcome was a better educated building and owner community that understood LEED and how to cost effectively meet these standards. Houston is now one of the national leaders for LEED building and Energy Star. We also must keep in mind, that progress in green building was aided by several of the large oil and gas companies began demanding LEED for their buildings and continue to do so.

The point that is important to keep in mind is there are ways to introduce new standards, hurricane harvey DODmethods and tools in the market without heavy handed regulations. There are ways to incrementally move away from business as usual without significantly impacting economic growth and productivity. There is no reason to continue with business as usual. The evidence is becoming increasingly clear that storm events like Harvey are going to be more common. The world is watching, it’s in our best interest to make the right decision to decrease our flooding risk, otherwise it will be made for us.


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Gavin Dillingham

Program Director for Clean Energy Policy at HARC a sustainability research institute in The Woodlands, TX. Work on climate adaptation and investment strategies for resilient infrastructure.

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