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Houston, we all have a problem

Kristina Hill, associate professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning | August 29, 2017

More than 35 inches of rain has fallen by August 29 upstream of several key reservoirs in Houston. Another 9 inches of rain are expected. Staff are trying to manage controlled releases, and avoid and reduce the duration of uncontrolled releases. All the discharges head towards downtown’s Buffalo Bayou. The water first fills the storm drains, then rises into the streets, then rises into homes. Discharge from these reservoir dams is expected to peak on August 31, continuing to Sept. 2.

While the Texas National Guard may be helping flood victims try to stay #HoustonStrong, Kristina Hill cautions that we’re living in “what are likely to be the last two, maybe three, stable decades of a 10,000-year stable period in the world’s climate.”

As we follow the news about the consequences of record rainfall from Hurricane Harvey, now up to more than 50 inches in certain locations, it’s important to keep a few things in mind.

First, the people of Houston have done a fantastic job of being resilient. The number of people killed by this storm may rise, but the so-called Cajun Navy of volunteer boat owners has shown an impressive ability to help people get out of flooded areas. The Red Cross says more than 17,000 people in Texas are seeking shelter already, with more likely to come.

But in addition to lost lives, we have learned from disasters like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans that floods bring the trauma of lost homes and lost memories, in the form of photographs and other personal items that can’t be replaced. Floods also result in lost social networks as a result of relocation, relationships that often fill the gaps when lower-income families can’t afford to pay for things like taxis and childcare. And for these most vulnerable people, relocation is often permanent and may involve loss of income and various forms of downward economic mobility that last for years after a storm. Events like this have real impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods, and any response to an event like this has to begin with compassion for people who are like us, and extend to people who are unlike us.

A precarious point

We have to choose to build our “compassion muscles” with each disaster event like this. I would argue that what’s at risk, if we don’t practice compassion, is that we may become less able to understand what’s happening to us as human beings during this special time in human history.

What’s so special about our time?

Basically, today’s families and young people, retired people — all of us, all over the world — are trying to pursue happiness and security during what are likely to be the last two, maybe three, stable decades of a 10,000-year stable period in the world’s climate (the Holocene). Record-breaking rainfalls, record-breaking heat waves and record-breaking droughts are all evidence of the instability we face in our global environment — and as a result, in our economies and relationships.

And what is the problem in Houston?

Houston is the latest example of a coastal storm with a rainfall impact that was fed by higher ocean temperatures. Many people have asked, why didn’t the city require a mandatory evacuation when everyone knew the storm was coming? Why didn’t more people evacuate ahead of time? For Hurricane Rita in 2005, the city did order an evacuation. People spent hours on the freeways. Many got heat stroke. A bus evacuating elderly folks overheated and exploded, killing 23 seniors.

Modeling rain-driven flooding

Houston is America’s fourth-largest city, and it has become impractical to evacuate 2.5 million people — even with Texas-sized highways. It’s possible to do more localized evacuations, and relatively easy to do so where storm surge will come ashore. Models predicting surges are pretty accurate. But massive rainfall is surprisingly localized, and no one has put the same effort into modeling where rain-driven flooding will occur. Right now, authorities managing dams near Houston are preparing first-ever maps to show people where flooding will occur as water is released from those dams. They’re doing it live, in real time, as the releases are beginning to occur — just based on the elevation of homes and streets, nothing more sophisticated than that.

Mission control at Houston’s Space Center. (Wikimedia Commons)

The problem Houston represents for all of us this week is that we don’t know enough about the impacts that localized, intense rainfall will have on cities. Cities and states have not modeled it well, have not practiced sharing real-time information with citizens and have not planned well to avoid damage and loss of life. Houses are built in areas that experts know are at risk, because cities want a broader tax base and developers want profits. As our climate warms, the atmosphere can hold more water. Rainfall will become more intense. Our urban infrastructure systems are old, poorly maintained, and not scaled right for these present/future rainstorms.

As the home of the American space program’s control center, Houston has represented the “home base” you call when you’re in trouble on the moon, or in outer space.

But now, who will Houston call when it’s in trouble?  Maybe the staff on the International Space Station will hear, “This is Houston. We have a problem.” Or maybe all of us will hear, in cities all over the United States, and realize this is our collective problem.

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