Hurricane Preparedness Needs To Be A Priority
By PHIL BEDIENT and JIM BLACKBURN
May 31, 2011, 10:33PM
From the depths of Houston’s worst drought in more than 50 years it may be difficult to recall how soggy Houston was 10 years ago this month.
On June 8-9, 2001, Tropical Storm Allison dumped up to 26 inches of rain on parts the city. The storm claimed 22 lives in the Houston area and caused $5 billion in damages. Though we’d all like just a little of that rain right now, Houstonians would do well to remember the lessons that Allison-and her bigger, younger brother Hurricane Ike-taught us at such great expense.
Ike’s damage in 2008 was estimated at $30 billion, and if Ike had made landfall 50 miles farther south, it would have been far worse; Ike’s storm surge was sufficient to inundate the west side of Galveston Bay as far inland as Interstate 45 and as far north as the Houston Ship Channel. Had that scenario played out, Ike could easily have caused a catastrophic loss of life in the Clear Lake area, far more extensive property damage and an environmental nightmare. Complacency toward the threat from severe storms like Allison and Ike is not an option for Houston.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to preparing Houston and Galveston for severe storms. However, the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center is working to transform our abilities to plan and react to these threats. We have made great strides in improving storm surge predictions and in better evaluating our infrastructure and evacuation plans. We have also begun to look at future scenarios that combine structural improvements like new levees and floodgates with nonstructural strategies for improving how and where we build. Ultimately, we want the Houston/Galveston region to serve as the model for severe-storm preparedness for coastal communities everywhere.
With the current budget cuts, we cannot depend upon the federal government to come to our rescue with bags of money. Instead, we need to take a careful look at the costs and benefits of achieving community protection through innovation. In this regard, the SSPEED Center is evaluating a range of alternative approaches to addressing hurricane risks.
The SSPEED Center is working to develop an extensive flood alert system for the Clear Lake area that will be similar to the one SSPEED developed for the Texas Medical Center (TMC). Using hydrologic technology, we have shown that we can predict the threat of out-of-bank flooding of Brays Bayou in the Medical Center. We proved it during Allison, giving enough warning to TMC hospitals that not a single life was lost in the Medical Center despite widespread flooding. When applied in the Clear Lake area, this technology will help guide both the evacuation and the re-entry processes during and after severe floods.
The SSPEED Center is also evaluating whether a levee and floodgate structure at the Fred Hartman Bridge can protect the Houston Ship Channel from a 20- to 25-foot storm surge. Based on early investigations, it appears that the price tag for such a project can be justified because of the catastrophic economic and environmental consequences that would result if a storm were to inundate a significant portion of the nation’s petrochemical refining industry.
The center is also proposing a levee system to better protect the city of Galveston from bayside flooding. In the lower-lying areas of Galveston Bay, we are exploring ways to re-invent the coastal economy by focusing on the natural resources of this area, such as bird watching and kayaking. It may well be possible to create a healthy, sustainable economy in this area that is largely immune to storm surge and that also provides a natural biological reserve to compensate for potential future damage from offshore drilling.
The SSPEED Center is grateful to Houston Endowment for providing $3.2 million in funding over the next few years to study these innovative solutions. The Center hopes that its work will contribute to making our coastal economy resilient and our homes safer.
The reality today is that we must be both diligent and prudent. To protect ourselves from the next Allison or Ike, we are going to have to solve our own problems the hard way – by rolling up our sleeves, being honest about hard truths and working together.
Bedient is director of the SSPEED Center (http://sspeed.rice.edu) and the Herman Brown Professor of Engineering at Rice University. Blackburn is co-principal investigator of the SSPEED Center hurricane research and a professor in the practice of environmental law in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Rice University.
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