Tag Archives: Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey, One Year Later

New Orleans   Given Houston’s experiences with its own flooding and hurricanes and its welcoming and sheltering of thousands after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it would have seemed safe to assume that if any city could respond well to disaster, it must be Houston.  A year after Hurricane Harvey, the answer is clear:  not Houston either.

I was supposed to be in Houston when Harvey hit, and wisely delayed my trip, going only once reports were in that water was off of most of the interstate, though I found it still lapping the shoulder around Beaumont and Port Arthur.  In Houston, organizers told me of the lack of response in apartment complexes where the residents were largely Hispanic and often undocumented.  Philanthropists were generous, but uninterested in discussing the lessons of Katrina, as if it were ancient history, rather than a still open wound.  Houston could handle it.

And, they have, just not all that well.  There is still no real plan to protect the city in the future.  A $2.5 billion bond issue passed overwhelmingly by an 86% margin, but in dealing with a disaster of this scale that’s almost chump change, and only for the Houston area, while Harvey’s footprint was much larger.

As one of the largest cities in the country, the damage in Houston is not as stark and inescapable as Katrina’s devastation in New Orleans.  Maybe that makes Harvey easier to ignore, if you were lucky.  Certainly, that’s been the case in terms of critical state or federal response.  Governor Kathleen Blanco in Louisiana was as intimately involved in the recovery in New Orleans and Louisiana as the Mayor or City Council was, sometimes making the right decisions and sometimes, making the wrong ones in delaying housing funds and allowing school charters.  Governor Greg Abbott on the other hand has been a virtual bystander in Texas offering little more than bootstrap platitudes and precious little money.  Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both targeted billions for Katrina recovery.  Though it was inadequate, it dwarfs the little that President Trump has provided other than emergency relief and a recovery package that is also supposed to handle the devastation in Puerto Rico.  Harvey may teach Houston and Texas Republicans the limits of what conservative provincialism really means when citizens demand and expect their government to also be responsive to their needs and not just step out of the way.

The recovery has not been equal even when it has moved forward.  A Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted with the Houston-based Episcopal Health Foundation found that 70% of Texans now say their lives are largely normal, “but of the people who reported still being affected by the storm, more than 40% say they aren’t getting the help they need to recover.”  Not surprisingly, the “survey found that those who said they weren’t getting enough assistance were more often African-American, poor and lived in the state’s so-called Golden Triangle area…which includes the cities of Port Arthur, Beaumont, and Orange.”

All of this sounds too familiar.  Given the regular and recurring disasters, worsened by climate change, it’s becoming almost trite to keep asking, “When are we going to learn?”

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Building Drainage Systems for a Changing Climate

New Orleans Pumping Station

New Orleans   On August 5th only weeks ago, New Orleans was caught in a downpour of between 9 and 10 inches in some parts of the city that overwhelmed the sewer and drainage system. The city has been in crisis since that time, as citizens come to grip with what they thought were the strengths of the system versus its real abilities and classic fail. The outgoing mayor’s reputation and legacy, on the rise for his handling of the Civil War monuments, has now drowned since the Sewerage & Water Board was on his watch and under this thumb. The level of contradiction and incompetence revealed in the aftermath of the flooding has left many in the city on edge during hurricane season with the anniversary of the August 29th Katrina hurricane in 2005 only days away.

Remarkably, what was once vaunted as one of the most effective drainage systems in the world, now is a poster child for urban myth. I’m especially sensitive to the mythology here, because I had fallen for it hook, line and sinker as well. After the May floods in the 1980s, I had sucked in a line that the city could handle 3 inches per hour. After the August floods, I had repeated the fiction, and had to retract my line, when the local papers kept reporting that, yes, the system was supposed to be world-class, but that meant it could handle 1 inch the first hour of rain, and clear ½ inch every hour after that. A 10 inch rainfall in their version of the events was a “sky falling” catastrophe that even the best systems could not handle without flooding, especially given the epic level of the rain.

Now with Hurricane Harvey knocking hard at the I-10 Louisiana Welcome Centers across the Sabine River, we read that the Mayor’s office and the local Sewerage & Water Board are having trouble verifying any technical assessment that would have rated the system’s water carrying and clearing capacity even at the level of 1 inch per hour and so forth. This has all of the alarming aspects of an urban myth repeated so often that no once bothered to check the sources until they were finding their life jackets and canoe paddles with the water rising at the front door.

Meanwhile I’m due in Houston this week. Harvey is expected to dump 3 feet of water on Texas. The Houston drainage system is legendary for its limited handling capacity and frequent flooding from homes to interstates on the least heavy rainfall. My friend and comrade sent me a dawn text that they had already had 21 inches hit the city by Sunday morning. He was happy to report the water had covered up his street, but was not up to the porch steps yet. Before you applaud the progress in Houston, the nation’s 4th largest city, you probably need to know my friends live in the Houston Heights, near the apex of the rise. Their story is a high ground story, not one from the lowlands.

But, it’s fair to say that no city, even Houston and New Orleans in the swampy tropics of America, can handle a foot or more of water without some flooding at this point. My question is what are we learning? With climate change we are going to have more of this more often, not less. Are we talking about infrastructure investment and capital programs that will give drainage systems the capacity to handle even a couple of inches of water per hour, much less what we are seeing now with some regularly.

In the classic formulation attributed in the French Revolution to King Louis XIV, “here comes the deluge….” We’re not ready, but can we become able?

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