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Houston's Flood Preparedness Has Improved Since Hurricane Harvey, But Still Has A Long Way To Go

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT
Hurricane Harvey brought record floods to the Houston area.

FromTexas Standard:

According to the latest predictions, Louisiana is likely to be hardest hit by a storm that could become a hurricane, if Tropical Storm Barry continues to gain strength. Luckily for Texas, the state likely won’t get much rain from that weather system. Nevertheless, it’s a good reminder for Texas to look at how well it’s prepared for the next major storm.

Steve Costello is chief recovery officer for the City of Houston, which focuses mainly on the continuing recovery from Hurricane Harvey. He works with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, but also with people in the community who want to know how to prepare for storms.

“We tell ‘em, ‘Just be prepared and do what you normally do during hurricane season,” Costello says.

And preparation is important because Costello says Houston is still at risk for flooding just as it was in 2017, despite his office’s work since then. That’s because new projects established after Hurricane Harvey will take years to complete. But he says Harvey did lead to his office being better prepared to respond to floods, at least in the short term.

“There’s been a number of changes to acquisition of high-water vehicles, in case we need those. We are in the process of developing infrastructure for the underpasses to prevent people from drowning,” Costello says. “In some respects we are well ahead of what we had pre-Harvey, and in other respects we haven’t really made much progress.”

Cory Stottlemyer is with Houston’s Office of Emergency Management, and says though Tropical Storm Barry isn’t expected to affect Houston, the city is still preparing. His office monitors storms closely with the National Weather Service. It also helps prepare the city by working with public safety departments and by setting up the emergency operation center.

Since Harvey, Houston has said it might clear storm drains and even partly drain Lake Houston to prepare for a hurricane. Costello says that hasn’t happened yet, but could if it becomes clear that a hurricane could threaten the city. He says new gates are in the works at the lake, which would allow it to be drained rapidly during a storm. But that project would take some time.

“We’re anticipating approval from FEMA to start the design and right-of-way and permitting some time either the end of this month or mid-August,” Costello says.

Even when storms don’t look like they’re headed for Houston, they can quickly change direction. So Stottlemyer says the city tries to warn residents as early as possible.

“These things can pop up at a moment’s notice,” he says. “All throughout the season, you need to be prepared. You need to have your plan in place, you need to have your emergency kit prepared. You need to know how you can communicate with your family in the event a storm does hit.”

Stottlemyer says Houston has improved its emergency notification system, Alert Houston, and has encouraged more people to sign up for it.

“Those targeted alerts can now be sent directly to specific areas,” Stottlemyer says. “Before, it was just an email service; now we can … send them directly to residents via cell phone, text, phone call, email.”

Costello says it’s not just hurricane season when residents need to be prepared for flooding. He says floods can come from storm surge along the coast, from an overflow of the bayous, as well as so-called urban flooding.

“We have parts of the city where the infrastructure’s inadequate; a very heavy rainfall event can cause flooding immediately – flash flooding,” Costello says. “We remind them to be mindful of where they’re traveling, to understand what watersheds they live in an to be prepared for any type of flooding, whether it’s from a tropical storm event or even from just a normal heavy thunderstorm.”

Storms that look threatening can also fizzle. So Houston has to find a delicate balance of keeping people informed without alarming them too much.

“We’re always wary of amping things up too much,” Stottlemyer says. “We don’t want to get into a ‘white noise,’ crying-wolf-type situation. So, it’s really trying to stress a weather-aware, don’t be on edge, be prepared and alert [approach].”

Costello has worked in stormwater management for over 40 years, and he says flooding in the past would only affect portions of a city. Residents could recover fairly quickly without much long-term trauma. But Hurricane Harvey was different.

“It impacted the entire community,” Costello says. “It’s good now that everybody’s concerned about flooding and wanting to have more investment in stormwater improvement. … That’s a good thing long term.”

Written by Caroline Covington.

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