Hurricane Nicholas bearing down upon us last week was enough to make me think upon a very familiar topic for those of us who’ve called this region home for any period of time.
Luckily, last week’s storm wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been – but the damage it did was enough to remind us of how fragile existence along the Gulf Coast can be in the best of times. Thousands of Fort Bend County residents went days without power after the storm as CenterPoint Energy crews hurriedly worked to restore damaged lines.
And that’s without the flooding that has come with other recent storms.
I remember after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the feeling was palpable that something had changed. After years of neglecting our flooding and resilience infrastructure, communities were going to band together and, with the help of federal money, make changes that would protect future generations of Fort Bend County residents from the worst effects of severe weather.
Fort Bend County leaders and voters even took steps to make it happen. Voters in 2019 approved $83 million in flood mitigation projects, with county drainage experts hopeful that money could be leveraged to secure more federal dollars to complete 25 flood mitigation projects.
Unfortunately, as we reported this week, that federal backing hasn’t really materialized, and more than 40 percent of those projects have either been placed on pause or left unfunded.
The lack of progress is disappointing to everyone, but it’s also not unique to the Houston region, or the most recent severe weather.
As Fort Bend County regroups and decides what comes next, it’s worth considering whether traditional drainage projects go far enough in preparing our region for the worst of what future bad weather might bring.
Severe flooding and community trauma after tropical weather has a way of provoking elected officials into action, and there’s no more visible form of action than a drainage project – whether it be a dike or a dredging project or adding inline detention along a waterway.
But Larry Larson, the director emeritus and senior policy advisor for the Association of State Floodplain Managers, argues flood mitigation is just one part of a whole.
“All these things go into managing a community’s flood risk,” he said. “You’re talking about mapping, development, mitigation and insurance – it all plays into it.”
The drainage projects took most of the headlines after Hurricane Harvey struck the region, dropping more than 50 inches of rain on some parts, but federal flood maps for the Houston region were badly out of date as well. That led to some developers and especially vulnerable residents who didn’t know better, building in flood-prone areas.
I remember being perplexed shortly after Harvey at the thought that, in my comparatively short time in the region, I’d lived through several 500-year floods back-to-back-to-back. What are the odds? Shouldn’t something that considers itself a 500-year flood only happen once in a lifetime, if that?
In fact, the calculation was based on bad data. Shortly after Harvey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration updated the definition of a 100-year rainfall event, increasing the amount of rain necessarily to qualify by more than 5 inches.
We can argue about the reasons until we’re blue in the face (that’s a topic for another column), but the science is quite clear. Severe weather events are becoming worse, and happening more frequently.
How we respond to that fact is the question of the moment for each of us in Fort Bend County, and for future generations.
There is little doubt that flood mitigation projects can be a force for good. But they shouldn’t be the end of the conversation.
Most flood maps and calculations are based on data from historical storms and weather. But, as we know, history isn’t necessarily telling when it comes to extreme weather events. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott after the February winter storm almost caused the catastrophic failure of the state’s power grid sought to assure residents by claiming it was a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Yet just 10 years earlier, in 2011, similar plunging temperatures knocked out power for much of the state.
Honest data might not be reassuring, but it’s critical if we’re going to effectively plan for the future along the Texas Gulf Coast.
And, similarly, it’s high time we consider what sort of communities we want to live in. The constant explosion of new development is a boon both to local municipalities’ ability to provide for residents and also to the tax rate, but it also comes with a cost.
What would managed growth look like in a region that has long prided itself on an abundance of land and a comparative lack of government interference in the developing of it?
These are just a few introductory questions in what should be a soul-searching conversation about preparing for the future. Now four years after Harvey first imprinted itself upon our collective consciousness, let’s hope the good will and determination still exists to have that debate. It might just make the difference for generations to come.