The 25 trillion gallons of water that inundated Houston after Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Aug. 25 is sounding an alarm about our storm-management schemas and infrastructure.
An FKD Feature exclusive

Our world is no stranger to the caprice of weather events, yet it nonetheless remains a world unequipped to continue safeguarding itself amidst increased disaster risks. This is coming at a great cost, totaling $1.2 trillion (before Hurricane Harvey) in post-event recovery efforts, in just the past three decades. And this cost alone should incentivize a shift in storm-management schemes that have become inextricably intertwined with infrastructure.

One thing is certain: planning that is modern and reflective of present climate conditions, which increasingly fall outside of existing meteorological parameters, will have to become paramount.

The perfect storm

Conditions were ripe during this time of year in the U.S. Gulf Coast, a watershed region perennially prone to hurricanes. But something else was a-brewing.

Warm ocean temperatures triggered a dip in atmospheric pressure, producing thermal energy. That energy was then acquired by winds billowing above the ocean to pick up speed upward and rotate outward. The winds, then, accelerated, whirled into a frenzy, with sustained winds of over 130 mph, to become a category 4 hurricane.

Along with vapor from the initial heat energy and ocean water pulled in by its dynamic wind forces, the “1,000-year storm” Hurricane Harvey was born, bringing with it record-breaking, incessant rainfall to the 10,000-square-mile urban sprawl of Houston.

Storm-management of a concrete wetland

When stormwater hit Houston, the area’s flat floodplain and drainage system, or lack thereof, gave way to the wrath of Hurricane Harvey. Many experts attribute the sheer scale of disaster to the design flaws constituting Houston. Along with the bayous and the concrete culverts, the imperfect, more-than-70-year-old Addicks and Barker reservoirs, which could hold up to 410,000 acre-feet of water and were filled to the brim, should have assured Houston would be protected from the deluge of storm water. (More flooding from the downpour of five consecutive days might have occurred.) But really, design flaws notwithstanding, no one could have forecast the disaster that escaped even the grasp of hydrology and storm-management in failing to account for Harvey’s “maximal probable flood event.”

Whatever the shortcomings in engineering, chaos metastasized still. Before barreling eastward, Hurricane Harvey destroyed nearly 200,000 houses. As water from the “1,000-year flooding” receded, setting records for all of the continental U.S., estimates placed the cost of recovery efforts at anywhere between $160-190 billion, a total exceeding both Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy combined.

But just as assessments might change the total Post-Harvey recovery budget, more will likely be needed to overhaul U.S. infrastructure to prevent its cascading storm-management decay from producing future crises.

When it rains, it pours

While design has been placed at the nexus of blame in this Post-Harvey moment, much still remains to be said about the role US infrastructure plays in fomenting the conditions further exacerbating natural crises.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) ranks U.S. infrastructure that is “poor, at risk” with a D+, with Texas of all U.S. states ranked near the worst at 49th and with a projection of spending nearly $3.6 trillion, an increased investment of 3.5 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP), to yield an efficacious change by 2025 in infrastructure improvement. U.S. dams are given a D, levees also a D and bridges a C+. And a report by the World Economic Forum, too, reveals the incongruity between policy and underfunded large-scale infrastructure underpinning the U.S. city.

Future planning in the U.S. will have to reflect the very needs of storm-management vis-a-vis infrastructure as weather events continue to intensify.

Currently, impervious surfaces cover about three-quarters of U.S. land area, an issue in development to be reconciled with hydrology. This, and smarter, more precise methods to approximate “maximal probable flood events” in engineering draining systems — any network of dams, reservoirs, and bayous — will be needed.

A better storm-management paradigm

This year, the 10th anniversary of the collapse of the I-35w bridge in Minnesota’s Twin Cities demonstrates the urgency of addressing our infrastructure problems now, especially amidst unpredictable meteorological events. Flaws in public transportation in New York City continue to be further compounded by myriad problems wrought by Hurricane Sandy, by anachronistic technology underscoring the trains system, by local politics and by underfunding.

As Houston and much of the Gulf Coast region reach their diminished draining capacities from Harvey, not too long ago, California underwent a period of debilitating drought. Just 12 years ago, 80 percent of New Orleans was underwater, with more than 1,500 people dead, when levees and flood walls that weren’t built for the worst case scenario failed. Just as Hurricane Irma now reminds us, too, coastal regions will face a striking number of storm-management problems, located right in the belly of the world’s topographical-oceanic beast.

This moment comes at too great a cost for the future of all human society.

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Header image: Adobe Stock

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Posted 09.05.2017 - 02:00 pm EDT