16 Jul, 2024
Houston has a flooding problem. Beryl was further proof that it’s hard to fix.
9 mins read

Houston has a flooding problem. Beryl was further proof that it’s hard to fix.

HOUSTON — Rising waters engulfed parts of interstate highways, turned lazy marshes into rapids, prompted dozens of frantic water rescues and claimed at least one life as Hurricane Beryl slammed into this flood-stricken city on Monday.

And while the water quickly receded and rescue efforts focused on the more than 1 million people still without power due to the stifling heat, Houston’s latest flooding left its mark.

Clumps of trash along viaduct piers marked the height of floodwaters along White Oak Bayou in Houston Heights. Police barricades showed where a driver abandoned his vehicle in the rapidly rising waters on Jensen Drive in Kashmere Gardens. In Meyerland, patches of water remained in the wake of the storm, but many homes in the stately neighborhood were raised after Hurricane Harvey devastated it in 2017, so Beryl’s damage was minimal.

Beryl likely won’t go down as one of Houston’s most devastating floods — even this year. Still, the hurricane was the latest reminder that the nation’s fourth-largest city has a serious flooding problem.

It’s a problem that persists despite billions of dollars in investment and years of flood-control projects. And the challenge could become more serious as climate change increases the number of storms and brings heavier rainfall to the flat, low-lying, sprawling metropolitan area.

“When it comes to our streets, it’s important to remember that our primary drainage mechanism throughout the city is our streets,” Randy Macchi, Houston Public Works’ chief operating officer, said at a news conference this week. “For better or for worse, that’s the reality.”

The fact that the flooding in Beryl was not particularly severe shows how ongoing the problem is, said Ben Hirsch, co-director of West Street Recovery, a disaster recovery and environmental justice organization that serves five ZIP codes in northeast Houston.

“I think if this storm had happened in almost any other part of America, people would have described it as catastrophic flooding,” Hirsch said Wednesday. “There’s a kind of numbness; people get used to it. But at the same time, people are kind of traumatized by it.”

The Biden administration on Wednesday finalized a policy aimed at ensuring that taxpayer-funded projects such as bridges, schools and other public buildings address not only past flooding but also worsening flooding that is likely to occur in the future.

The aim, officials say, is to make the country’s infrastructure more resilient to climate change and avoid repeated flooding and rebuilding that has happened in the past.

“Climate change has increased the risk of flooding across the country, especially in the context of sea level rise,” Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell said in announcing the new policy.

But in Houston, flooding is nothing new and is partly the result of decisions made over generations.

“Even before the surge, we’ve always lived in swamps. The people who came before us knew we had to build this flood infrastructure, and we, by no means, have the infrastructure that we need,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, executive director of the jurisdiction that includes Houston, told The Washington Post this week. “It’s another kick in the butt for everybody to really prioritize this.”

As Hurricane Beryl slammed into the city, local authorities carried out 56 rescues of people trapped in high water, Houston Acting Police Chief Larry Satterwhite said Tuesday.

Russell Richardson, a 54-year-old Houston police officer, was killed Monday when his vehicle plunged into rapidly rising floodwaters on Houston Avenue near Interstate 45 as he drove to work, officials said.

The floods are the region’s worst disaster, according to the Harris County Flood Control District, created by the Texas Legislature in 1937. Despite what the agency describes as a “$4 billion network of flood damage reduction infrastructure in the ground,” Houston faces massive flood threats, some of which Beryl has exposed once again.

There are myriad reasons why Houston is so prone to flooding. One is its landscape: relatively flat and slow-draining, making it difficult to move the massive amounts of water that can fall during hurricanes, tropical storms and other heavy rains.

Such events can be expected to become more intense and frequent in a warmer world, where warmer air carries more moisture.

To date, there is no more devastating example of flash flooding in Houston than Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which brought widespread rainfall of 30 to 40 inches (76 to 102 cm) and flooded an estimated 154,170 homes in Harris County, most of which were outside the 100-year floodplain.

But Harvey was the third time in three years that rainfall exceeded levels that would be expected once every 500 years, based on historical climate patterns.

Severe flooding occurred on Memorial Day and Halloween in 2015 and on Tax Day and Memorial Day in 2016. Additional flooding occurred on Independence Day in 2018 and in September 2019 when Tropical Storm Imelda made landfall in Houston.

Beryl’s rainfall was less extreme than some of those storms, but the hurricane still dumped about a foot of water on much of the region. And it came after a recent string of severe weather events: In May, torrential rains flooded homes and prompted rescues for about 400 people. A few weeks later, a devastating wind storm known as a derecho ripped through Houston.

Recurring flooding and sea level rise are causing groundwater levels to rise and the ground to become more saturated, said Richard Rood, professor emeritus of climate, space and engineering sciences at the University of Michigan.

“We’re getting to the point where we just don’t have anywhere to keep the water,” Rood said.

There’s also the problem of rushed development. A 2020 study by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University found that the Houston metropolitan area grew by 63 percent from 1997 to 2017 — a period during which nearly 187,000 football fields with impervious surfaces like concrete and asphalt were added to the area.

“Impervious surfaces do not absorb heavy rainfall in the same way that natural landscapes do, not to mention how changing elevations and redirected waterways are transforming watersheds,” the researchers wrote. “Without natural supersponges, water can flow haphazardly.”

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Harris County voters overwhelmingly approved a $2.5 billion bond measure to fund numerous flood control projects in the Houston area.

The bonds financed drainage systems and water retention basins, as well as projects to improve natural flood control, including planting vegetation along the banks of marshes and trees throughout the city. Houston even took the step of buying out some residents from flood-prone homes, turning those vulnerable lots into open space.

The work has helped mitigate the effects of flooding in some of the most notorious locations, but even officials admit it is nearly impossible to prevent all flooding in a landscape where water drains slowly and the area can receive huge amounts of rainfall.

There is talk and research about building massive tunnels to channel floodwaters, adding a third flood control reservoir on the prairie west of Houston, or widening and deepening Buffalo Bayou to safely drain more water from existing reservoirs. But these projects are complicated, expensive, and controversial.

Even the relatively short-lived flooding from Storm Beryl, which did less damage than many previous storms, prompted the Houston Chronicle to run an editorial this week arguing that solving the city’s long-term water problems and other priorities will require even greater investment — and perhaps additional taxes.

Under the headline “Beryl reminds us we can’t have good drainage without paying”, the newspaper wrote that although voters had in the past approved a “stash” of special drainage funds, rising costs and other factors meant more funding would be needed.

“When our marshes overflow their banks, when our ditches and gutters overflow, and what should not be a view of the water from our living room window suddenly is,” the newspaper wrote, “the mayor should seize the opportunity to lead voters and prepare them to approve tax increases that will allow us to build the infrastructure needed to weather bigger, stronger and more frequent storms.”

Only then will the city be better prepared for what awaits it, the newspaper argued.

“The best use of taxpayer money and our own money is not cleanup and recovery, but prevention of damage in the first place. This is money spent not just during storms, but consistently, for decades, even during periods when the skies are kind.”

Molly Hennessy-Fiske assisted in the preparation of this report.