Houston’s Problem More Than Flooding

Houston has a problem, and it’s more than just flooding from the record rainfall Hurricane Harvey dumped on the city last month.

Many residents were forced to evacuate their homes after the storm, and much of the city’s infrastructure is currently underwater.

Harris County, of which Houston is the seat, didn’t expect it would rain so heavily, according to Vern Bonner, one of the nation’s most experienced trainers in floodplain management.

“There was a lack of belief in Houston that the predicted amount of rainfall would be realized,” Bonner said. “They have so much flood experience. If they knew it was coming, they should have known [the city would flood].”

Bonner, who currently teaches nationally recognized continuing education courses in HEC-RAS at UW-Madison, acknowledged that the city is in the middle of a “contaminated mess” that will need significant cleanup and recovery efforts.

Media outlets nationwide have reported that Houston’s design is to blame for the flooding because the city doesn’t have space for the stormwater.

Houston has released water from some of its reservoirs but is doing so slowly to save its system from failure, Bonner said.

“Houston is pretty flat, so it will take a long time to drain out. People will be really frustrated. They can’t do much–it will take time.”

Bonner has served as the chief of the training division at the Army Corps. of Engineers Hydrologic Engineering Center (HEC). His division of engineers developed HEC-RAS software, among other floodplain management and modeling programs.

While recovery efforts for the city will revolve around cleaning up flood damage, the lesson learned from Hurricane Harvey is a bureaucratic one.

Houston has few regulations on development and zoning, which means low-cost housing can be built in areas prone to flooding. More codes mean more requirements, ultimately driving up the price of housing—which many in low-cost residences cannot afford.

“Those are the areas where people are less able to cope with it,” Bonner said. “The political reality is people won’t stand up and say ‘don’t build’ [in those areas].”

In these situations, cities can choose not to allow development in the areas most likely to be impacted, or if they do, the houses can be elevated. Drainage and pumps can also help keep water out during storms, but with a high category storm like Harvey, where the power is out, the pumps won’t work.

“Those systems have to run perfectly, but perfect doesn’t happen,” he said.

Considering areas prone to flooding is what started the thinking on floodplain management in the first place, he added.

In the early 1970s, the Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) encouraged floodplain management that ignored or violated state standards and didn’t meet the needs of locals, according to the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM), which is headquartered in Madison, Wis.

The ASFPM formed as a result of the problems caused by the NFIP, with its first annual conference held in Madison in 1982.

The ASFPM believes that through coordinated efforts among public and private sectors, it can reduce the loss of lives and property damage from flooding; preserve floodplains; and avoid actions that make flooding worse. ASFPM is currently monitoring the Harvey aftermath and is offering resources in support.

UW-Madison will offer another online HEC-RAS course beginning Sept. 29. Aimed at engineers with experience in hydraulic studies or HEC-2, the course will help technical professionals improve their proficiency in food analysis, and evaluate and use different HEC-RAS program options.


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