Houston Already Forgetting Harvey

May 2, 2021

Chris Tomlinson in the Houston Chronicle:

Future Houstonians will look back at this moment and say this is when we failed to learn the lessons from Hurricane Harvey and doomed them to deadly flooding.

Risk-averse public works engineers are rejecting innovative solutions in favor of the same old systems that have failed us over and over again. Politicians who over-promised relief to the most vulnerable communities are struggling to address billion-dollar miscalculations.

Squabbling industrialists and environmentalists, meanwhile, continue to delay the construction of the Ike Dike, which would protect thousands of lives and billions of dollars worth of investments.

As I and so many others feared, our community is forgetting the horror of Hurricane Harvey and failing to keep the promises we made ourselves about rebuilding a more resilient Texas.

For years now, I’ve tracked the work of Accelerate H2O, a water technology accelerator run by Richard Seline. Based in San Antonio, he’s worked with communities and start-ups across Texas to develop new ways of tackling weather-related challenges, from flooding to drought.

In Houston and Harris County, though, he’s hit one of those bureaucratic Catch-22’s that should infuriate everyone in the watershed. Private companies will not use new technology without government approval, and the government will not approve the technology unless the private sector uses it first.

We are not talking about two entrepreneurs in a garage here. These proposals include technology firms like Cisco and Microsoft, insurance companies like Aon, and nonprofits like the Insurance Information Institute and the Nature Conservancy.

Neither are we talking about space-based laser beams evaporating flood water. These companies want to install sensors and remote controls on public and private flood-control facilities to ensure they work together at maximum efficiency no matter where the rain falls, or the water flows.

Many of these technologies are used overseas, and foreign governments are willing to finance demonstration projects to prove their effectiveness. But Seline says he could not find any city or county leaders willing to work with ambassadors from those countries when they visited.

“When the opportunity existed to innovate, decision-makers chose to do the least modifications necessary and to pass the future loss-expense to their insurers. And that seems to be a constant theme – slipping back to what is ‘known’ versus unleashing innovation that has been proven to reduce future losses,” Seline said.

Matthew Zeve, deputy executive director at Harris County Flood Control, told my colleague, R.A. Schuetz, his agency is just not interested.

“We’re very concerned about the additional legal liabilities introduced by one of those systems,” Zeve said. “Because all it takes is one person to flood… They can say it’s your fault because you didn’t operate the system correctly — and then it’s who is right and who is wrong, and we have enough problems as it is.”

While other cities around the world install new technology boosting resilience and save money by making flood control facilities more efficient, Harris County and Houston grant $20 billion to the same old companies to build the same old things they’ve always built using designs which in some cases are decades old.

We are fools if we believe the outcome will be any better than in 2017.

Government contractors will keep digging trenches and pouring concrete until the money runs out. And guess who will be left unprotected when it does? The most vulnerable communities with the least wherewithal.

Just ask the folks living along Halls Bayou, as Houston Chronicle reporter Zach Despart did. Hurricane Harvey swamped 11,000 homes along what usually looks like a creek. Residents were thrilled when Harris County announced it would spend $342 million to improve drainage.

But the Harris County Flood Control District miscalculated how much the federal government would match a $2.5 billion flood protection bond by about $1.4 billion. County commissioners plan to divert toll road funds to cover the shortfall, but that money can only be used for road drainage.

Residents along Halls Bayou and tens of thousands of other low-income residents will have to wait for complete flood protection. Meanwhile, projects along Buffalo Bayou, where some of Houston’s wealthiest people live, are fully paid for and well underway.

A generous person would say public works engineers must be conservative and protect the most valuable property. A cynic would say public works officials award contracts to cronies and respond to political pressure.

Either way, Houston and Harris County prove again they are inhospitable to innovators and unwilling to try new things. In 2017, we asked why leaders in the 1970s set us up for disaster when they understood the risks. Future generations will ask the same question about us.

One Response to “Houston Already Forgetting Harvey”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    “We’re very concerned about the additional legal liabilities introduced by one of those systems,” Zeve said. “Because all it takes is one person to flood… They can say it’s your fault because you didn’t operate the system correctly — and then it’s who is right and who is wrong, and we have enough problems as it is.”

    This is why I prefer spillovers rather than human-operated gates along the Mississippi River. Politicians will dither about whether the flooding is bad enough to open a spillway and guarantee damage to structures in the floodway, while a spillover gives the River the only vote, and people wanting to use the floodway (for hunting shacks, crops, recreational camps, etc.) have to do the odds themselves.

    In the subsiding, widely-paved Greater Houston area, of course, they’re dealing with existing subdivisions. In a widespread rain event, at some point (whether at the design phase or when it’s happening), it’s likely the system would have to make a tradeoff on how to shift different flood levels around (*cough* like allowing more flooding in the lower tax base areas). I can see why politicians don’t have the spine to drive these kinds of decisions.

    On top of this, in Texas’ case, if you want a computer/sensor run system, you have to make sure any projects have reliable emergency power.

    :-/

    I’m such a cynic, I know.


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