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Houston has a flooding problem. Beryl was further proof that the problem is difficult to solve.
Houston has a flooding problem. Beryl was further proof that the problem is difficult to solve.

HOUSTON — Rising water levels swallowed portions of highways, turned tranquil bayous into rapids, prompted dozens of panicked water rescues and claimed at least one life as Hurricane Beryl slammed into this flood-stricken city on Monday.

And while the waters were receding rapidly and reconstruction efforts were focused on more than a million people still without power in the sweltering heat, the recent flooding in Houston was leaving its mark.

Piles of trash on the pillars of an overpass marked the level of floodwaters along White Oak Bayou in the Houston Heights neighborhood. Police barricades showed where a driver abandoned his vehicle in the rapidly rising waters on Jensen Drive in Kashmere Gardens. In Meyerland, water stains remained after the storm, but many homes in the stately neighborhood were raised after Hurricane Harvey devastated it in 2017, minimizing damage from Beryl.

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

Despite billions of dollars in investments and years of flood protection projects, this challenge remains. And the challenge may become more severe as climate change intensifies storms and brings more intense rainfall to a flat, low-lying and sprawling urban area.

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

The fact that the flooding in Beryl was not particularly notable shows how persistent the problem is, says Ben Hirsch, co-director of West Street Recovery, a disaster relief and environmental organization that works in five zip codes in northeast Houston.

“I think if this storm had happened in almost any other part of America, people would describe it as a catastrophic flood,” Hirsch said Wednesday. “There’s a kind of numbness that sets in; people get used to it. But at the same time, people have a kind of trauma from it.”

The Biden administration on Wednesday adopted a policy designed to ensure that taxpayer-funded projects such as bridges, schools and other public buildings take into account not only past flooding but also the likely even worse flooding that will occur in the future.

The goal is to make the country’s infrastructure more resilient in the age of climate change and avoid the cycle of repeated flooding and reconstruction as in the past, officials said.

“Climate change has exacerbated flood risk across the country, particularly with sea level rise,” said Deanne Criswell, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in announcing the new policy.

But in Houston, flooding problems are by no means new and are in part the result of decisions that go back several generations.

“Even before the expansion, we’ve always lived in a swamp. People before us knew we needed to build this flood infrastructure, and we don’t have nearly the infrastructure we need,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, executive director of the judicial district that includes Houston, told the Washington Post this week. “This is another kick in the butt for everyone who really needs to make this a priority.”

As Beryl swept through the floodwaters, local authorities conducted 56 rescues for people trapped in floodwaters, Houston Deputy Police Chief Larry Satterwhite told reporters Tuesday.

Russell Richardson, a 54-year-old Houston police officer, died Monday when his vehicle was caught in rapidly rising floodwaters while on his way to work on Houston Avenue near Interstate 45, officials said.

Flooding is the region’s No. 1 disaster, according to the Harris County Flood Control District, which was established by the Texas government in 1937. Despite a “four billion dollar network of underground infrastructure to reduce flood damage,” Houston faces enormous flood risks, some of which Beryl re-exposed.

There are countless reasons why Houston is so prone to flooding. One is its landscape: It’s relatively flat and has slow drainage, making it difficult to drain the enormous amounts of water that can fall during hurricanes, tropical storms, and other heavy rains.

Such events are expected to become more intense and frequent in a warmer world, where warmer air brings with it more moisture.

There is still no more devastating example of Houston’s ruthless water power than Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which brought 30 to 40 inches of rain over a wide area and flooded an estimated 154,170 homes in Harris County, the majority of them outside the 100-year flood plain.

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

Severe flooding occurred on Memorial Day and Halloween 2015 and on Tax Day and Memorial Day 2016. Further flooding occurred on Independence Day 2018 and in September 2019, when Tropical Storm Imelda struck Houston.

Beryl’s rains were less intense than some of those storms, but the hurricane still brought about a foot of water to most of the region. And it came after a recent series of severe weather events: In May, heavy rains flooded homes and forced the rescue of about 400 people. Weeks later, a destructive storm known as a derecho swept through Houston.

Repeated flooding and rising sea levels have resulted in higher water tables and often more saturated soils, said Richard Rood, professor emeritus of climate and space science and engineering at the University of Michigan.

“You get to the point where you just don’t have room for the water anymore,” Rood said.

Added to this is the problem of frenzied development. A 2020 study by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research found that the area of ​​the greater Houston area increased by 63 percent between 1997 and 2017 – a period in which nearly 187,000 football fields of impermeable surfaces such as concrete and asphalt were added to the area.

“Impermeable surfaces do not soak up heavy rainfall like natural landscapes do, not to mention how watersheds change due to elevation changes and diverted waterways,” the researchers wrote. “Without nature’s supersponges, water can flow away unchecked.”

After Harvey, voters in Harris County overwhelmingly approved a $2.5 billion bond issue to finance numerous flood protection projects in the Houston area.

The bonds have funded drainage systems and water retention basins, as well as projects to improve natural flood protection, including planting bayou banks and trees throughout the city. Houston has even taken the step of buying flood-prone homes from some residents and converting those at-risk properties into open space.

The work has helped reduce the number of floods in some of the most notorious spots, but even officials admit that it is all but impossible to completely prevent flooding in a landscape that drains slowly and is subject to enormous rainfall.

There is discussion and consideration of building massive tunnels to divert floodwaters, building a third flood retention basin on the prairie west of Houston, or digging Buffalo Bayou wider and deeper so it can safely divert more water from existing basins. But these projects are complicated, expensive and controversial.

Even the relatively short-lived flooding from Beryl, which caused less damage than many past storms, prompted an editorial in the Houston Chronicle this week arguing that even more investment — and perhaps additional taxes — is needed to address the city’s long-term water problems and other priorities.

Under the headline “Beryl is a reminder that there is no good drainage without payment,” the newspaper wrote that although voters had approved a “lockbox” of special funds for drainage in the past, rising costs and other factors meant more than that was needed.

“When our bayous burst their banks, when ditches and gutters overflow and the view of the water from our living room windows suddenly becomes a view that shouldn’t be possible,” the newspaper wrote, “the mayor should seize the opportunity to take the lead and get voters to approve tax increases to build the infrastructure we need to withstand bigger, stronger and more frequent storms.”

Only then will the city be better prepared for what lies ahead, the newspaper argued.

“Tax dollars and our own money should not be used for cleanup and reconstruction, but to prevent damage in the first place. This is money that is spent not just in gusty bursts, but continuously, over decades, even in times when the skies are kind.”

Molly Hennessy-Fiske contributed to this report.

By Everly