Could More Have Been Done to Prepare for Houston Floods? Probably.
In April of 2016 at the last big Houston Flood, I wrote a blog post on how three Houston flood adaptation studies had been unfunded. It also shows how expensive flooding has increased in the last decades.
Our hearts go out to the vast number of people who have lost everything. We hope that President Trump, who is used to getting funding for big projects, can manage to get funds for the nation’s largest reconstruction project.
One cause of the enormous flooding was the paving over and development of much of the area that used to be bayous. The other factor was the hard clay soil, which does not absorb much water. It seems that Houston was mainly under the influence of developers, rather than water control studies. The descriptions of the disaster as a once in 800 years event, only encourages people to rebuild without changing anything, or consult or develop new studies, since it could never recur in their futures. The drainage and containment system was only built for once in a hundred year’s flood, as are hundreds of communities across the United States.
I am reminded of Hawaii’s coastal areas which are prone to Tsunamis. Houses near shore are essentially built on stilts, but in a sophisticated way. The posts are large and secure, and the ground floor serves as a garage, a laundry area, and perhaps a storage or recreation room. It would also be neat if industry develops mold resistant and easily dry-able drywall, or a replacement for it. Existing homes could be recalled with such flood resistant material.
Back to the preparedness and response. We have a previous Texas governor, Rick Perry, who is now head of the Department of Energy, (DOE), who is famous for forgetting in a debate the third government agency that he planned to eliminate, namely, DOE. As the above post mentions, we also have climate science denier and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Then we have climate hoax theorist Donald Trump as US President, who appointed the same Rick Perry to head DOE, and to cut its science budget. Trump also appointed emissions proponent and climate denier Scott Pruitt to head the EPA. All of Trumps agencies are cutting any climate studies, satellites, and eliminating scientists and scientific advisory committees. There is no White House science advisor, or any scientists in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The new FEMA Administrator “Brock” Long is highly qualified and experienced, but Trump waited 6 months to appoint him, so he has had only two months direct leadership. Long also seems obsequious to Trump, and praises Trump for just doing the obvious. Trump, in return, has already chosen Long as a scapegoat if things go wrong.
Long is in charge of 15,000 FEMA employees, with 5,000 on the job in Texas, coordinating government responses. But Long’s first response was to tell residents to rely on themselves, rather than to present an organized response. Was the government reticent to respond until they found out of it was really needed, in order to save money, or did they not have a well considered plan? Maybe we will find out some day. Between Texas, and Trump’s self prepraise before having done anything except declaring disaster areas, I have my doubts. The answer is important to having better responses in the future.
If Texas and Houston had prepared, climate studies could have been used to predict any increased likelihood of flooding events. Weather studies could have been used to know how likely an extreme weather event would lead to flooding. Flooding studies could lead to knowing precisely where flooding would occur. Flooding maps would have led to early evacuation of just those who would have been affected.
Was it this Texas kingdom, awash in Republicans, who decided to block any flood adaptation studies for Democratic Houston and Harris County? Houston is the fourth largest city in the US, and perfectly capable of funding its own studies, of course.
The public’s response with rescue boats recalls the response in Dunkirk, during the British evacuation from France at the start of the Second World War. The response from rescue units throughout the US has been great, but seems to have been delayed.
The weeklong heavy rain is attributed to Hurricane Harvey being stalled between southern and northern weather highs. The jet stream which could have blown the storm Eastward had moved more north. The heavy evaporation and precipitation and rapid strengthening was due to very warm nearby Gulf water temperatures of 87 degrees F. This is the standard for the Gulf in summer. Any temperature above 80 degrees F is known to “exponentially” increase a storm’s strength as it gets warmer.
The climate models have predicted that 100 year storms would be increased to 70 year storms.
The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) has been the standard for hurricane forecasts. NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab (GFDL) in Princeton, New Jersey can now match the European predictions on short distance scales and in rapid calculations. Both were able to able to predict the extreme rainfalls 5 days in advance, the storm’s stalling, and it’s returning to the Gulf. There was time to react early, out of caution. Congress had called for long range forecasts of over two weeks. All of this is threatened by the Administration’s cutting back on climate calculation research, climate satellites, government climate scientists, and support for young climate scientists. This unchanged aspect of the Trump administration is in sharp and unprecedented contrast to Trump’s promise to make his the best response in history. Let’s hope Congress remains more responsible to the important sciences involved.