How a multifaceted approach could strengthen Texas’ coastal resilience before the next Harvey

By: Shannon Cunniff, Director, Coastal Resilience, with contributions from Kate Zerrenner

Hurricane Harvey provided a stark reminder to Houston, Port Aransas, and other Texas communities of the power of storms and the consequences of living on a flood-prone coast.

When hurricanes hit, coastal counties experience rain, wind, waves, and storm surge. Nearly 30 percent of Texas’ population lives in Gulf Coast or adjacent inland counties, where hurricanes are the most destructive weather phenomena. With a changing climate, we can expect more extreme weather.

Fortunately, we can decrease our vulnerability, lower the risk of damaging floodwaters, and reduce the impacts associated with these disasters. Such actions, called hazard mitigation, require a multifaceted approach, and implementing the strategy will require multiple levels of responsibility: It will need to be executed by individuals and businesses, and supported with a high level of intra-government cooperation. And it will need to be sustained over time.

Other coastal areas including Louisiana are already implementing these multi-pronged coastal protection plans. Texas also has the opportunity to be a leader in coastal resilience.

Rethinking our approach

Too often our approach to mitigating flood hazards relies on constructing barriers to water, such as seawalls, levees, and dams. These structures do reduce flood damages, but they can’t protect us from changes in land use that alter the timing and quantity of flood flows or weather events that exceed their designs. Plus, rising seas and more extreme weather mean the chances that storms will exceed structural designs will be more likely.

We need to get far more serious about additional flood risk-reduction tactics by applying new thinking and more sophisticated, integrated approaches.

Start by reducing vulnerability

It took years to create the vulnerability to storms and floodwaters we now face, but it’s equally possible to gradually reduce this vulnerability.

We can begin by shifting development away from areas that are or will soon be subject to frequent flooding. Right after a flood event is a good time to make this shift with property buyouts, as folks are most keenly aware of the devastating effects of storms. Before the next flood is even better.

Planning efforts also need to consider targeted buyouts of repetitively flooded areas, not just single buildings. When contiguous properties are bought out, there are more options for reusing the land in ways that address community needs, such as creating parklands and open spaces that are designed to flood and rebound quickly. Such an approach is being explored for repurposing a golf course in Clear Lake City.

Aligning myriad community plans – including coastal zone management, economic development, transportation, recreation, education, low-income housing, and emergency management – so that they’re informed by current and future hazards, and are mutually reinforcing, will provide a significant step toward reducing vulnerability and creating a more resilient region.

In North Carolina, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area thoughtfully planned and implemented community buyouts with no net adverse effect on tax base and an estimated $25 million in avoided losses. Milwaukee has implemented a much needed job training program around its floodplain buyouts. This is difficult to pull off during disaster recovery, but it can happen when there’s a homegrown community plan.

Once strategies are aligned or a comprehensive masterplan is in place, actions should be timed to complement one another.

Rebuild naturally-protective features

Urban water management increasingly focuses on holding water where it lands. Features such as rain gardens and permeable pavement help capture rain from frequent small precipitation events. By slowing the water that runs off buildings and pavement, these measures help moderate flood flows, improve water quality, and recharge groundwater. While these features get overwhelmed by larger, rarer events, every increment helps reduce the flood risk to someone downstream.

Strategically placing parklands and restoring large swaths of prairie and wetlands can also reduce flooding by absorbing and holding floodwaters, slowing their downstream progress.

Restoring other natural features can also help mitigate the effects of storms. Galveston Island communities have been restoring their dunes with native vegetation to help them become larger, wider and better stabilized to dissipate wave energy and reduce storm impacts.

Lessen the impact of water when floods inevitably occur

Implementing and enforcing building codes is another opportunity to reduce flood damages and speed recovery.

When buildings can cope well with floods and winds, many people benefit – not just those living and working in the buildings, but everyone who does business with the tenants, the emergency service providers, and so on. Communities recover from storms far more quickly when buildings aren’t damaged badly.

Updating building codes provides a gradual, low-cost, and cost-effective means to increase protection for people and decrease damages. Communities that adopt, implement, and enforce building codes – which are informed by the natural hazards they face – will experience fewer and less costly damages from extreme weather.

Building codes increase the annual cost of new structures by about 1 percent but can provide a huge return, according to a recent National Institute of Building Sciences report. The researchers found that for Texas, an optimal first floor height of 8 feet above base flood elevation resulted in a benefit-cost ratio of over 9 to 1 – a huge win-win. The report also found that improved building codes would create about 87,000 new long-term jobs across the country, many of which could be based in a rapidly-growing state like Texas.

Importance of flood insurance

In addition to updated building codes, if you live in or near a floodplain in Texas, you need flood insurance. With development and climate change, this high-hazard floodplain is likely to get larger.

Cost is one of many reasons people choose to not to carry flood insurance. But the high cost is a signal that you should take actions to reduce your risk. Communities participating in FEMA’s Community Rating System can reduce annual flood insurance premiums for property owners by as much as 45 percent by taking specific actions, like restoring and protecting open space in floodplains to attenuate floods.

Insurance enables individuals and their communities to bounce back from disasters faster. We should think of flood insurance as our new civic duty.

There is no silver bullet to save Texas, and we must heed the lessons Harvey provided. By planning now and by taking individual and collective actions, we can create multiple lines of defense. To rebuild wisely, we need to exercise thoughtfully these opportunities to increase our ability to cope with rising seas – and weather the next storm.

This is the third in a series of posts evaluating the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and offering tactics to avoid the worst effects going forward. The first post looked at three things we know for certain, the second on Harvey’s health impact, and the next will examine electric grid resilience.

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