BY DANIELLE BOYKIN
The historic rainfalls produced throughout southeast Texas because of Hurricane Harvey changed everything. Over the course of four days last year, the rain kept coming. And the flood waters made their way into homes and businesses and inundated highways, showing no mercy or discrimination.
Now little more than a year later, the city of Houston, Harris County, and its regional neighbors are focused on rebuilding and mitigation. In this process, there is a vital role for professional engineers. NSPE and Texas Society of Professional Engineers members responded in the aftermath of Harvey, and now the lessons they learned will be used to help bolster their communities against future calamities.
‘The Final Straw’
For business leaders like Harold “JR” Reddish, P.E., everything is back up and running. That’s a big change from last year when he faced a mandatory evacuation of his home over flood risks, and his firm’s work with oil and gas clients came to a halt. The past TSPE president considers himself fortunate. The real impact of last year’s flood, he says, is on residential property, particularly for homeowners without proper flood insurance coverage. “Some people had to pay out of pocket for those recovery expenses and are waiting to be reimbursed. For people with lower incomes, there’s been a concern because they lack the resources to rebuild.”
After a pattern of flood events over the past few years, is there some nervousness about what may come this season? You bet, says Reddish. “We don’t take weather events down here lightly after all of the things we’ve experienced,” says the president and CEO of S&B Infrastructure Ltd. “When people hear that you must get supplies in order, they are more prepared than they have been in the past.”
According to the Harris County Flood Control District, 4.7 million residents of the county were affected in some way during and after the flooding period. Harvey stands as one of the costliest weather events in US history at $125 billion, exceeded only by Hurricane Katrina at $160 billion. The rain produced during Harvey—nearly 17 trillion gallons of water—outdid the rainfall during Tropical Storm Allison in 2011 and the Tax Day Flood in April 2016.
There’s a lot of work to be done, says Reddish, on resilience and mitigation projects. The necessary projects have been identified; the challenge is finding funding. “The magnitude of repair and fix is such that it’s money well above what’s available locally,” he says. “It’s going to take federal dollars, but to get those dollars, you’ve got to have the local match.”
Harris County Judge Edward Emmett recalls citizens from all walks of life volunteering to help those who were ravaged by the flood. It galvanized the whole community, and he doesn’t want to lose that spirit. “Nearly 160,000 homes were flooded in Harris County. But a year later, we don’t want people to forget even if they didn’t experience any flooding. I think we’ve done fairly well at making sure this doesn’t happen.”
Emmett believes that the rainfall from Harvey created a different scenario compared to previous storms, but there was a clear pattern. “We had nearly 50 inches of rain over a four-day period. In the two years prior, we had two major rain storms, which flooded large parts of Harris County. What Harvey produced was the final straw.”
The consistent rainstorms and flooding made Emmett and the other members of the Commissioners Court of Harris County realize that they had to get serious about flood mitigation and improving the resilience of their communities. In December, regulations covering flood plain management in the county were amended to increase the protection of human life and health and minimize public and private losses due to flooding, by raising the requirements for structure elevations and permits. The county engineer, who is a licensed professional engineer, is responsible for the administration and enforcement of the regulations. The amendments became effective in January.
As Emmett explains, “Harvey overwhelmed whatever systems we had, and rather than just hope and pray that this isn’t going to happen again, the commissioners determined that we needed a comprehensive approach. That’s what led to the $2.5 billion bond initiative.”
The bond initiative would provide local funding over 10 to 15 years to cover projects to reduce flood risks and improve resilience. It is estimated that homeowners will pay no more than 3 cents more per $100 of their assessed home value. These funds will be used as “local match” dollars when seeking federal funds. The bond initiative vote was scheduled for August 25.
The commissioners held more than 20 public meetings, and of the 237 proposed projects, nearly 40 were added based on public feedback. There are projects designed to build stormwater detention basins, to preserve the floodplain, improve bayou and channel passage of stormwater, and provide buy-outs of flood-prone homes. “It’s been a very public process, and I think that bodes well for the vote,” Emmett says.
He appreciates that the engineering community in Harris County is robust, which will benefit project goals, particularly the goal of ensuring that people are protected. “We recognize that flooding pays no attention to wealth, religion, or partisan politics. As long as you focus on the people, I think that’s the key.”
I Want to Contribute
When the Harris County Flood Control District needed help inspecting 2,500 miles of channel in the county, Kelly Dillard, P.E., didn’t hesitate to take on the opportunity to join the Houston-based team from her company, Freese and Nichols.“When the call came into my office requesting bodies on the ground, I immediately knew that I wanted to contribute in some way,” recalls the vice president in stormwater services and certified floodplain manager.
This experience showed Dillard that there’s a direct relationship between her work as a professional engineer and a thriving community. “For engineers, sometimes we’re a step or two removed from seeing the actual benefit of our work to public health, safety, and welfare. And this took that barrier away. I was able to see it immediately.”
Dillard spent six weeks on a multidisciplinary team that assessed damage using a GIS mobile application developed by the Harris County Flood Control District. The application allowed team members to take pictures, mark locations geospatially, and add descriptions with the type and amount of damage.
The lessons learned during the initial disaster recovery influenced Dillard and her colleagues’ work on resiliency projects aimed at identifying, designing, and constructing improvements to prevent or minimize damages brought on by flooding. “The bigger impact to Freese and Nichols is that we were able to look at the technology being used and see its benefits to projects throughout the company,” she says. “We have developed mobile applications that are similar to what I used with the inspections.”
The experience also helped Dillard to better understand the significant losses that can happen when development is allowed within or adjacent to a floodplain. “It was a huge decision by elected officials to change regulations for finished floors to coincide with a 0.2% probability storm, because it has a direct financial impact on the development community. Harvey has fundamentally changed the way the community views flooding, and community leaders are more than ever committed to policies that reduce the risk of flood losses,” she says. There will be plenty of work due to updated regulations, requiring higher building floor elevations in and around floodplains throughout Houston and the greater metro area.
The Power of Water
As NSPE member Edwin Friedrichs, P.E., looks back, he recalls the “impressive numbers” generated by last year’s weather event, which ultimately produced the largest rainfall in US history. “The first day, there were areas that experienced 20 inches of rain,” he says. “This has been discussed as a 5,000- to 20,000-year chance event over the course of four days.”
With 34 years of experience leading a diverse infrastructure group with the firm Walter P Moore in Houston, Friedrichs understands how rising waters can leave people stranded. On Houston’s west side, near the reservoirs, roads were closed for weeks after the storm, and parts of Interstate 10 (one of the longest multistate highways in the nation) were under water, he recalls. A tremendous number of traffic controllers and signals were damaged and nonfunctional, creating more safety and mobility issues. “This affected people’s ability to get to work and negatively affected commerce,” says the senior principal and director of transportation engineering.
As the city struggled to respond, Friedrichs’ firm answered a request to help the Texas Division of Emergency Management by using its knowledge of Harris County’s watersheds and models. Staff helped to reopen city hall so city activities and services could resume. They also inspected and secured flooded downtown parking garages and assisted with reopening the theater district.
One critical institution that didn’t suffer from the flooding was the Texas Medical Center. The center wasn’t affected because of improvements, protocols, and systems implemented by Walter P Moore following Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. “It’s important to heed the warnings of these frequent flooding conditions and protect institutions and facilities that are important to the public,” say Friedrichs. “They have to maintain operations and can’t lose water or power because they’re vital to people staying alive.”
On July 4, Friedrichs was reminded that water is a powerful force. Downtown Houston experienced what he describes as a short-duration, high-intensity storm, producing a 1% chance rainfall event. The central area of Houston received nearly eight inches of rain. The rainfall “was intense enough to flood that local area, but it wasn’t long enough to flood the bayous and other structures. It only rained for three hours, but it was a good reminder of how likely we are to get these heavy rains.”
Friedrichs believes that it’s important for the AEC industry to focus more on education and outreach to clearly explain topics such as drainage and flooding risks. He provides presentations to help members of the public, developers, business owners, and public officials to understand their risks. The people who are affected just want to know and understand what you mean when you describe a “100-year” rainfall intensity, for example, he says.
Friedrichs served as an advisor for the report Houston and Hurricane Harvey: A Call to Action released in June by ISET-International, the Global Disaster Preparedness Center, and Zurich Insurance Group. The report acknowledges that engineering plays a vital role in flood risk reduction, but notes that the profession must be a part of broader flood management strategies. The report recommends that policymakers, public officials, and design professionals use worst-case historical information along with forward-looking climate and development scenarios when planning and designing infrastructure. In addition, the report calls for better public communications about risks and increasing investments.
The Texas chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers also commissioned a task force to provide post-Harvey recommendations to assist lawmakers, state agencies, and the public with reducing flooding risks associated with extreme weather. The report, Addressing Flood Risk: A Path Forward for Texas After Hurricane Harvey, recommended the development of a statewide flood mitigation plan; additional funding for dam safety improvements; implementation of a program to inventory levee conditions; development of a watershed approach to flood risk management; development of a public outreach program; and the use of alternative flood mitigation strategies.
“The public wants to have hope that things are changing. I believe that both the city and the county are taking bold steps to show that they are doing something,” says Friedrichs. “It’s also our responsibility as professional engineers to serve the public as well as work together to address these issues.”