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Hurricane Harvey came ashore on August 25, 2017, and Houston and Harris County will never be the same after experiencing 48 inches of rain over four days. According to 20th century statistics, Harvey was perhaps a 50,000-year storm (meaning there was a one-in- 50,000 chance of it occurring), yet we know this to be untrue in the 21st century, as flooding and extreme weather events are happening more often than probability predicts. We are not sure yet how to make sense of climate change, but we know our climate is changing. Such is the reality and the uncertainty upon which the future of Houston, relative to flooding, will be determined.
From the outset, it is important to note that many of our problems are self-inflicted. As Houston has expanded in almost all directions, we covered hundreds of thousands of acres with concrete and highly efficient drainage where there was previously very little. We converted natural sponges like the Katy Prairie above the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs and in upper Brays Bayou and upper White Oak Bayou and made them impermeable, generating much greater runoff than before. This increased runoff contributes to flooding in almost all our bayous. For decades we did not give this flooding problem the attention it deserved, but these problems cannot be ignored any longer. Our past mistakes, combined with a changing climate, have created our current flooding problem, and it is substantial.
One the one hand, there is much that is positive that has occurred since Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey flooded most of the Texas coast from the Louisiana border south to Corpus Christi. Harris County passed a $2.5 billion bond issue dedicated to flood abatement and drainage improvement. The federal government authorized four major channelization projects from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Congress allocated over $2 billion for housing assistance to Harris County and the city of Houston. Work is unfolding on flood protection projects at an unprecedented rate. Positive actions indeed have occurred since over 160,000 homes were flooded during Hurricane Harvey.
Despite this progress, however, major concerns remain. In this paper, three major Harris County problem areas are discussed that exemplify the types of issues that make addressing flooding in Houston so difficult. These problem areas are (1) the difficulty in addressing flooding both above and below the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs, (2) the difficulty of relieving flooding in the low-income areas of northeast Houston/Harris County, and (3) the difficulty of protecting the Houston Ship Channel industries and residential, commercial, and industrial development on the east side of Houston. But, before addressing each of these specific areas, the issue of climate change and increasing storm intensity will be addressed.