Resilient Engineering in a Post-Harvey Houston: The SSPEED Annual Conference

Sitting in the comfortable conference room, enjoying a lovely 80 degree ‘cold front,’ one could easily forget that, just two weeks earlier, Houston had been hit with the fifth largest coastal storm ever to make landfall in the US. Though it hardly registered on national news, Tropical Storm Imelda brought record setting rain and flooding to large swaths of the city. Because Houston is one of the best cities in the world at emergency response, the effects of Imelda were nearly imperceptible by my visit. But, with two record-setting storms in two years, it has become clear that Houston needs to shift some of its attention away from crisis management and focus instead on long-term recovery and hazard mitigation before the next inevitable record-setter hits. That growing realization brought me to Houston for the annual conference of Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disaster Center (SSPEED).

A flooded park near downtown Houston (via Rice Kennedy Institute)

The focus of this year’s conference was Post-Harvey Resilient Engineering, Infrastructure, and Policy. As one might imagine given the broadness of the title, session topics covered everything from flood warning systems to floodplain regulations, toxic contamination, and infrastructure design. The event attracted a similarly diverse range of experts from across the Greater Houston Metropolitan region. In addition to academics – mostly from local institutions including Rice, Texas A&M, and the University of Houston – the conference attendees included consultants, architects and designers, nonprofit activists, and agency representatives from every level of government, from the city to the Army Corps of Engineers. As an outsider, it quickly became clear that everyone knew each other. It turns out that, in a city best known for its propensity to flood on a regular basis, the community of experts working on flooding issues is very close.

What was also readily apparent, though surprising, was that Houston has become a mecca for innovative and holistic resilience-building efforts, despite the city’s well-earned reputation for being ‘anti-planning.’ The projects presented during the two-day event ranged from the hyperlocal, including one effort to estimate the extent of flooding under new climate projections at a neighborhood scale, to the regional, such as one group’s efforts to get a Natural Recreation Area designation for most of the area’s coastline. The ideas put forward included both nature-based restoration and hard engineering solutions like the Galveston Bay Park, which, despite its simple name, is actually an ambitious network of offshore storm surge protection infrastructure.

A schematic of the proposed Galveston Bay Park, one of the significant engineering projects proposed to reduce the potential storm surge impacts going into Galveston Bay (via Rogers Partners)

One of the ongoing themes of the event was the need for new and improved information, both to better understand the risks the region faces and better communicate that risk to the public. Phil Bedient, the SSPEED Center Director and a professor of Civil Engineering at Rice, highlighted the top priorities for the city moving forward. In addition to prioritizing buyouts and building new drainage, detention, and pumping infrastructure to offset development, Dr. Bedient stressed the need to recognize that hazard boundaries are changing. In his words, “the 100-year floodplain is meaningless.” Instead, he argued, the city and FEMA must invest in new hydrologic models and maps that adequately capture the true, 21st century flood risk. Sam Brody, a Marine Sciences professor at Texas A&M Galveston, reiterated Dr. Bedient’s message in describing his lab’s ongoing work to build improved risk identification tools. “The floodplain boundaries,” he stressed, “were never meant to be risk boundaries.”

Models of estimated flood depths in the updated 100-year and 500-year floodplains (updated by SSPEED with new climate and hydrologic data) in the low-income neighborhood of East Houston, showing the high potential for significant flooding across the entire neighborhood (via Rice SSPEED Center)

Another recurring theme was the need for better communication. Toward that goal, Dr. Bedient and other Rice engineers described their ongoing efforts to expand the use of a flood warning system in Harris County so that risk information gets out to the public in a timely manner. His hope is that, one day, we can “warn people about flooding the way we warn them about traffic.” Kyle Shelton, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Rice’s Kinder Institute, went into greater detail on their efforts to engage the public. He stressed that risk communication must be about getting people to understand the inherent risks of where they live, but – at the same time – it must also be about “the small things” to make sure people have time to get their pictures out of their homes before disaster strikes. Dr. Shelton presented several key needs to this end: accurate, individualized information about risk, accessible risk maps, early and in-storm warning systems, coordination and communication of research, and community-scale mitigation efforts. He also stressed the value of tying the discussion about recovery into broader conversations about the issues that people face in their daily lives, including economic opportunity and healthcare. According to Dr. Shelton, “education, engagement, and community-based planning should underpin everything.” The engineers, planners, and designers presenting their specific solutions throughout the conference embraced that mantra to varying degrees. 

A final overarching theme of the event was the value of more resilient, integrated, and nature-based infrastructure. Engineers from Rice and the Army Corps discussed their efforts to integrate traditional stormwater planning into other infrastructure planning efforts, particularly around transportation. Similarly, in reference to the Galveston Bay Park project, Rob Rogers of Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers, described how 21st century infrastructure “has to be multipurpose and multilayer.” Stephen Benigno, an ecologist for the Harris County Flood Control District, described how his agency was working to incorporate natural infrastructure into their detention basins. The new approach can not only ensure improved flood control over time, but also provide water quality remediation and public green space, all with reduced maintenance costs. Mary Anne Piacentini, president of the Katy Prairie Conservancy, reiterated the benefits of nature-based flood control. Describing her organization’s restoration efforts, Ms. Piacentini described the value of the coastal prairie ecosystems that ring the city to both serve as flood storage and counter the rapidly expanding extent of impervious surface. This is imperative because, of course, “nature works best when you’re working with it, not against it.”

Flooding in the Katy Prairie following the 2016 Tax Day Floods (via Katy Prairie Conservancy)

Jerry Cotter of the Army Corps of Engineers in Fort Worth was blunt that “if we continue to do business the way we’ve been doing it, we’re going to get the same results.” And, as Hurricane Harvey showed, those results can have deadly consequences. Today, Houston faces unprecedented challenges due to years of unchecked development and the growing threat of climate change. As such, the city is clearly going to need some unprecedented solutions. The SSPEED Conference was an opportunity to see what some of those solutions might look like. Ataul Hannan, the Director of Planning at the Harris County Flood Control District, perhaps summed up the entire event best: “Floods are powerful. But so is knowledge.”

Featured image: A flooded Buffalo Bayou heading into downtown Houston (via Rice SSPEED Center)

About the Author: Leah Campbell is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of City and Regional Planning, where she focuses on integrating equity and resilience into climate adaptation to address urban flooding. Prior to UNC, she worked in the environmental nonprofit sector in California advocating for progressive water quality and coastal resilience policies.