Preparedness

Houston Must Build Resilience to Avoid Next Flood, Hurricane Disaster, Insurer's Report Finds

Houston’s residents and leaders must also do more to increase adoption of flood insurance.

by Mark Collette, Houston Chronicle / June 22, 2018

(TNS) — On a recent trip to Galveston, Karen MacClune noticed something odd: Everywhere she went, three feet, five feet, 15 feet high on buildings, she saw little plaques with ominous arrows pointing to the high water marks from Hurricane Ike nearly 10 years ago. It was as if they were badges of pride.

“You can’t even be in Galveston for a day and not recognize the flood risk,” she said.

It’s not so in Harris County, where public awareness lags reality. It’s estimated that more than 80 percent of buildings had no flood insurance before Hurricane Harvey. And Houston needs the kind of cultural shift that Galveston has had, said MacClune, chief operations officer and senior scientist for the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition International.

That was among the findings of a report released Thursday by Zurich Insurance Group, which collaborated with the institute and the American Red Cross. Zurich has issued more than a dozen studies on flood disasters worldwide in recent years. Its major theme: Floods come from nature, but the disaster is man-made.

Houston’s residents and leaders must do more to increase adoption of flood insurance. To understand that drainage, engineering and regulations alone won’t stop floods. To look forward, to recognize growing risks, instead of assuming that the worst is past for the next 5,000 years, according to the report, Houston and Hurricane Harvey: A Call to Action.

As if to punctuate its release, a surge of tropical moisture pounded parts of Texas this week with more than 15 inches of rain. Flash floods prompted high water rescues and inundated homes in South Texas and several in the Beaumont-Port Arthur area, including some that had barely finished repairs from Harvey. They’d rebuilt right back in harm’s way.

“We got lucky” in Houston with the first significant Gulf of Mexico disturbance of the year, said Francisco Sanchez, a spokesman for Harris County Emergency Management. He tweeted images of water rising into yards in Cypress on Wednesday. “We can either hope to continue to get lucky. Or we can get resilient.”

That means doing away with the refrains that flood disasters are “historic,” “unprecedented,” or “acts of god,” said MacClune.

Sea surface temperatures are four degrees warmer than a few decades ago, meaning bigger, more powerful storms with more water, and those temperatures are likely to keep rising, MacClune said.

“Maybe Harvey is anomalous,” she said. “But maybe it isn’t. I think we need to consider the idea that these may become our new normal.”

Houston and Harris County already have adopted higher building elevation standards, which MacClune called a “brilliant” step that ought to be followed elsewhere or made part of the requirements for every community in the National Flood Insurance Program.

MacClune and the report recognized Houston’s unstoppable growth and the difficulty that new regulations impose on development. “But if we keep building slab-on-grade in these areas, we’re just building new risk,” she said.

Better risk communication — which could include rules for mandatory disclosure of flood history — could help increase the uptake of flood insurance. The report noted the county has undertaken a campaign to get more people to buy insurance. But reforming flood insurance itself should also be priority, the report said, in one of its many conclusions that it said could apply globally.

One such reform: Make flood insurance more attractive by bundling it with coverage for other hazards, such as fires or plumbing leaks. Insurance reform is a pressing issue for some lawmakers in Washington as they face a July 31 deadline to reauthorize the program, but reforms have been put off six times already in the last year, with short-term reauthorizations of the program that don’t address its insolvency.

Another recommendation: Work to shatter the false sense of security that comes from engineering upgrades. Many are expected to come from a $2.5 billion bond referendum Harris County voters will consider in August. It also will include money for buyouts of flood-prone properties and other measures yet to be decided.

MacClune said in every disaster she’s studied, there’s always an infrastructure failure, and that’s to be expected. In Houston, it was the reservoirs that weren’t engineered to hold that much water. But too often, residents assume that once a levy or reservoir is built, they’re protected.

She pointed to how good the city of Charleston, S.C., has become at managing tidal flooding, moving property out of harm’s way and having emergency plans at the ready. But once a new seawall project goes in, she expects readiness to falter.

“In some ways, I think one of Houston’s strengths is your regular flooding,” she said.

Among the other findings, leaders should improve transparency and trust the public with information. For example, the report found that the potential for releases from Houston's reservoirs was poorly communicated. People could have saved more property had they known the risks. That’s prompted multiple federal lawsuits over officials’ operation of the reservoirs during the storm.

The report also identified a major success story: At the Texas Medical Center, buffered against floods after Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, services went virtually uninterrupted through Harvey because it took many approaches to reducing risk. It moved property out of harm's way, improved communication with employees, ensured its workers were prepared for the worst.

Harvey inflicted an estimated $125 billion in damages, making it the most expensive storm behind Hurricane Katrina in 2015. Hundreds of people are still living in hotels, Sanchez said, and thousands more are still working with disaster case managers to continue recovery.

If Houston doesn’t make serious advances in resilience, said Debbie Immel, a Red Cross official, “There’s going to be a lot more human suffering and there’s going to be a lot more deaths.”

mark.collette@chron.com

twitter.com/ChronMC

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