Preparedness

Report Seeks to 'Future-Proof' Texas From Climate Change Without Saying So Directly

The report calls Hurricane Harvey a warning that should not be ignored. "The enormous toll on individuals, businesses and public infrastructure should provide a wake-up call underlining the urgent need to 'future-proof' the Gulf Coast - and indeed all of Texas - against future disasters.'"

by Anna Kuchment, The Dallas Morning News / December 13, 2018
Flood waters have risen into the Lakes on Eldridge North neighborhood near the Addicks Reservoir West Houston, Texas on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017. Hurricane Harvey inundated the Houston area with several feet of rain. TNS

(TNS) - To protect itself from the next major hurricane, Texas will have to build storm-surge barriers, shore up wetlands, buy out residents who live in vulnerable areas, rethink development plans and raise the first floors of existing buildings, suggests a sweeping new report prepared for Gov. Greg Abbott and released Thursday afternoon.

The new recommendations come from Abbott's Commission to Rebuild Texas, led by Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp. In September 2017, Abbott charged Sharp with the task of rebuilding Texas "ahead of schedule, under budget and with a friendly smile."

The report calls Hurricane Harvey a warning that should not be ignored.  "The enormous toll on individuals, businesses and public infrastructure should provide a wake-up call underlining the urgent need to 'future-proof' the Gulf Coast - and indeed all of Texas - against future disasters," the study says.  The investigation, based on hundreds of hours of interviews and dozens of scientific papers, is comprehensive in its scope, covering  issues as broad as the need to streamline emergency response and as specific as the need to improve oversight and availability of contractors.

While the report, "Eye of the Storm," takes into account findings from climate scientists, including that sea levels are rising and that storms are becoming more frequent and severe, nowhere does it explicitly mention climate change or its main underlying cause, the burning of fossil fuels.

Here are six main takeaways from the Texas report:

Harvey's toll: Harvey was the second-costliest storm in U.S. history after Hurricane Katrina. It devastated a New Jersey-sized swath of Texas and caused at least $125 billion in damage. About 12,700 structures were destroyed, 39,000 people forced into shelters, and more than 10,000 students displaced from their schools.

Your home, elevated:  Studies have found that raising the first floor of homes and other structures above the level that flood waters are expected to reach in either 100 or 500 years — known as "freeboarding" — is "the most effective of all mitigation strategies in terms of avoiding flood damage to residential structures."  While expensive — the approximate cost of elevating a 2,000 square-foot house is between $890 and $4,470 — it pays off by avoiding more expensive flood losses later.

As of 2015, 21 states had adopted freeboard requirements. Texas has not.

Buyouts: The report recommends identifying properties in high flood-risk areas and offering to buy-out owners or relocate them. Participation in the program would be voluntary.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, already runs the largest buyout program in the country. It puts up 75 percent of the needed funds and requires a 25 percent match from the local government. The land acquired through such a buyout cannot be redeveloped but must be used for wetland restoration, a wildlife refuge or another purpose specified by FEMA.

 "Buy-outs and open space protection in vulnerable areas will be an important component of any effective flood risk reduction strategy in Texas," the report notes.

Protecting wetlands: "One of the worst consequences of coastal development is the loss of naturally occurring wetlands, which reduce flooding by storing and slowly releasing accumulated runoff," says the report. It suggests the state and local communities could protect and expand wetlands through buyout programs and by limiting development along coastal areas.

Coastal spine:  Texas A&M University at Galveston has proposed a storm surge barrier it calls the "coastal spine." To be composed of a 57-mile-long land barrier and two 22-foot-high movable gates, it would be built to protect residential and industrial areas in Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel.

The total cost would be around $8 billion, but the report indicates that annual costs are lower than the benefits of avoiding damage. "Changing environmental and human conditions are creating a situation in which the economic impact of storms hitting Texas will rise exponentially," the report states. Doing nothing would be far more costly, it says.

The 'C' word: Do a keyword search on the 168-page report, and you'll find no mention of "climate change" or "global warming," except in endnotes. Yet the study acknowledges that sea levels are rising and that storms may become more frequent and severe. Governor Greg Abbott's favored term for protecting Texas — "future proofing" — is known more commonly as "climate change adaptation."

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