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Houston Works Toward Data-Driven Disaster Response

Together with Rice University and other local institutions, the Texas city is collaborating with residents and stakeholders to plan for future flood mitigation given the devastation seen during Hurricane Harvey.

MetroLab Network has partnered with Government Technology to bring its readers a segment called the MetroLab Innovation of the Month Series, which highlights impactful tech, data and innovation projects underway between cities and universities. If you’d like to learn more or contact the project leads, please contact MetroLab at for more information.

In this month’s installment of the Innovation of the Month series, we learn how researchers in Houston are developing resiliency plans around the area’s Greens Bayou region, with the support of and feedback from the communities directly impacted during Hurricane Harvey in late 2017.

MetroLab’s Executive Director Ben Levine spoke with Philip Bedient, director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center at Rice University and Susan Rogers, associate professor and director of the Community Design Resource Center at the Hines College of Architecture and Design at the University of Houston, to learn more.

Ben Levine: Could you please describe what the Greens Bayou Watershed Resiliency Planning Study is? Who is involved in this effort?

Philip Bedient: Harvey was the largest rainfall and most damaging flood event in United States history. By all measures its widespread impact was a devastating blow to Harris and surrounding counties. It dropped between 36 and 44 inches within the Houston area over five days, exceeding all rainfall records, with up to 20 inches in a single day. Most bayous during Harvey were upward of 10 feet over their banks and flooded an estimated 205,000 homes in Harris County alone, and especially in Greens Bayou.

The Greens Bayou Watershed Resiliency Planning Study is carefully looking at four flood-prone neighborhoods that lie within the floodplain of Greens Bayou. The study methodology consists of four main components: (1) hydrologic and hydraulic modeling; (2) transportation network analysis, including flow obstruction from railroad lines; (3) community-based planning; and (4) policy and best practices recommendations.

The Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium has provided the funding for this effort. Researchers include Susan Rogers, associate professor and director of the Community Design Resource Center at the Hines College of Architecture and Design at the University of Houston; Dr. Jamie Padgett, associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University; Dr. Sam Brody, director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University, Galveston; and me. We propose to look at all possible combinations of local and regional mitigation including detention, levee and pump storage, selected buyouts and relocations, and selected channelization. We are using sophisticated hydrologic and hydraulic models for the Harvey event that devastated the area.

Levine: What makes the Greens Bayou unique?

Bedient: For those living in Greens, major flooding has occurred too frequently, and compared to other watersheds, there has not been substantial investment in flood mitigation projects. Compounding the challenges, the watershed is home to a large population near or below the poverty line, with many multi-family properties deep in the floodplain. Few federal projects have been suggested for the Greens since the traditional benefit-cost ratio is not as high as it is for other areas of Houston. This project aims to be a model for comprehensive flood management by incorporating state-of-the-art methodologies for flood hazard modeling, investigating green infrastructure mitigation options, evaluating flood impacts on infrastructure (in the form of roadways and railroads), and by prioritizing equity, community engagement and collaboration. This analysis will focus on addressing neighborhood-scale flood issues in four different neighborhoods in the Greens Bayou Watershed.

Levine: How are you engaging with the community in your efforts? What kind of information are you exploring and why?

Susan Rogers: One of the primary goals of the project is to develop resiliency plans for each of our four partner communities engaged in the study. In order to do this well and develop comprehensive strategies for resiliency across scales from the lot, to the block, to the neighborhood, it is imperative to engage local leaders in the process from the beginning to the end.

In January of 2019, the researchers held our first workshop. The goal was to bring together researchers from the Community Design Resource Center, SSPEED Center, Kinder Institute for Urban Research, neighborhood stakeholders, community-based organizations, designers, planners, government representatives and others to explore the opportunities, challenges and potential flood mitigation strategies in each of the four partner communities: East Aldine, East Houston, Eastex-Jensen and Greenspoint.

During the workshop, neighborhood leaders and stakeholders worked alongside designers, engineers, philanthropic leaders and representatives from key governing bodies. Briefing books, developed by the Community Design Resource Center for each community, provided a comprehensive summary of the demographic and built-environment conditions, as well as the impact of Harvey, to guide the discussions. In addition, preliminary flood models provided insight into the current flood challenges. Workshop participants collaborated on identifying the flooding risks and challenges in each community, while also developing new ideas and strategies to mitigate future flood risks, including strategies to prepare for, react to and recover from a disaster in the future. The strategies identified in the workshop were summarized and distributed to our partners.

The input from the workshop will focus and inform the development of specific flood mitigation projects in each community. The projects will be tested as a set of scenarios utilizing the flood models, and other neighborhood-based impact tools. The models will allow researchers and community leaders to evaluate the impact of the proposed projects and the potential to mitigate future flood risks.

Bedient: As Susan stated, we are fully engaging with community leaders to assist us and provide input as we proceed with the study. We have already discovered that auto and bus mobility and available food and shelters are most important during an extreme disaster like Harvey. We are using all available rainfall, topography, land use, demographic and policy data for the region. Additionally, our plan is to work closely with city and county leaders as we develop our plan for the watershed, and will consider many additional options, not just the traditional FEMA-style effort.

We have been surprised and pleased to see how excited community leaders were to be asked for their input at the beginning of the project versus at the end when all the decisions have been made by drainage engineers that may only have limited contact with the community.

Rogers: The feedback we received at the workshop is shaping the flood mitigation strategies in each community and a summary of the workshop can be found here.

Levine: Where will this project go from here?

Rogers: In the coming months we will be hosting a second workshop to review and discuss formally with government agencies, researchers and stakeholders the flood mitigation and resiliency projects and make final revisions. At the conclusion of the project, each community will be armed with a resiliency plan that we hope will shape public investment and flood mitigation projects in the Greens Bayou watershed moving forward.

Bedient: We also hope to expand out this one-year community flood planning effort to a second phase that includes a real-time flood warning system and an associated model that predicts access to critical care facilities. As we await structural and non-structural projects, these warning systems can help engage the community in terms of educating them all about the flood risk in their community.

About MetroLab: MetroLab Network introduces a new model for bringing data, analytics and innovation to local government: a network of institutionalized, cross-disciplinary partnerships between cities/counties and their universities. Its membership includes more than 40 such partnerships in the United States, ranging from mid-size cities to global metropolises. These city-university partnerships focus on research, development and deployment of projects that offer technologically and analytically based solutions to challenges facing urban areas including: inequality in income, health, mobility, security and opportunity; aging infrastructure; and environmental sustainability and resiliency. MetroLab was launched as part of the White House’s 2015 Smart Cities Initiative. Learn more at or on Twitter @metrolabnetwork.

This article was first published in Government Technology.

Ben Levine serves as executive director of MetroLab Network.