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Civil and Environmental Engineering

While forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are predicting a 75-percent chance that the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season will be near or above normal, experts at Rice University say Houston is little better prepared for extreme weather than it was last summer when Hurricane Harvey devastated the region.
“We have made progress, although it’s slow, but at least county and city are trying to get new policies in place. This flood mess was created over 30 years of watershed neglect and poor practices, and cannot be easily fixed,” said Phil Bedient, the Herman Brown Professor of Engineering in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and director of the SSPEED Center (Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters) at Rice.
This year’s hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, and NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center expects between 10 and 16 named storms this year. Storm researchers at Colorado State University have also forecast an above-normal season, and 14 named storms.
“We are putting policies and mechanisms into place that can make a difference and will to some degree,” said James Blackburn, professor in the practice of environmental law in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Rice, and co-director of SSPEED. “However, in my opinion, we are lacking the overall vision – the crystal concept – that will lead us away from our past practices and into a future where room is made for water in our community.”
For four days, Harvey lingered over southeast Texas and dropped more than 40 inches of rain. It was the wettest tropical cyclone on record in the United States. The storm flooded hundreds of thousands of homes, displaced more than 30,000 people and prompted more than 17,000 rescues. At least 82 died as a result. The storm tied Hurricane Katrina as the most expensive tropical cyclone on record, inflicting $125 billion in damage.
Flood Rescue Image 
From a physical/infrastructure perspective, Blackburn said, the region remains roughly the same as last year. “We’re making progress to put money into place to act quickly in the event of the next storm, and to fund currently approved federal projects. The appropriations bill has provided funding that can be used for at least four Houston area structural modification projects and the bond issue set for August 25 will provide matching money.”
The bond money and additional funds from community development block grants may become available for flood victim buy-outs. Both the city and Harris County have adopted the 500-year flood as the interim building level (plus two feet). “That’s a major policy change,” Blackburn said, “though it won’t go into effect before September. That’s a recognition that our existing 100-year flood plain is obsolete and had to be changed. That’s positive but no impact has been seen yet.”
Blackburn stresses fundamental changes and long-term planning: “Learning to live with water is necessary for our economic future and for safety.  It’s a very different philosophy from what we’ve done in the past. It’s about more than structural modification of channels and storing water. It is about evacuating our deep flood plains and leaving those areas to water. When we talk in those terms, we’ll be making real progress.”
Bedient concurred: “I am cautiously optimistic for the future but only if bad practices are greatly improved.” He emphasized that a more regional approach to managing flood risk is mandatory if it is to succeed, and green infrastructure must be implemented with more storage as is already the case in Fort Bend County.
With funding from the Rice Houston Engagement and Recovery Effort, Kathy Ensor, the Noah G. Harding Professor of Statistics (STAT), is working in collaboration with Bedient to collect rainfall data in the Houston area since 1900, using information from some 600 gauges. “We’re interested in changes in large scale rain events, and bring forward statistical methods that allow us to focus on this important feature, with the threshold being one inch per day. Our objective is to quantify and characterize the dynamics of rainfall across time for the region,” she said.
The goal is to model new rainfall estimates to aid engineers and infrastructure planners to develop a more flood-resilient city. The study will also help quantify the increasing frequency of extreme weather.
Also, Ensor is involved in the Hurricane Harvey Registry, an online survey to collect information about the storm’s impact on individuals in the Harvey-effected region. It collects information about health, housing and exposures. The registry will assist officials in tracking health and housing problems, with the goal of developing tailored interventions to help people in the Harvey-effected areas.
The project is headed by Marie Lynn Miranda, the Howard R. Hughes Provost and Professor of STAT and is in partnership with Houston Health Department, Harris County Public Health, and Environmental Defense Fund. Loren Raun, professor in the practice of STAT and chief environmental science officer and interim bureau chief of community and children’s environmental health for the Houston Health Department, also contributes to the project.

- Patrick Kurp, Engineering Communications