‘Picking Up the Pieces and Building Something New’ – Hurricane Harvey a Year Later

BY 
August 29, 2018
A year later, Hurricane Harvey’s effects remain visible across the southeastern Texas landscape. PHOTO: Kate Osborn

A year ago, the world watched as Hurricane Harvey battered southeastern Texas with historic levels of rainfall. The ensuing flooding changed lives there forever.

Many ASCE leaders helped their communities through the flood, and they shared their experiences at that time with ASCE News.

In the year since, many of those same ASCE members helped author the Texas Section’s report and recommendations, Addressing Flood Risk: A Path Forward for Texas After Hurricane Harvey, and, today, they share the following dispatches from the frontlines of the Hurricane Harvey recovery effort.

Slowly finding a new normal

Kate Osborn, EIT, A.M.ASCE, is the ASCE Southeast Texas Branch President-Elect, a senior director-at-large for the Texas Section, and, by day, a project engineer for Schaumburg & Polk Inc. She writes eloquently about the ongoing, and often emotional, challenges still facing the people in her hometown of China, Texas – located between Houston and Beaumont, about 35 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico:

There’s the before, there’s the after, and right in between there are those few little days that shattered the world and left us to pick up the pieces and build something new.

One year later, Harvey still sucks. The roads I drive home on are dry, but I can still see them covered in flood water. Many of the homes of my friends, neighbors, and coworkers are inhabitable again, but I can still smell the incomparable stench of mold, sewage, and lifetimes of memories lost.

There is no going “back” to normal, but we are slowly starting to find a new normal, a life where kids have a stable school situation and the majority of people you meet aren’t living in campers parked outside of their homes.

Kate Obsorn’s children’s middle school doesn’t look anything like it did when the school year started a year ago. PHOTO: Kate Osborn

There are people still out of their homes. Some of the homes are damaged beyond repair; some can’t be rebuilt because of regulatory issues; some don’t have the money to rebuild. Almost everyone at least has a place to call home though.

Our schools are still destroyed, and we are still waiting to find out if the state and federal funding will be enough to rebuild them. My child’s science teacher started her open house talk with “We don’t have labs, of course.” There’s no room for lab space and no materials to put in them if we had the room. They aren’t perfect, but there is now a sense of stability and regularity in the ‘temporary’ classrooms – or, as my children call their new middle school, “the trailer park.”

Our roads are crumbling and lift stations are still running on temporary bypass pumps, sending flow to sewer plants clogged with grit and sediment. For the small towns, the money needed to repair these issues is several times the annual budget, and disaster relief funding hasn’t been forthcoming.

There is progress. There is hope, and we are grateful for all the support we have received, both locally and from across the nation.

There are the celebrations that occur when another family moves back into their home. There are memories of people and communities coming together to do what they could during one of the worst hard times. There are memories and continuing evidence of compassion, love, and selflessness.

Are those memories enough to offset the feeling that comes with loading your children into the boat of a perfect stranger and trusting them to get you to a safer place? Are they enough to offset the crushing pain of walking into your home and seeing that every single thing is destroyed?

I don’t know that there are even answers to those kinds of questions, but I do know this: we will keep going, we will continue creating a new normal out of the pieces that remain and the threads of hope and community we have discovered through this tragedy. We keep putting one foot in front of the other – what else can we do?

On a personal level, my passion for civil engineering has been magnified. Civil engineers create communities through the infrastructure and buildings that form the basis for people to live and function together. I’ve seen firsthand the importance of having functioning infrastructure during disaster and as people return to their homes and start the recovery process after disaster. It’s a long road to find a new, stable normal where infrastructure and communities are truly functional again, and civil engineers play a critical role in that process. The work we do truly makes a difference in our communities, both across the street and around the world.

We survived Harvey. Now what?

Harvey hit close to home – literally – for former ASCE President D. Wayne Klotz, P.E., D.WRE, F.EWRI, ENV SP, Pres.09.ASCE. Now, the Houston-area owner of Klotz Strategies and president of the Coastal Water Authority is working toward protecting his hometown against future disasters:

As media outlets do a retrospective on the impact of Hurricane Harvey on the Houston region, what does a water resources engineer see in the rearview mirror?
Looking back, every flooding scenario that we knew could happen came true. We had record rainfall over the entire region. Our drainage systems and first responders were overwhelmed. The human tragedy was widespread. We were not ready, and we paid the price. Even still, Houstonians rose up and helped their fellow citizens in ways that still amaze me.

What I see now is the path forward.

Both Harris County and the City of Houston adopted more stringent building regulations that raised minimum slab elevations by several feet. That action will keep things from getting worse. Harris County passed a $2.5 billion bond election that will essentially be matched by federal funds. That action is the single largest flood protection initiative in this region in the last 75 years. (The number of voters in the bond election was smaller than the number of dwellings damaged by flooding. Keeping the attention of the public is difficult even after a disaster.) Local elected officials continue to talk about the need for the community to significantly reduce flooding in the future. That discussion has never happened previously.

Now, the hard part begins for the engineering community. We have public support and funding to reduce flooding. That combination sounds like engineering utopia, but significant challenges await.

People are impatient, and they will want their project built first. The overall need for channel and detention improvements is $25 billion. Most people will have to wait.
Environmental laws are still on the books, and the time to get environmental clearance will be long. Federal funds come with restrictions, and local preferences may not be fundable.

The topography and climate here have created flooding since the first settlers arrived. Simply widening channels and increasing detention may not solve the regional flood problems. Engineers must implement new solutions such as deep tunnels, inter-basin transfers, deeper pumped detention, and new technology to truly reduce flood potential. We will be busy.

The Houston region overcame the impacts of the storm. Time will tell if we are willing to create a less flood-prone future.

Flooding last August in Port Arthur, TX. PHOTO: Andrew Wells

A path forward

Andrew Wells, A.M.ASCE, has had a busy year since Harvey. During the hurricane, he lived in Port Arthur, Texas, overseeing several construction projects at the Port of Port Arthur.

Since then, he has served as the chairman of the ASCE Task Committee on Post-Hurricane Harvey Recommendations, and moved to Alaska for a position in the Bridge Design Section of the state’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

Here, he provides an inside look at the task committee’s work in assembling the Addressing Flood Risk: A Path Forward for Texas After Hurricane Harvey report. His remarks do not reflect the views or opinions of the Alaska DOT&PF:

The impetus for the Task Committee on Post-Hurricane Harvey Recommendations came from the local branches in Texas affected by Hurricane Harvey. In the months following the storm—and continuing to this day—there was a lot of discussion about how Texas could better prepare itself for the next extreme rain event.

Several politicians had outlined plans for improved flood risk management and, as technical experts, we wanted to engage in the public dialogue. Soon after the Task Committee formed, a number of engineers from other parts of the state joined. As a result, we had a good cross section of the various regions, branches, and committees within the Texas Section of ASCE.

When we began in December, the idea was to put together a 4-5 page paper that would give a 30,000-foot view of the issues as well as some general policy recommendations. This was all to be completed by Infrastructure Week in May 2018.

By the beginning of April, it was clear that we had a lot more to say. On August 15, we released the final report, Addressing Flood Risk: A Path Forward for Texas After Hurricane Harvey, a 24-page document that gives 27 recommendations for improved flood-risk management.

Because water does not respect political boundaries, one of the main focuses of the report was managing flood risk on a watershed basis. Currently, most flood risk management is done at the local (city and county) level and neighboring communities sometimes take a markedly different approach.

Texas does an excellent job managing water supply through the State Water Plan, which organizes the state into 16 different regions and develops projects based on local input. However, no statewide framework exists for flood risk management. Developing a statewide flood mitigation plan would go a long way to encourage communication and cooperation amongst communities and stakeholders. It could also provide a funding mechanism for much needed projects.

Additionally, we recommended establishing statewide minimum standards so that upstream communities aren’t adversely affecting those downstream, a broader implementation of LID stormwater systems, the inclusion of more risk levels on Flood Insurance Rate Maps, developing a statewide levee safety program, and increasing funding for dam inspection, maintenance, and rehabilitation.

Trash buildup in Port Arthur, TX, last September. PHOTO: Andrew Wells

We also believe that the federal government could be more proactive. It has been over 20 years since the last Unified National Program (UNP) for Floodplain Management was written (not since 1994) and, although Congress called on President Bush to conduct a national flood vulnerability study following Hurricane Katrina in 2007, it has not funded one in the 11 years since. These are critical initiatives for identifying risk and establishing a national strategy for addressing them.

Thus far, we are extremely happy with the report’s reception. Several articles have been written by local media outlets, and the local Univision affiliate (Univision 45 Houston) did a several minute piece in Spanish for their nightly news cast, which included remarks from one of our committee members (that was really cool!).

During our external review process, we engaged a large number of public agencies, many of which had extremely positive feedback. Their comments on our original draft added significant value to the report and we greatly appreciated their engagement. We hope that those relationships will continue to grow as ASCE is involved in this and other issues in the future.

The Texas Section slogan is, “Texas civil engineers are leaders in their communities, building a better quality of life across the street and around the world.” I truly believe that captures the spirit of our task committee. Moving forward, it is our hope that the report will assist communities by casting a vision for improved flood risk management, informing the public about the subject, and providing opportunities for engineers to engage in this critical discussion.

For communities along the Gulf and in the greater Houston area, the recovery effort has been a long, arduous process. Many people are still struggling to piece their lives back together and will be for some time. By encouraging the management of flood risk on a watershed basis, we believe that the impacts of large rain events can be significantly reduced and that Texans will be better prepared for the next flood.

Lessons learned

Gary Struzick, P.E., M.ASCE, is a former ASCE Texas Section and Houston Branch president, as well as a Region Governor. Hurricane Harvey flooded large portions of Struzick’s West Houston neighborhood, and a year later, the long-time flood specialist shares a list of lessons learned:

I live in a quiet neighborhood on the south side of Buffalo Bayou called Ashford Forest. As a flood specialist for over 35 years, I was careful to check out the location of the planned house purchase and determined that our new home was about one foot above the FEMA 500-year floodplain. But when Harvey hit Aug. 25, 2017, it had significant impact on the city, county, and the area as a whole.

After the storm many of my neighbors decided almost immediately that they were going to rebuild. It took others longer to decide. Of the 45 homes in my neighborhood that flooded, one owner has torn down their house and moved away, one or two are still waiting and hope to be razed using FEMA funds, and about nine families have moved back in (some cases are still not complete, but moved back).

Most homes are still under repair. For those who had no flood insurance, the repairs are going much slower. Good contractors have been hard to find. Some homes sit today with only the furniture, sheet rock and insulation removed (you can see from room to room through the studs that not many repairs have been made). Some homes have been rebuilt, some flipped, and some are for sale. It will take much more time until the area is back to pre-Harvey conditions.

As a result of Harvey some of our neighbors and others across the area are more aware of significant storm events and are more concerned when new storms head this way.

Gary Struzick navigates his street by canoe following Hurricane Harvey. PHOTO: Gary Struzick

There are a few things I think we learned from Harvey:

1. We need to do more to improve the drainage in Harris County.

2. Everyone who lives in Harris County and many of the other local communities should have flood insurance – even if you don’t live within a floodplain. It is relatively inexpensive if you are not in the 100-year floodplain. Ask those who flooded if they wish they had flood insurance.

3. Turn around; don’t drown. During flood times, if you can’t see the street in front of you, don’t drive into it.

4. Don’t build or buy in the floodplains.

5. Volunteer to help others in your community. Harvey definitely affected us, but we are still here and building back better.
The story of the volunteers who came to help has only been partially told. Many “Harvey Heroes” have been recognized. There many more out there who will never be identified, but they know who they are.

The spirit of Houstonians and others who came to help is as strong as ever. What a great community to live in! I would like to thank all those who came to help during and after Harvey. THANK YOU!

The ASCE Texas Section is a conference sponsor for the fifth annual Texas Civil Engineering Conference (CECON), gathering civil engineers from all across the state, Sept. 19-21, in San Marcos for three days of learning, networking, and the sharing of ideas. This year’s theme is CIVILization: Design for the Greater Good.

Learn more about the program and how to register.

 

1 Comment
  • Impactful stories, thanks for sharing. Many of our fellow engineers were personally affected by Harvey and like too many of our friends and neighbors may be still recovering and rebuilding. It’s important to use this raw energy while fresh and top-of-mind to re-imagine how our communities are built or rebuilt to find as much stormwater detention as is needed to avoid future disasters.

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