Houston keeps buckling under storms like Beryl. The solutions are not coming fast enough

HOUSTON (AP) – Sharon Carr is frustrated. Like many others who lost power after Hurricane Beryl slammed into the Texas coast earlier this week, she went to a cooling center in Houston for relief from the summer heat and the city’s utility company warned that it could more taking longer to restore everyone’s electricity than they might have expected.

“There’s too much wind, we don’t have power. It’s been raining for so long, we don’t have power,” said Carr, who also went without electricity for a week in May when a devastating storm called a derecho swept through the area.

Carr, who works for the city’s transportation and drainage department, thinks more could be done to keep the lights on — or at least restore them more quickly — if Houston and other urban areas prone to bad weather stopped focusing on immediate problems and looking at. the bigger picture, including climate change.

“This shouldn’t keep happening,” she said, “If it’s broken, let’s fix it.”

Hurricane Beryl is the latest in a long line of devastating storms to paralyze Houston, highlighting the city’s inability to brace itself against weather events stemming from climate change. Storms like Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Harvey in 2017 saw the city have to remove trees, strengthen its flood defenses and bury more power lines underground, but those efforts either failed or were overwhelmed completely submerged by recent storms. the city and laid out power for millions.

As climate change warms ocean water, forcing storms that are more powerful and intensify much faster, experts say cities need to rethink how they prepare and respond to such events .

“It’s a completely different game we’re playing today,” said Michelle Meyer, director of the Center for Hazard Reduction & Recovery at Texas A&M University. The old playbook, she said, “doesn’t work anymore.”

If we rebuild it, it will flood again

One obvious question is where and how developers build, he said Craig Fugate, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Barack Obama. He said that became apparent 20 years ago while working in Florida, where four hurricanes in a row weren’t enough to stop beachside development.

“You have to ask yourself, how many times do we have to rebuild something before we build it back in a different way or we don’t build it back in the same place?” he said.

Fugate thinks taxpayers are increasingly shouldering the burden, supporting expensive insurance programs for at-risk areas when developers may stop building in storm-prone areas and residents may move out. from the floodplains.

“It’s the hardest system to implement because people don’t resist,” said Jim Blackburn, co-director of the severe storm center at Rice University.

Purchases in lieu of insurance payments are one way to get people moving, but Fugate notes that such programs often take too long to start after a storm. By the time such funds are ready, it is “almost impossible” to persuade someone to buy out, he said.

Problems with known solutions

In many cases, officials know what actions are needed to mitigate severe weather disasters, but implementing them is difficult.

For example, the city of Houston commissioned a report documenting how power outages caused by falling trees after Hurricane Ike in 2008. But no one wanted to cut down the trees that were still standing. Today, utility officials note, they install underground electrical lines for every new construction project.

Upgrading the city’s electrical infrastructure could go a long way to preventing power outages, Meyer said, noting that North Carolina did so after Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

“They were really thinking ahead, like, ‘OK, we’re not going to be in this situation again,'” she said.

CenterPoint Energy, which supplies Houston’s power, has installed part of a “smart grid” system that automatically reroutes power to unaffected lines during an outage. A document on the utility’s website noted that 996 of the devices had been installed as of 2019 – less than half of the grid at the time. It is not clear if more progress has been made since then. The company did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

A changing reality

With more storms like Beryl expected under climate change conditions, cities must plan for the worst – and the worst is getting worse.

“It’s about learning to live with water,” Blackburn said.

After Hurricane Harvey – the most intense hurricane to hit the US in more than a decade when it slammed into the Texas coast in August 2017 – Houston passed a $2.5 billion bond measure to fund flood damage reduction projects in Harris County, with its including the city. The action resulted in “a lot of improvements,” Blackburn said, but was based on old flood estimates.

In addition, the Republican task force of Gov. Greg Abbott in 2018 made many recommendations in a nearly 200-page report, including investigating ways to harden utilities and creating an inventory of mitigation and resiliency projects needed across the state.

But with the weather becoming more unpredictable, even cities that make improvements can be unprepared if they don’t plan for the future. The “diabolical” component of climate change, Blackburn said, is that the goalposts keep moving: Just as cities adjust to increased risk, the risk increases again.

Scientists are better equipped than ever to make decisions about evacuations, development and other measures using computer systems that can predict the damage a particular storm will cause, noted Shane Hubbard, a research scientist at the University of Wisconsin.

And yet, he said, all the computing power in the world cannot match the predictability of climate change. The warming oceans are driving fast exacerbating weather events that defy models and rapidly change conditions on land.

“That’s what worries me the most” about the future, Hubbard said.

Complicating things in Texas is that some leaders still don’t acknowledge climate change. The report released by the governor’s task force in 2018 noted that powerful natural disasters will become more frequent in Texas due to climate change. But he made no mention of “climate change,” “global warming” or curbing greenhouse gases in Texas, the nation’s oil-refining heartland that leads the United States in carbon emissions. Texas is a state where politicians, at least publicly, are very skeptical about climate change.

Cities need to be willing to face the scientific facts before their planning can really improve, says Blackburn.

When asked if coastal cities in general are prepared for climate change, Meyer said simply, “No.”

She said that prevention and mitigation measures must evolve to the point where “Category 1 hurricanes will not be a problem in the future”.

Cat 1 shouldn’t affect a city like Houston,” she said.


Walling reported from Chicago. Associated Press/Reporting America writer Nadia Lathan in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report. Walling continued on X: @MelinaWalling.


The Associated Press’ climate and environmental coverage is financially supported by multiple private foundations. AP is responsible for each and every subject. Find AP standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and covered areas of funding at AP.org.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *