Skip to main content

Measuring Houston's Resiliency Three Years After Harvey

Published Sep 08, 2020 by Maggie Martin

Hurricane Harvey

A view of the Houston skyline from Buffalo Bayou Park days after Harvey made landfall. Credit: Maggie Martin

Southeast Texas and Louisiana continue to recover from Hurricane Laura weeks after it made landfall. The Category 4 storm swept in on the heels of the three-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. Business and civic leaders have been working to create a more resilient infrastructure for the Houston region since the 2017 storm. 

Several sources of federal and state funding are fueling those efforts, including the Harris County Flood Control District's $2.5 billion bond program. Approved by Houston voters August 25, 2018 - a year after Harvey made landfall in Texas - the program finances flood damage reduction projects, including more than $1.2 billion in channel conveyance improvements, $400 million for building stormwater detention basins, and $1.25 million for improving our flood warning system. See the program's progress tracker here.

Chase Kronzer, Vice President of Public Policy at the Partnership, and Leslie Duke, a President of Burns & McDonnell and General Manager of the firm’s Houston regional office, have been working on flood resiliency efforts in the region on behalf of the Partnership. Duke currently serves as the chair of the Partnership's Infrastructure and Resiliency Committee, which addresses the long-term infrastructure and resiliency needs of the greater Houston region.

We asked them about the progress Houston has made so far, and where the region still has a ways to go. 

Leslie, what project's did your firm support that helped prepare Houston for Hurricane Harvey in 2017?  

Duke: Burns & McDonnell completed a crucial resiliency project for Thermal Energy Corp. (TECO). TECO developed a major district energy master plan for the Texas Medical Center in Houston, the largest medical center in the world. Those plans included a 48-megawatt combined heat and power plant and extensive steam and chilled water capacity to maintain cooling and heating, even while operating off the grid. When Hurricane Harvey rose around TECO, the infrastructure hardening built into the project protected critical systems serving that vital medical campus.

What does resiliency look like for the Houston region after Harvey? 

Kronzer: Resiliency for the Houston region, in terms of flood mitigation, means showing progress – showing that we are addressing the challenges. Given the time it takes to implement these large projects, and the relative impact that they have, Houston/Harris County/the region has to show that it is making every attempt to improve the lives of its residences so that they are not significantly disrupted by a 100-year storm. There is no providing 100 percent protection from a Hurricane Harvey or other significant storm of similar magnitude, but steps can and are being taken to ensure the region is not disrupted by occurrences of major rains.

This will take time. This will take community engagement and cooperation. This will take an adaption in mentality – a resilient mentality, that understands the challenges associated with addressing flood mitigation. This will take decades of financial, time, intellectual, and emotional investment.

Duke: We continue to experience extreme weather situations as well as other business disruptors — such as the COVID-19 virus — across the U.S. with impacts on our critical infrastructure systems, resulting in an urgency to repair or upgrade systems for power, water, airports, roads, bridges and more. It’s critical our systems can withstand business disruptors as well as the next hurricane, tornado or flood to protect our communities from mother nature’s impact. 

What are ways Houston can improve on its resilience?

Duke: One approach to boost resilience to hurricanes is grid hardening. These proactive measures are intended to minimize the number of residents who lose power, especially when electricity may be the difference between life and death to populations vulnerable to extreme heat. To strengthen electric utility infrastructure to withstand extreme weather conditions, utilities are promoting the overhead hardening of electrical transmission and distribution facilities, the undergrounding of certain electrical distribution lines and vegetation management.

Additionally, the key is to keep accidents from becoming disasters with a rapid response to stop the incident and mitigate the damage. To do that, information must be accessible, current and complete, so responders can make efficient decisions and gain control of the situation. Burns & McDonnell provides a resource that does this called the Emergency Preparedness and Response Tool (EPRT). It integrates an electronic bulletin board, our own OneTouchPM® geospatial dashboard and a mobile application, enabling efficient, real-time and secure distribution and sharing of key information to all stakeholders.

How has COVID-19 impacted how the Partnership thinks about resiliency for the region?  

Kronzer: Given the long-term nature of “becoming resilient,” I don’t know that COVID-19 has impacted how we thing about resiliency in terms of flood mitigation. In terms of the broader definition of resilient, I think it has us thinking about connectivity and access. Can a region be truly resilient if it’s residents don’t have access to the resources they need in a virtual world? How do we ensure there maintains sufficient access to health care, education, food, and other necessary resources, especially in under-served communities? How can we ensure people stay connected in a personally disconnected world?

One of the biggest challenges faced during a disaster is logistics – making sure resources can get to where they are needed. COVID-19 has reshaped how we think about logistics, but that hasn’t been tested with an accompanying disaster. Can we get resources to people if the region loses power or if street are inaccessible? These are challenges we will need to continue to address.

The next Texas legislative session begins January 2021. What flood resilience issues are a priority for the Houston region?  

Kronzer: For flood mitigation, there won’t be lot of room this session to seek additional funding. We will need to ensure that there are no attempts to siphon away any of the funding put into place last session. We will need to reassure the legislature that these efforts were worth the investment and are worth future investments in future sessions. We need to be able to show some successes and that the process is working.

In terms of setting the region up for additional large-scale projects, legislators this session will need to think about the actions that need to go into place that would allow for the construction of the coastal barrier when federal authorizations and funding become available. This might include identifying who a local sponsor for such a project would be and a mechanism by which a local funding match would be provided.

Learn more about the Partnership's public policy priorities, including resiliency