Thoughts on the Deluge and the Future of Harris County

Harris County is now a large lake
Harris County transportation map for Sunday, August 27. Each water droplet represents impassable high water for regular motor vehicles. The entire county has become a lake.

How to help hurricane victims: 12, 3, 4.

It’s surreal now, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey–though the record-breaking inundation is not yet over–to think that Friday, August 25 was a regular workday for the city of Houston.  Days before, I asked my patients if they were ready, if they were staying or evacuating.  All were staying upon official advice from the mayor*, weren’t particularly concerned, and seemed ready to ride out the storm.

As you’ve read and heard about on the news, and as you’ve seen in photos of the area, millions of people have been adversely affected by Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey, including many friends and colleagues whose homes and vehicles flooded.  A few people we know lost everything, were evacuated by the Coast Guard.  I worry about my patients.  I hope they’re safe.  I’m thankful that my parents, my brother, and my parents’ house survived the storm without difficulty.

Late last week, my girlfriend and I scrambled to stock up on food and water.  I’m glad that we were sufficiently neurotic to buy enough for a cataclysm, which is precisely what came to pass.  At the grocery store last Friday, a young man picking up the only remaining water bottles–Evian brand–in an otherwise empty aisle (the rest of the store was well-stocked, including the soda aisle), said that he’s “going to feel like an idiot buying this expensive water if the storm misses us.”

I stopped at a gas station near home to fill up my car, because that’s what one does during hurricane season here (to be able to evacuate, if needed).  Several pumps were closed.  “Super” was the only quality available.  The pump I chose sputtered erratically for at least five minutes before running out of gas, something I’ve never experienced before.

That night, in an ominous turn, we lost power for several hours even though it was placid outside.  Power returned, miraculously not going out again despite more than forty inches of rainfall in our area, recurrent tornado watches, and bursts of high wind since then.  We’re grateful to have had running water, too.  We don’t have a boat, so we inflated three airbeds in case we need to float out on them.  It rained heavily last night, is raining intermittently today.  We could lose power or running water at any time.  The only reason our location hasn’t flooded, I think, is that rainwater continues to drain down the riparian forest next to us and into a large brackish bayou that empties into the Gulf, an “infinite” reservoir, via large/near connections.**  We’ve been extremely lucky.  Rain might not have affected us directly this time, but if a hurricane hit us at the right spot, and it well could in the future, the storm surge could seriously damage or destroy our home.

When I went for a run two days ago, I saw that the major streets surrounding our neighborhood were partly submerged, with water gurgling up from manhole covers in other areas.  A Ford Mustang parked streetside seemed to have caught fire at some point because it was scorched on the outside and completely burned on the inside.

We haven’t attempted to drive anywhere since Friday.  We, like most other residents of the county–which has become a large lake–are physically isolated for now, unable to drive out to see or help others.  Many important details, such as the numbers of missing/trapped/dead people, are not yet known.  There have been calls for medical personnel both locally and downtown.  Our clinics are trying hard to reopen.  My girlfriend and I–both of us physicians–look forward to helping with relief efforts as soon as the floodwaters recede and we can go to where we’re needed.  We’re heartened by the great efforts of ordinary citizens and rescue teams in badly flooded areas.

Climate change is likely responsible for the alarming intensity of our recent hurricanes and tropical storms, including Harvey.  We also know that the future of Houston, of Harris County, is grim unless flood control officials and local/state politicians stop denying climate change, unless they halt urban development, unless they preserve (and rebuild) native prairies, marshes, and other natural areas that reduce flood risk, and, critically, unless they significantly improve the storm surge mitigation strategies of the petroleum and chemical industry here.  They’ve allowed urban sprawl to take over the county.  They’ve allowed builders to pave undeveloped land that would otherwise absorb rain.  Every hurricane season, there’s a significant risk of a catastrophic oil/chemical spill because the storm surge barriers currently in place in the “chemical engineering” sector of Harris County are inadequate and politicians aren’t doing anything about it.

*Our mayor’s rationale for not evacuating the city is that many people died while stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic when the city was evacuated before Hurricane Rita hit in 2005.  (I had just started medical school at that time.  I helped my parents board up their house.  We drove for many hours just to get from one side of Houston to the other.)  However, since Harvey arrived as a tropical storm, not as a hurricane, we feel that evacuating people in the most flood-prone areas could have saved lives and reduced the need for rescues.

**We don’t have as much developed land near us as many of those who flooded.  I later learned that the wooded swamps and tallgrass prairies nearby hold much more water than hard (concrete) surfaces hold, especially before laminar flow begins.

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