Predicting if your neighborhood will flood before rain falls

FORT WORTH, Texas – A crystal ball would be one way to predict bayou and stream flooding many hours or even days before the first rain drops fall.

It is the goal of a team of weather experts working at the National Weather Service’s West Gulf River Forecast Center near Dallas.

"We want people to be able to get an idea of how fast the bayou is going to rise and what they need to do before it ever starts raining. That is the goal," said Greg Waller, who heads up the office. "We want to provide information so people can make the best decision to save life and property."

The National Weather Service has already started using high tech computers with enormous computing power and high resolution radar as part of the system, but it won’t be ready to be used reliably for at least five years.

"We really have to fine tune the meteorology," he said.

Already the people in Waller’s office are adjusting computer predictions based on storms since June. Lately, a lack of rainfall has made adjusting the system difficult.

Its possibilities could change the way Houston prepares for and deals with the threat of flooding.

"Our goal would be that at seven days out we are telling you we are seeing the makings of an event," he said. "Five days out, the predictions would begin to be more reliable."

"By three days and then at 24 hours before rain, we’d be able to predict how high flood levels will reach and we will be very specific in locations. We hope to be able to tell people the flood waters could affect your child’s school or your work," he said. "First responders will know what areas of town will be cut off from other areas."

Currently the National Weather Service predicts flooding for only a small number of streams that include White Oak Bayou and Buffalo Bayou. That will increase dramatically.

"The goal is to go from 4,000 points across the nation to 2.7 million forecast locations. In the state of Texas, we’re talking about going from 300-400 points to the tens of thousands," he said. "We will be doing it upstream from Buffalo Bayou, upstream from Cypress Creek, Panther Branch and all the way down into the Clear Creek, Dickinson Bayou and Brays Bayou."

"There’s going to be lead time. We’re not going to wait until the rain starts falling. We’re hoping to give you lead time so you can make better decisions," he said.

Stacey Brookner, whose Meyerland home was flooded during the Memorial Day flood in 2015 and during the Tax Day flood in April, says hours or days of warning would have allowed her to save furniture and her family’s other valuable belongings.

"It would give us an opportunity to get out," she said. "This is the first I’ve heard of it. It makes sense."

During the Memorial Day flood in 2015 she and her daughter has to be rescued by firefighters when floodwaters left them with only inches of dry space on their dining room table.

"When the refrigerator floated and tipped over, we knew we were in trouble," she said.

Some are skeptical of the technology involved in predicting floods days out.

"That’s a tall order," said Rice University engineering professor Phil Bedient, who has studied floods in Harris County. "We’re having a tough time predicting those six hours out."

Bedient has created another type of flood predictor that uses data from water falling upstream to predict when it will flood downstream and how high.

That system works along Brays Bayou and in the Medical Center. It is not metro-wide and works only hours before water arrives downstream.

"We don’t predict the weather. We simply monitor the radar coming across a watershed," he said.

When it comes to the new system being developed up north, Waller says each storm will help the tweak their computer models until they reach a point where the computers accurately predict flooding.

"The technology is allowing us to make significant strides that frankly I didn’t think was possible," he said.

If you have a tip for investigative reporter Jace Larson, email him at jlarson@kprc.com or text him at 832-493-3951.