Why curbing flooding in Houston area should be a priority

A gauge shows the depth of water at an underpass on Interstate 10 which was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 27, 2017.

HOUSTON – Months after Hurricane Harvey, there are still questions about what regulations need to be in place and the impact to the Houston area's economy.

"We need to really get serious about regulations about flooding and flood related activities," Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storms Center at Rice University, said.

After not only what we have seen, but endured throughout Harris County in recent years, it is undoubtedly clear, the issue of curbing flooding is not only a priority, but pivotal to the area's growth.

From 1990 to 2016, Harris County has surged to become the nation's third largest county with 4.7 million residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, Harris County Appraisal District, as well as historical trends. 

But how will this rapid growth continue moving forward? The unprecedented impact of Harvey now has new construction primarily replaced with reconstruction and while there are calls for new regulations across the county there are also concerns it may impact the growth that has allowed Harris County to grow twice as fast as the nation's population over the last quarter-century and thus making the area one of the most economically robust in the nation.

"Yes, the cost to build in Houston is going to go up. But the investment post Harvey is going to not only be on the private side but the municipal side," City of Houston Chief Resilience Officer Stephen Costello said.

Costello is the, in laymen's terms, the city's flood czar. While he expects construction costs for commercial and residential to rise, it's the construction focused on the city's infrastructure he is more focused on as he says it will help curb urban flooding, However, there are challenges.

"Normally during disaster recovery it's very difficult to get the federal government to fund resiliency components," Costello said.

Blackburn feels that while there may be a short-term investment that taxpayers will have to fund, the measures can have long-term gains… 

"I think done well, a regulatory process that protects everyone's property values may very well help with the economic development as oppose to hurt," he said.

Blackburn is deeply concerned about the one storm that he believes will cripple the economy, the one storm that little can be done to prevent. 

"Particularly with a big storm surge coming in and knocking out the Houston ship channel? If something like that were to happen, and that's a very real possibility. We haven't seen the worst storm in Houston. As bad as Harvey was, it was a rain storm. It was not a surge event. The surge event is the one that will absolutely devastate our region and the economy," Blackburn said.