Houston at high risk for major damage from hurricanes

After a decade of study, little has been done to improve resiliency.

April 06, 2016 |
Houston at high risk for major damage from hurricanes

Aftermath of Hurricane Ike in Galveston, Texas, in 2008. Photo: Galveston.com/Creative Commons.

Metropolitan Houston is highly vulnerable to severely damaging floods from hurricanes, and state and local governments have done little to make the area more resilient.

An analysis of the FEMA 500-year storm model by the Institute for Regional Forecasting at the University of Houston shows that 52 facilities including refineries and chemical plants located on the Houston Ship Channel would flood by as much as 16 feet of water. This event alone would take a major toll on the nation’s economy.

Scientists have argued for the construction of a “coastal spine” that would extend Galveston’s century-­old, 17-foot seawall down the entire length of the island and along the peninsula to its north. It also would install floodgates at the entrance to Galveston Bay to block a storm surge from entering. The proposal has a price tag of at least $8 billion, could take several years, if not decades, to build.

Houston’s refineries and chemical plants have taken measures to protect themselves by constructing floodwalls and relocating and elevating certain buildings and infrastructure, but the moves would not provide adequate protection from worst-case storms. Some communities in the area have also strengthened their building codes by mandating that new homes be elevated as much as 2 feet higher than the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood insurance standards. Nevertheless, Houston is considered woefully underprepared for a direct hit from a storm of historic proportions.

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