Terrified by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina just weeks earlier, Houstonians fled in the days leading up to 2005’s Hurricane Rita, a storm with 175 mph winds packing a seemingly worst case scenario for the Texas coast. Rita inevitably exposed the unpreparedness of local, county, and state officials in its wake. Gridlock caused by an estimated 2.5 to 3.7 million people fleeing the Texas coast snarled traffic, with conditions lasting 18 to 24 hours for some evacuees. With no contraflow lanes prepared or plans for gas shortages — compounded with a heatwave across much of the area — Houston became a horrifying example of what can go wrong in an evacuation, with dozens dying before Rita even made landfall.
In Texas, our evacuations are largely due to impending tropical cyclones, and Texas doesn’t fare well when it comes to those, ranking second for the number of hurricane impacts by state. From the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, which remains the deadliest hurricane disaster in U.S. history, to 2008’s Ike, we’ve had major storms. The question is, will we be ready for the next “big one?”
From a complex floodgate system dubbed the coastal spine to the “mid-bay” gate, the proposals to protect the Houston area, its surrounding coastal communities, and industrial hub are numerous, but have they gotten past the early stages?
No. There’s only one question to ask: What are we waiting for? Houston gets hit by a major storm every 15 years on average, meaning the next catastrophic hurricane could barrel towards the coast within the next few years.
"We’re all at risk, and we’re seriously at risk,” Craig Beskid, the executive director of the East Harris County Manufacturers Association, said, adding, “Not only are the people here in this region at risk, but significant statewide economic assets and national assets are also at risk.”
The economic repercussions of a catastrophic storm hitting where Ike was forecast to landfall would be astronomical, in part because the 10 oil refineries that line the Ship Channel are vital to U.S. production.
It's time for elected officials to stop putting off preparation. Just because a storm is deemed a 100-year event or 500-year event doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen next year; just in the past two years, San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston saw severe weather composed of widespread, disruptive flooding and massive hail. The Houston area alone saw two 100-year rain storms within a week of each other. Having a complex and meticulous plan for scenarios like these aren’t a luxury — they’re a necessity.
Texas officials have prepared better since Rita: we have sophisticated communications systems, more accurate forecasting, Mobile Satellite Units, a web-based emergency operations center, and better evacuation procedures. However, in terms of flood protection, not enough has been done. “Here we are — what is this, eight years after Ike? — and nothing’s changed,” said Annise Parker, the former mayor of Houston. Though a group of Texas leaders sent President Trump a letter asking for $15 billion for Texas A&M-Galveston scientists’ coastal spine, nothing further has been done; even if that project gets off the ground stage, it could be years before it actually begins construction, and Houston doesn’t have that time. With so many proposals for Houston’s protection, it’s time for at least one to be put into place.
It will take a team of scientists, emergency officials, city planners, politicians, and Texas residents to execute appropriate plans to protect America’s fourth largest city. Texans must pressure their state leaders, and state leaders must press the federal government, as the ball doesn’t get rolling by itself. Call a state representative, a Congressman, the Houston mayor’s office: make it an issue and help build a safer future for the millions who call the Houston region home.
Liam Verses is a Plan II and environmental engineering freshman.