Ice House

On Learning to Live within a Flood-Prone Prairie

Houston really isn't built in the best place to withstand hurricanes. Or flooding.

By Jeff Balke October 2, 2017 Published in the October 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Image: Shutterstock

Houston will face many difficult questions in the weeks, months and years ahead about how we can mitigate the kind of disaster that accompanied Hurricane Harvey. Unfortunately, though, some things are here to stay, and all we can do is learn to live with them:

The City’s Elevation

The grade from Houston—which sits at only 40 to 80 feet above sea level—to Galveston Bay resembles a gently sloping driveway. While our streets do drain rather quickly after a flood, our lack of elevation can exacerbate problems when it comes to storms like Harvey. Short of lifting the entire city about 100 feet or the sudden appearance of mountains along the North Loop, we simply have to accept the slow and steady crawl of rainwater runoff into the bayous and, ultimately, out to sea.

Area Climatology

Folks who’ve never been to Houston often think of Texas as a giant dusty expanse, like something out of a Spaghetti Western. Far from Dry Gulch, the city is closer to rainforest than desert. We don’t normally get an entire year’s worth of rainfall in one weekend, but the reality is, we’re a lot more like Seattle than Phoenix, whether it’s hurricane season or not.

Our Rivers, Streams and Bayous

Another feature of much of southeast Texas is densely packed watersheds—from small creeks to good sized rivers—which crisscross the region and dump their contents into one another or the Gulf of Mexico. All the waterways running through Houston and surrounding communities not only pose the threat of major flooding, but also make us vulnerable to rainfall in other parts of the state, nearly to the same degree as our own weather patterns.

Existing Subsidence

Nothing can be done about the fact that Meyerland and other nearby neighborhoods have sunk significantly in just over a decade, largely thanks to the city pumping out groundwater for drinking. Other areas—whether they’ve sunk as a result of development or due to natural settling of the ground—may have to be abandoned altogether.

Proximity to the Gulf of Mexico

Our location near the Gulf has its advantages. Intense weather isn’t one of them. Humid sea breezes foster lush plant life and youthful complexions, but they’re also a reminder of the tropical storms and hurricanes that can be incubated in the Gulf’s warm waters. Each summer, amid the joy of living near the beach, we always keep one wary eye on the tropics.

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