Hard to believe, but hurricane season only ended on November 30, and what a season it was—2020 tied 2005 for the most storms in a single season (28) and had 12 major named hurricanes, which has happened only three times before in history.
After a few close calls here in Houston, and one direct hit to our coastline from Beta, on September 21, Houston’s beloved hype-free forecasters, Eric Berger and Matt Lanza of Space City Weather, caught many people’s attention while pointing out how that otherwise moderate storm brought Clear Creek to its knees. Three years out from Harvey, they warned us, we have not done nearly enough to deal with our flooding issues and then some—and yes, says Lanza, “We know that you’re completely traumatized by what’s happened over recent years. We get that.”
With a new year here, and, gulp, another hurricane season on the horizon, Houstonia sat down to get their thoughts on what Houstonians can do to prepare for our future battles against inclement weather.
Was the overall 2020 hurricane season more intense, or were we just more anxious than usual?
Eric Berger: It was an endless barrage of storms.
Matt Lanza: It just didn’t stop. We had very few breaks in anything. Still, a lot of those storms were—I don’t want to say wimpy—but moderate.
All of this was driven by a number of things—we’re in La Niña. You have an Atlantic ocean basin from the Gulf to the Caribbean to the ocean itself that has just been scorching warm. Water temperatures were through the roof for most of the season. Delta went over some of the warmest water on the planet.
Why should Houstonians not get too comfortable even though we didn’t get “the big one” this season?
EB: We should care because we are a community that’s incredibly vulnerable to inland flooding, which we experienced during 2001’s Tropical Storm Allison, and 2017’s Hurricane Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda, on the east side of town. That’s a super-high-risk area, not just from the tropics. We should care about storm surge.
After Hurricane Ike, 12 years later, we haven’t built any serious protection to mitigate from a storm like that. We should absolutely care about a wind storm. We missed a true disaster with Laura. Putting 100 mph winds into Houston would be something that hasn’t happened in 50 years in this region. Just because your house didn’t get blown down or flooded this year, great, but we haven’t taken steps as a community to protect it or limit from damage future storms can do.
So what are the steps we need to take, and how far have we come post-Harvey, anyway?
EB: We haven’t come very far since Harvey. There’s been some local projects, but we haven’t seen a concerted, widespread effort to dig another reservoir or really change up development patterns. If you’re going to put all this impervious concrete down, you need to have these really large retention ponds to mitigate against that. I’m just not seeing any evidence that we’ve changed that at all, and the problem keeps getting worse every year. So in terms of flooding, we’ve taken some small steps, but not the big steps that are needed.
In terms of storm surge, we haven’t done anything. We need to be seriously looking at an Ike Dike or a coastal barrier of some kind to protect both homes on Galveston Island and in Galveston Bay—the energy infrastructure along the ship channel. That is incredibly vulnerable and there hasn’t been anything done to really address that.
And, finally, winds—that’s a serious issue that needs to be addressed through building codes.
What are your thoughts on those proposed coastal barriers, the Ike Dike and the Galveston Bay Park plan?
ML: It’s interesting that there’ve been all of these proposals. It’s been all these years since Ike, though, and we’re just now starting to say okay, let’s kind of build it. It’s baffling to me that we haven’t made more progress on that. From everything I’ve read about all the projects, it sounds like the Galveston Bay Park idea has a little more of a “give back to the community” aspect than the Army Corps plan on the coast. I feel like it’s more comprehensive as well.
There was more thought put into it—the idea of having a park plan where you make it not just a functional thing for storm surge protection, but make it a community resource that people can use on normal days. It’s going to come with an exceptionally high price tag, no matter what plan you go with, so you might as well get something out of it, besides just protection.
Does it have to come down to Houstonians raising more of a stink to get a barrier or other flood mitigation projects underway?
EB: Ultimately, I think the impetus for the Ike Dike could come from the business community. I’d really like to see the Greater Houston Partnership, or someone like that, take this up seriously.
ML: There’s not as much interplay between the different jurisdictions, cities, counties, the state, and the federal government, that I think should probably be there. You can’t solve a flooding problem in Houston without addressing the issues in Fort Bend County or Montgomery County. It would almost make sense to me to have a regional flooding authority for the whole area that can undertake all of this stuff. Of course, that’s all politics.
EB: I’m hopeful, because for a long time the only public official who was supportive of this issue was George P. Bush, a statewide official. It needs to be someone like that who can get local and state officials talking and working together. If someone can get them all talking, maybe we can finally get some traction. But yeah, let’s get on with it. Let’s decide if we want to build this system of parks in Galveston Bay, if that’s going to be enough, or if we need some other added infrastructure, but let’s do something. Let’s move it. Let’s get going.
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.