Posted by Matt Lanza at 10:00 AM
On Tuesday evening, just as the Astros took the field for game one in Los Angeles, I had the pleasure of attending a Baker Institute event at Rice University featuring Dr. Jim Blackburn. “Beyond Hurricane Harvey” was a discussion and Q&A with Blackburn, who is the co-director of the Severe Storms Prevention, Education, and Evacuation from Disaster (SSPEED) Center at Rice. During Tuesday’s event, Blackburn basically laid out his vision for how we need to discuss and tackle Houston’s flooding problem from this point forward. Many of these ideas were incorporated by Harris County Judge Ed Emmett in the plan that he unveiled on Wednesday. Nevertheless, here is a summary and some of my takeaways from Tuesday’s event.
As a quick note, Blackburn has published two papers in the wake of Harvey. Much of what he covered Tuesday night is covered in these papers too. The first addresses initial policy ideas after Harvey. The second describes the public/private non-profit entity described below. Both are very informative and useful reads, and I would encourage our readers to get involved in this. As I said in my own Harvey post-mortem: It is now time for a new generation of Houstonians to work out new solutions to this complex problem.
Turning point: Blackburn opened by calling Harvey a turning point in Houston’s history. This is basically our moment to get this right. We all know we live in a city that is prone to flooding. We can never stop that from happening, but we can manage it in ways that will reduce the financial and human toll that has accompanied recent flooding events. Houston has an opportunity now to become the world leaders at weather and climate resiliency. While showing a chart of hurricane tracks impacting the Texas coast, Blackburn related the story of Indianola and Galveston. Indianola was wiped out by a hurricane in 1886, and we know the story of Galveston after 1900. Blackburn believes that Houston’s future as a leading American and global city may hinge on what we are able to accomplish over the next several months. If we bungle the response to this disaster, we could be looking at a steady economic decline in our region.
Blackburn referred to this situation as a new “Jesse Jones moment” for Houston. Speed couldn’t be emphasized enough. We need to get these solutions moving now, while the wounds from Harvey (and previous events) are still fresh and raw. The longer we wait, the less likely we’ll accomplish meaningful action. Amusingly, Blackburn shared the “Off the Charts” report published by Harris County Flood Control after Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.
Here we are again. We need a vision, a plan (we seem to have those moving forward), and now we need to mobilize the public and persuade our elected leaders to take action immediately. Blackburn was asked whether Houston’s infamous lack of zoning contributed to the problems from Harvey. He made the point that it was not a major cause, but what is a problem is the typical, almost “closed door” nature of Harris County government. Lots of items get addressed really quickly without much discussion at various county meetings. The population of this area is also somewhat agnostic toward government participation. We’re not engaged enough. For problems as big as this, everyone needs to be firing on all cylinders, taking politicians to task, asking questions, demanding transparency. It’s easy to be cynical, but in this situation, it’s important not to be. Read More…