Paper: On flooding, Houston needs an ‘informed, flood-literate and engaged populace’

If many of the flooding-related problems in Houston and Harris County are to be fixed, the region needs “to have an informed, flood-literate and engaged populace,” according to a paper by an environmental expert at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Credit: University

The paper, “Living With Houston Flooding,” was authored by lawyer Jim Blackburn, professor in the practice of environmental law at Rice, Baker Institute Rice Faculty Scholar and co-director of Rice’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center. It is a joint publication of the Baker Institute and Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

“Many consider Houston a world-class city, but we do a poor job of publicly discussing our weaknesses, such as flooding,” Blackburn wrote. “To be truly world-class is to admit and then address weaknesses and to treat all citizens as equals, i.e., as partners with the government. Unequal information is a form of discrimination that is simply unacceptable. Honesty and transparency will pave the road to progress.”

Blackburn said his paper is intended to address that deficiency by informing new and old Houstonians about flooding in Houston. “The Houston region is a wonderful place, an ecological jewel set in a flat Texas coastal plain that also receives a lot of rain,” Blackburn wrote. “A key to surviving and thriving in Houston is understanding these flood-related risks and learning to live with them.”

The 32-page paper provides an overview and discussion of the region’s rivers, bayous and creeks; flood plain maps; rainfall and severe storms; hurricanes and storm surge; the Addicks and Barker reservoirs; and roadways. It also discusses buying real estate in the region, governmental involvement in flooding-related activities and a vision for the future.

“Here on the Texas coast, we get intense rainfall events that cause flooding along our bayous, rivers, creeks and roadways, and occasionally we get hurricanes with surge, which is water that is pushed ashore by the storm’s rotating winds and forward movement,” Blackburn wrote. “Both events are important, but of the two, surge tends to be the deadlier due to the presence of wind-driven waves on top of the surge water that together are very destructive. Either storm event, however, can affect the security of your property, your family and yourself.”

Blackburn’s paper is intended to spread the word about these risks and how to live with them, but it is not about fixing them, he said. “However, the chance of obtaining an effective fix is enhanced by a good understanding by our citizens, as well as a populace that demands better solutions from our elected officials,” he wrote. “Our guide to surviving Houston flooding is offered in the spirit of community — of helping each other. It is a spirit that is one of our best qualities and was most recently displayed in the outpouring of assistance during Hurricane Harvey. Just as some arrived with boats and kayaks, others arrive with words and maps.”

In closing, Blackburn stressed the importance of transparency. “Nothing is more important going forward than transparency in our flood control efforts and thinking,” he wrote. “For decades, much of the county’s and city’s policy deliberations have been behind closed doors, out of the view of the citizens. This must change if we are to get on top of these issues.”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.