New research will focus on how flooding threat is affecting life in Houston

A new research project from a Rice University anthropologist will focus on understanding how the threat of flooding is affecting life in Houston.

flood damage from Harvey

Flooding during Hurricane Harvey. (Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Daniel J. Martinez)

“Recovery, Relocation and Alluvial Awareness in Post-Hurricane Houston,” a yearlong project funded by the National Science Foundation, will assess how Houstonians in areas that were inundated more than once in the past three years are taking flooding into account as they make life decisions, including whether to stay or move. The project will also assess how the increasing awareness that flooding is a part of life is affecting people’s attachments to communities and homes.

This research project will unfold alongside the increasing debate over what to do about the flood-prone areas in Houston, said Dominic Boyer, the study’s lead author, a professor of anthropology in Rice’s School of Social Sciences and director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences at Rice (CENHS).

“Understandably, there is a lot of discussion on this topic, ranging from debates about redrawing the flood plain maps, buyouts and/or making flood-prone areas green spaces in order to reduce risk for downstream communities,” he said. “What we are trying to do is to better understand people’s emotional attachments to these flood-prone areas, information we believe will be helpful as civic and government leaders figure out a long-term plan for the city.”

The project will focus on Greenspoint and Meyerland, two areas of Houston that Boyer said were among those inundated multiple times. Researchers will go out in the field and speak with people, taking time to get to know particular families and better understand how flooding has affected their lives and how it will impact their future decisions. Boyer said they hope to reach a minimum of 50 families for detailed interviews, and will contact more with their survey instrument.

“We’re most interested to know how they’re coming to terms with loss and thinking about the future,” he said.

Boyer added that these areas have very different demographics, which is why they were chosen after significant background research.

“Greenspoint is comprised of more renters, is very diverse and socio-economically less advantaged than Meyerland, which is a very established, more homogenous neighborhood with more single-family homes,” Boyer said. “These two areas are good examples of the diversity in Houston.”

“We know that this work will likely reveal many different mindsets,” he said. “We expect that some people with insurance are just shrugging it off and plan to rebuild, whereas other people are very nervous and feeling not just like they should leave their neighborhood, but Houston as well.”

Boyer said that his research is part of a broader project, the Precinct 1 Climate Adaptation Plan, that Rice is developing with the Harris County Commissioners Office. He noted that CENHS is the overseeing entity of the project, which will include regular assessments and planning at the precinct level. Houston’s 1st Precinct has approximately 1.1 million people, is the most densely populated area of the city and includes Greenspoint and areas that neighbor Meyerland.

Ultimately, Boyer said, this project is about more than just statistics.

“It is about people and their personal histories and complex ways of thinking about problems,” he said. “We hope that the personal narratives that emerge will help the city’s decision-makers take into account the voices and concerns of people affected by flooding as the city moves forward in the design and relocation process.”

More information about the grant is available online at

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.