Rice University experts available to discuss current flooding in Houston


Jeff Falk

Jade Boyd

Rice University experts available to discuss current flooding in Houston

HOUSTON – (Sept. 19, 2019) – As the Bayou City once again is saturated by heavy rain, Rice University flooding experts Phil Bedient and Jim Blackburn are available to discuss the inundation taking place in the city.

SSPEED Center's Phil Bedient and Jim Blackburn

SSPEED Center Director Phil Bedient (left) and Co-director Jim Blackburn (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

Bedient, Rice’s Herman Brown Professor of Engineering, director of the Severe Storms Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center and designer of the Rice University and Texas Medical Center Flood Alert System (FAS4) can discuss flooding issues that arise from tropical depressions, hurricanes and other severe storms. In his 2012 book, “Lessons from Hurricane Ike,” Bedient and more than 20 other researchers gave a 194-page account of what they learned from studying the 2008 storm that caused nearly $25 billion in damages and killed dozens. Bedient has studied Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented flooding and massive 2015 and 2016 floods in Houston and Louisiana. He can speak to the effects of urban-development practices on these and other floods. Bedient was Rice’s most-cited Harvey expert in 2017.

“The tropical depression Imelda created a huge rainfall event for the Houston area and for the upper Texas coast,” Bedient said. “This was a fast-moving storm over a couple days and began with large rainfalls over Galveston and the northeast side near Kingwood, and ended up backing up over Houston today and creating a massive flooding and traffic issue.

“After the three major floods we have had since 2015, I was surprised that specific flood warnings have yet to be customized for individual watershed areas to help warn about where bayous and streets will undergo major inundation,” Bedient continued. “This technology needs to be quickly implemented in Houston as we wait for longer-term solutions to be implemented. Many freeways and major roadways became impassable this afternoon in Houston, and there needs to better warnings about specific areas to avoid. I am sure hundreds of cars were flooded during the event, not to mention some house flooding.

“The storm appeared to be heading off to the north and east this overnight, and then backed up over Houston, and impacted the north and east side the greatest,” Bedient said. “The daily rainfalls ranged from about 5 to 7 inches up to almost 12 inches in northeast areas with almost 4 inches an hour in a few locations. These rates always put a number of bayous at risk of overtopping and set up for massive traffic woes on major streets and freeways. These rainfall amounts exceeding 2 inches an hour quickly overwhelm pipe systems in Houston and then streets begin to flood immediately.

“These large events are getting more frequent and more intense and we need to all learn that to live in the Gulf Coast region means learning to live with intense rainfall and flood events,” Bedient concluded. “Efforts underway by federal, state and local agencies post-Harvey must be implemented as soon as possible to help mitigate these types of floods.”

Blackburn is co-director of Rice’s SSPEED Center, director of Rice’s undergraduate minor in energy and water sustainability, a Baker Institute for Public Policy Rice Faculty Scholar and a professor in the practice of environmental law in Rice’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He can speak about the impact that widespread property development has had on storm and flood risks. Blackburn also can address the environmental and economic sustainability of regional hurricane protection proposals, including structural options for dikes, levees and gates in and around Galveston Bay and nonstructural alternatives that aim to use coastal wetlands and prairies as natural storm barriers. Blackburn founded Bayou City Initiative, which aims to provide a central location for civic organizations and nongovernmental organizations to come together to promote flood literacy in Houston, both among the general public and elected officials.

“The flooding we have experienced today (Sept. 19) exemplifies our changing rainfall patterns,” Blackburn said. “Once again, we have a tropical system that seemingly stalled and dumped massive amounts of rain in a short amount of time. This storm — and the ones before it — requires that we, as a community, make the changes necessary to ‘live with water.’

“Three important observations emerge from this storm,” Blackburn continued. “First, the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration must prioritize addressing the inability of our major interstate freeway system to operate during severe storm events. Today, several major freeways were impassable in multiple locations. We are going to continue to have these large rain events. They are the new norm. We must upgrade our transportation system to function in high water.

“Second, Harris County, the City of Houston, the state of Texas and the federal government should immediately proceed to seek to buy out residents who have, once again, flooded,” Blackburn said. “Buyouts are our most effective flood damage reduction tool. The time to offer buyouts is when people need them most, and people need buyouts most immediately after they have been flooded. It does not help to offer buyouts two years after the flood; the time for buyouts is now.

“And third, we must use Imelda, Harvey, Allison, Tax Day, Memorial Day, Halloween and every other of these large storm events as important information about the future,” Blackburn concluded. “We are seeing larger, more severe storms more frequently than in the past. Our climate is changing. We need to acknowledge this fact, understand its meaning and use this knowledge to predict the problems of the future. We are not going to solve our problems by simply thinking like we have been thinking. We need to break our frames of thinking to succeed in the future.”

Rice has a VideoLink ReadyCam TV interview studio. ReadyCam is capable of transmitting broadcast-quality standard-definition and high-definition video directly to all news media organizations around the world 24/7.

For more information or to schedule an interview with one of Rice’s experts, contact Jeff Falk, associate director of national media relations, at 713-348-6775 or jfalk@rice.edu.


This news release can be found online at news.rice.edu.

Follow Rice News and Media Relations on Twitter @RiceUNews.

Related materials:

Bedient bio: www.bedient.rice.edu

Blackburn bio: www.bakerinstitute.org/experts/jim-blackburn

Photo link: https://news.rice.edu/files/2016/04/0418_SSPEED-pbjb-lg-10z5n7g.jpg

Photo credit: Rice University/Jeff Fitlow

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About Amy McCaig

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