By Michael May
Flooding brought Houston to a near-standstill sending normally tame rivers and bayous surging past their banks, inundating streets and homes, and leaving roads littered with hundreds of abandoned, ruined cars. The devastating floods have killed at least 15 people and left 12 others missing across the state.
The chaotic weather was caused by a prolonged warming of the Pacific Ocean sea surface, which generally results in cooler air coupled with an active southern jet stream and plentiful moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, said Meteorologist Forrest Mitchell at the National Weather Service.
Houston residents are now confronted with a new threat as June 1st marks the start of the Atlantic hurricane season. If a hurricane strikes Houston in the next few weeks the area’s swollen rivers, bayous and reservoirs could be vulnerable to more flooding, officials said. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts a below normal season of six to 11 named storms with at least three of them expected to become hurricanes. However, things could get bad if hurricanes develop and head for Texas before the soil has a chance to dry out from the floods, especially for the city of Houston as additional rainfall caused by hurricanes could prove problematic for the city’s infrastructure.
If a hurricane does come in the next few weeks, Houston could be especially at risk, said Sam Brody, the director of the environmental planning and sustainability research unit at Texas A&M University in College Station. The city is low-lying and has no topography, leaving nowhere for the water to run, he added. Because Houston is paved over, a hurricane’s storm surge or rains could prove problematic.
Preceded by more than a week of heavy rain, a slow-moving storm system dropped tremendous precipitation across much of Texas and Oklahoma during the month of May triggering record-breaking floods. An average of 7.54 inches of rainfall already has fallen over Texas, breaking the previous record of 6.66 inches set in June 2004. Record rainfall wreaked havoc across a swath of the Plains and Midwest, causing flash floods in normally dry riverbeds, spawning tornadoes and forcing at least 2,000 people in Texas from their homes. About 35 trillion gallons of rain fell in Texas in May, enough to cover the entire state with 8 inches of water. The storms caused rivers, streams, and levees to overflow, killed 22 people and damaged more than 4,000 properties.
On May 29th, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster for an additional 24 counties, bringing the total under a state disaster declaration to 70. The move allows state resources to be used for storm response. The following day President Obama declared the flooding in Texas a major disaster, which makes federal funding available to affected individuals in Harris, Hays, and Van Zandt counties. Funding also is available to governments and some nonprofits on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work and repairs in Cooke, Gaines, Grimes, Harris, Hays, Navarro, and Van Zandt counties.
Texas hasn’t experienced a major hurricane in seven years, since the Category 2 Hurricane Ike caused $29.5 billion in damage in 2008. It was the third-costliest hurricane in the United States, falling just behind Katrina and 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. Before that, Tropical Storm Allison flooded Houston with 35 inches of rain in 2001.
Hurricanes produce four major threats: Wind, tornadoes, heavy rain and storm surges. Those last two could hurt Texas the most after the recent week of flooding. Hurricanes have caused costly damages in Texas since 2000, racking more than $23 billion in destroyed properties and buildings. The storms have also been linked to more than 170 deaths.
For guidelines on hurricane preparedness click here.
For more information, contact Michael May at Michael@warwickwickconsultants.net.