For residents of Texas and Florida, the devastation wrought by hurricanes Harvey and Irma have thrust those states’ respective infrastructure challenges into the spotlight, raising questions about how cities and states can prepare for the next extreme weather event.
In Texas, many areas of the state were inundated with more than 40 inches of water during hurricane Harvey, resulting in devastating floods and leading to the displacement of more than 30,000 people. Metropolitan Houston suffered some of the greatest damage, but other municipalities also faced serious challenges: for example, in the city of Beaumont (population more than 100,000) the municipal water system failed completely, leaving people without running water for days.
By September 5th, 45 municipal water systems were shut down across southeast Texas and another 171 areas were under boil water advisories. In Florida, besides extensive flooding and wind damage, more than six million people were left without power in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
While the immediate concern for authorities and citizens is repairing the damage done by these storms, a bigger question looms moving forward: how can cities protect themselves against the kind of infrastructure failures – and resulting humanitarian disasters - that often accompany extreme weather events?
Satellite photo of Hurricane Harvey. Source: net.au
Phil Bedient, a professor of environmental engineering with Rice University, told the Associated Press that cities in Texas face unique challenges when it comes to mitigating damage from tropical storms and hurricanes.
“Houston is the most flood-prone city in the United States. No one is even a close second,” said Bedient.
Despite Houston being at high risk of major flooding, the city’s system for dealing with floodwater can only handle an influx of around a foot of water every 24 hours, a design limitation that renders the system ineffective in the face of a major storm such as Harvey. This system will need to be upgraded and revamped if it will be expected to handle a future storm.
Houston also maintains two reservoirs exclusively for flood control. One of these, the Addicks Reservoir, overflowed for the first time in history during hurricane Harvey. Fortunately, the water plant that services 2.2 million people in the Houston area never failed, despite coming close.
It’s long been known that Houston is in need of major investments just to upgrade sewage systems to prevent overflows during major storms; some estimates say that the needed improvements would cost $5 billion. The problem is that, even with federal and state contributions, the improvements would almost certainly lead to increases in residents’ water and sewer bills, which have already increased by 9.5% since 2013.
In Florida, more than six million people were without power in the days after hurricane Irma made landfall. Cellphone service was unavailable in many areas of the state. Five Florida counties remained under boil water advisories on September 11th.
State-wide, the impact of Irma was massive. After the hurricane made landfall in the Florida Keys on September 10, water levels in Naples rose by seven feet in 90 minutes. Downtown Miami flooded, turning major roadways into white-capped rivers, while high winds caused at least two construction cranes to collapse. The cities of Jacksonville, Fla. and Charleston, South Carolina also saw their downtown areas swallowed up by water.
Two nuclear power plants on Florida’s Atlantic Coast were shut down in advance of Irma’s arrival to mitigate any potential damage that could occur if the plants were in normal operating mode when the hurricane struck.
Despite the significant infrastructure damage caused by Irma, many had expected the damage to be much worse. In preparation for the next storm of Irma’s magnitude, cities in Florida should consider how best to invest infrastructure funds to strengthen the resiliency of municipal drinking water systems, bolster the power grid, and increase the capacity of storm water removal systems.
What Comes Next
Addressing contaminated water supplies, damaged electricity grids, flooded neighborhoods, washed-out roads, and affected industrial sites will form the bulk of the challenges facing local, state and federal authorities in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma. In addition to urgent repairs, plans will need to be made to ensure the long-term stability of water and sewage systems, power distribution networks, and industrial sites that are at risk from hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters.
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma tested the resiliency of Texans, Floridians and many other Americans; people rose to the challenge by helping their neighbors in any way they could. The displays of generosity, courage and kindness in the wake of such devastation are the silver linings to these terrible events and they also remind us that, in tough times, people are often at their best.
Nathan Munn | BidNet.com