Friday night (the 25th of August) a tropical storm hit Texas in the United States of America. 60cm of rain fell overnight (23 inches) with a total of 50 inches expected before the week was out. Whether or not Texas’ drainage system is able to deal with the volume of water that climate change is bringing will be a pertinent question once relief efforts have been fulfilled. Questions surrounding Houston’s water infrastructure are already being asked.
A New York Times opinionista has pointed to climate change as the leading cause for Hurricane Harvey’s wrath whilst accusations of America’s hand in contributing to global warming persist. Simultaneously many face practical considerations - what to do in the aftermath of an infrastructure-crippling hurricane.
The devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey will encourage engineers to lend their minds to climate science studies and funnel this knowledge into solutions for a world facing an increase in natural disasters, many of which involve flooding. The lack of engineering foresight, thus far, has been highlighted in neighboring state Louisiana.
No lessons learned
In New Orleans, Lousiana, critical water infrastructure (pumps and canals) were not prepared for heavy rainfall this hurricane season. This is despite the New Orleans’ levee failures in 2005, during Hurricane Katrina. Those levee shortfalls can be found in case studies comparing them to some of the largest engineering failures of all time - including Chernobyl. Furthermore, the studies pertaining to Katrina clearly highlighted the inadequacies of the civil engineering practices within the United States Army Corps of Engineers.
New Orleans experienced a spate of floods on August 5th of this year, with Louisiana’s governor declaring a state of emergency as a result of the flooding. According to the New Orleans Advocate, repairs and maintenance on pumping stations reduced their efficiency by a third!
To give a little clarity to the problem: the drainage system in New Orleans is designed to deal with one inch of rain in an hour, and a half an inch each hour after the first. With this in mind, and according to the Economist, four out of five turbines were not working at one of the state’s pump stations during the floods, and other pumps, in harder hit areas, were down for maintenance. Elsewhere, staff shortages led to inefficiencies so pumps were not switched on in a timely manner.
The citizens in flood-hit areas of New Orleans have accused the sewerage and water board, (amidst other allegations of incompetence) of uncleaned/cleared catch basins which prevented water from moving to the drainage systems. This latest event has led to a political crisis in New Orleans. Officials, however, have said that old and poorly maintained infrastructure is an America-wide problem.
Thankfully New Orleans seems to have escaped the worst of Hurricane Harvey, avoiding the full brunt of the catastrophe 12 years after Hurricane Katrina.
The rising waters in Houston have resulted in a double-explosion at a chemical plant and, at the time of publishing, the hurricane has led to the deaths of 50 people.
The chemical plant belonged to Arkema Group, one of the world’s largest chemical companies. The coolant systems and power generators were rendered useless due to the floodwaters, and as a result the Arkema Group warned that an explosion was soon to follow. The plant exploded sending a large black plume of smoke into the air and forced police to evacuate an area of up to 1.5 miles. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that no toxic materials were reported to have been released but will continue to monitor the situation as more explosions are possible.
In Beaumont, Texas, flooding has caused the city’s water pumps to fail, causing 118,000 people to be without any running water. Hospitals have had to evacuate their patients and transfer them elsewhere due to the lack of water.
The Atlantic reports that the Association of State Floodplain Managers in Houston has tried to get funding for flood control, but in vain. Without engineering expertise in storm water management technologies it is unsurprising that an event such as Hurricane Harvey has wreaked such havoc.
City planning has also copped some criticism. An excerpt from the Atlantic’s article points to the fact that Houston and New Orleans’ cities are in flood-prone areas:
“The hardest part of managing urban flooding is reconciling it with Americans’ insistence that they can and should be able to live, work, and play anywhere. Waterborne transit was a key driver of urban development, and it’s inevitable that cities have grown where flooding is prevalent.”
And it seems that Houston’s everyday citizens knew that a hurricane would inevitably cause a flood.
People outside of HOUSTON believe this is a ONETIME thing but this HAPPENS every 2 MONTHS or SO .. BAD ENGINEERING & FLOOD CONTROL pic.twitter.com/oRaX8x7IWg— Aristotle Onassis (@OnassisHa36) August 28, 2017
Bogost, Ian. "Houston's Flood Is a Design Problem." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 28 Aug. 2017. Web. 31 Aug. 2017.
Leonhardt, David. "Harvey, the Storm That Humans Helped Cause." The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 Aug. 2017. Web. 31 Aug. 2017.