Hurricane Harvey brought record rainfall and flooding to the Houston-Galveston region. The impacts of the storm and ensuing flooding included loss of lives, homes and livelihoods. In response, researchers from the region with expertise in hydrology, climate science, engineering, coastal resiliency, energy, community development and urban planning came together to strategize on solutions.
While sitting in traffic recently, I heard a poignant story on the radio about a physician’s view of recovery from life-threatening trauma. He stated, “Bad things can happen quickly but good things happen slowly.”
Make no mistake, the Greater Houston-Galveston region and the middle to upper Texas Coast have suffered trauma wrought by Hurricane Harvey. In the aftermath of an event like Harvey, there is the need to move quickly on cleanup efforts and stabilize our social and economic systems. Hopefully, the majority of urgent responses will occur in a period of days or weeks, though it may take months in many instances. Longer-term recovery can take years as neighborhoods, businesses and public institutions rebuild.
As the work of recovery continues, it is important to also take the long view, looking for ways to reduce future risk to our communities and make them more resilient. Resilient communities are better able to prepare, adapt and withstand disasters in ways that allow people, businesses, neighborhoods, and entire communities to maintain essential functions and rebound quickly. While the post-disaster focus is often on large and costly infrastructure projects, resilience strategies can be deployed at varying sizes and scales—from individual homes and businesses, to neighborhoods, cities, counties and region-wide. Adaptation strategies can include a variety of solutions. Homes can be modified, elevated, or even bought out in some instances. Flood risk must be better understood and communicated. On a broader scale, we must reevaluate our floodplain delineations, design standards, and building codes. We must more fully acknowledge and quantify services provided by green infrastructure such as wetlands. We must also articulate strategies for integrating green infrastructure and low impact development practices as our region rebuilds and grows.
Regional resilience collaboratives are a public-private framework for community interaction employed around the United States in places including Florida, Washington, and Colorado. Resilience collaboratives allow community leaders, experts and citizens to come together to talk through the tradeoffs associated with policies that may support a host of large and small adaptation strategies. This enables the formulation of practical solutions to overcome financial and institutional barriers to implementing local adaptation strategies.
We have tremendous human capital in the region with a wealth of social, economic, public health, engineering and scientific expertise. We must use this knowledge and engage broadly across all sectors to formulate a vision for the future of our region. This will be essential for critical decisions on the expenditures of significant financial and social resources. The Greater Houston-Galveston region can and should come together through a collaborative regional resilience framework to identify strategies that can be implemented as we rebuild over the long term. Hurricane Harvey has the potential to be transformational, but it will require the engagement of community and business leaders from the Third Ward to River Oaks and from Galveston County up to Lake Conroe and out to Katy. Moving forward, it is imperative that we have input from all stakeholders.
We must also remember that businesses and investors looking to do business in the Greater Houston region are watching. We must demonstrate that we can reduce the risk that future extreme events pose to our economic and social systems. The low cost of living and working that attracts people to this region will be negated if we are unable to address and mitigate business disruption and recurring costs associated with recovery. The strategies that we devise and implement in the coming years to increase our regional resilience are essential for long-term economic development.
For as the good doctor tells us, traumatic things can happen quickly, but good things—the recovery—happen more slowly. As we recover and rebuild after Harvey, let’s be sure that we are moving forward collaboratively and thoughtfully so that our communities are truly resilient and less vulnerable when the next “Harvey” comes knocking on our door.