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Predicting Where Floods Will Hit: What Difference Technology Could Make

May was a record month for bad weather in Texas. Hurricane season officially begins today, June 1st. Is the Gulf Coast ready?

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Gas-station-houston-ave-at-white-oak.jpg
Gas station on Houston Ave at White Oak

From last week’s deadly flash floods in the Texas Hill Country to the ones here in Houston, one lesson seems driven home time and again.

“Knowledge is power,” said Jimmy Wong.

Wong is talking about the power to know where storms will hit so you can take action before it’s too late.

“When the weather service says it’s a good idea to leave, please leave,” Wong told News 88.7.

Wong found out what happens when you stay. Wong grew up in Houston and became a TV news photographer. Last week, he was in Wimberley along the Blanco River covering the stories of people caught in what’s called “flash flood alley.”

But it was over 30 years ago that he was sent to cover another storm closer to home: Hurricane Alicia.

Hurricane Alicia is especially relevant this hurricane season. Alicia formed in the Gulf, not thousands of miles out in the Atlantic. And this season, forecasters say conditions are similar, meaning less chance for storms in the Atlantic but more chance they will form or intensify in the Gulf.

That means instead of several days to prepare, coastal residents may have 48 hours or less.

In 1983, Alicia was originally forecast to track towards Corpus Christi but the storm suddenly veered towards Galveston and that’s where Jimmy Wong was sent and where many people were caught off-guard.

Newscasts on Houston’s KTRK-TV showed guests at the Hotel Galvez scrambling to avoid windows that blew out.

Wong was just down the seawall at a hotel that had to be evacuated.  Barely making it across a flooded driveway, they arrived at the island’s command center. Walking had become nearly impossible.

“We’re crawling in the direction the wind is blowing and suddenly, I’m not on the ground anymore. I’m literally flying through the air, headed toward a parked SUV. I tumble over the hood. And then when I get to the other side of the SUV the SUV acts as a wind break and the wind suddenly stops and I drop straight down into a flooded ditch,” said Wong.

His elbow now severely sprained, he eventually made into the command center and rode out the rest of the storm.

But that was 1983. Today forecasting has improved according to hurricane experts.

“We’re sure a lot better forecasting track than we were in 1983,” said Chris Hebert, a meteorologist with Houston’s StormGeo forecasting company.

“I think the three day track error is down to around a 100, 120 miles, which is considerably less than it was in ’83. We’re getting much, much better,” said Hebert.

photo of Phil Bedient
Phil Bedient leads flood prediction research at Rice University

Better at predicting where hurricanes are headed, hurricanes that can bring not just horrific winds, but many inches of rain.

Research at Rice University and the University of Texas has taken storm track data and combined it with real-time radar to predict where flooding will likely occur street by street. It’s technology that can be used in hurricanes or just big rain storms says Phil Bedient, a civil engineering professor at Rice University, who leads research into flood prediction.

“These kind of systems are not that expensive to build or to maintain,” Bedient told News 88.7.

But here’s the thing: Bedient said while a few communities including Sugar Land and the Texas Medical Center use the early warning systems, many don’t including those in the Hill Country.

“And I find it just appalling that the San Marcos area does not have such a system right in the middle of flash flood alley,” said Bedient, adding that they tried working on a system with the Texas Department of Transportation for Houston-area highways but it didn’t work out.

“Lots and lots of folks were caught along the freeway in Houston and sat for long, long periods of time. I think a well posed warning system could have avoided a lot of that misery,” said Bedient.

The upshot is the technology is there, but it takes public policy and money to put into widespread use.

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The need seems obvious because severe storms will continue to attack Texas and if you get caught out in one, things can get ugly very quickly.

Just ask Jimmy Wong, the news photographer.

“Nature is a powerful force and it can take away your ability to deal with it,“ said Wong.

 

 

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