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Energy & Environment

Can Houston Learn From Another Gulf Coast City Drowned By A Catastrophic Storm?

Houston has a problem with flooding. April’s Tax Day Flood led the city to appoint a “flood czar.” But what can Houston — or any flood-prone city — do differently to reduce flooding when a foot-and-a-half of rain falls in just 12 hours?



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Flooding 2014
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It was that day in April when the rain seemed like it just wouldn't stop. Officials said flooding was inevitable.

"I don't care where you are or what kind of flood program you have, you start getting that much rainfall in a short period of time less than 24 hours, you're going to have massive flooding, that's what we're seeing here today," said John Dosh, a county emergency official.

Scientists said the storm seemed to be part of a new pattern.

"You are getting storm events that were exceedingly rare and you're getting them more often," said David Tomasko, an environmental scientist.

But Tomasko and Dosh weren't talking about what happened in April in Houston, Texas. They were talking with public radio station WUWF in Pensacola, Florida about a big storm there that hit that city in April, April of 2014.

Just like in Houston in April 2016, a foot-and-a-half of rain flooded several thousand homes and did tens of millions of dollars of damage to roads and bridges in Pensacola and the surrounding Escambia County.

The Escambia County Public Works Director, Joy Blackmon, told us what should sound familiar to people in Houston: some places flooded like never before.

"The rainfall affected many large areas that had retention ponds that had never flooded before and those ponds were over-topped and caused damage," said Blackmon.

In the days after the storm, just like in Houston, people in Pensacola said something's not right. They began looking for solutions.

"A commission was developed called a Storm Water Advisory Team that conducted public meetings and tracked progress, both the city and the county," said Derrik Owens, Pensacola's Public Works director.

That joint, county and city Storm Water Advisory Team commissioned studies of how and why the water flowed the way it did in some of the worst hit areas. What did it find?

"The sins of the past have come back to haunt us," said Blackmon, the county official.

Those sins of the past were where development was allowed in flood prone areas in the 1980s, development that had it occurred a decade later, would had to have met new, stricter flood codes.

Blackmon said those new rules now mean developers have to build detention ponds to hold rainwater and then release it slowly.

"Where we have been able to make improvements the flood did not nearly affect them like it would have," said Blackmon.

But even in some areas where the stricter standards were enforced, Pensacola found those standards weren't enough, since they meant for more common but less severe rain events, called 25 year floods. So now, updated standards will mean lots developed in the future will have to be built to handle more severe 100 year rain storms.

But Blackmon said the April 2014 storm was ranked as a 200 year event.

"We can't design everything to those standards but at least we want to design any new development to the 100 year standard," said Blackmon.

Other problems uncovered by the Storm Water Advisory Team and other efforts included the discovery of old streams that had been covered over by new development which then flooded. Pensacola's now considering re-creating those old streams.

It's also looking to expand the size of retention ponds that had once worked, but which now are no longer big enough, because of so much new development.

And the city and county are looking to create more acreage to absorb water, meaning that in some areas, pavement and other "impervious" cover might be ripped and replaced with more absorbent surfaces.

Derrick Owens, the city official, said Pensacola, like Houston, has a long history of flooding and of making improvements aimed at reducing damage.

"It's a moving target. I don't think you can ever say you're halfway there. Because there's always room for improvement," said Owens.

None of this might be news to Houston or any other growing city that has faced repeated flooding. But Pensacola is one place gaining a national reputation for how it's coordinating many different approaches to achieve one goal: keeping more property and people out of harm's way the next time the rain seems like it just won't stop.