Houston continues to succumb to storms like Beryl. The solutions aren’t coming fast enough

HOUSTON (AP) — Sharon Carr is frustrated. Like many others who lost power after Hurricane Beryl slammed into the Texas coast earlier this week, she headed to a cooling center in Houston for relief from the summer heat, even as the city’s utility warned it could take longer than hoped to restore everyone’s electricity.

“It’s too windy, we have no power. It’s raining a long time, we have no power,” said Carr, who also was without electricity for a week in May when a devastating storm known as a derecho ripped through the area.

Carr, who works for the city’s transportation and drainage department, thinks more could be done to keep the lights on — or at least restore them more quickly — if Houston and other urban areas prone to extreme weather stopped focusing on immediate problems and instead looked at the bigger picture, including climate change.

“This can’t keep happening,” she said. “If it’s broken, let’s fix it.”

Hurricane Beryl is the latest in a long line of devastating storms to paralyze Houston, underscoring the city’s inability to adequately prepare itself for the weather events caused by climate change. Previous storms like Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Harvey in 2017 required the city to remove trees, shore up floodplains and bury more power lines, but those efforts were either inadequate or completely eclipsed by recent storms that have flooded the city and left millions without power.

Climate change is causing ocean waters to warm, creating storms that are more powerful and intensify much faster. Experts say cities need to rethink how they prepare for and respond to such events.

“It’s a totally different game that we’re playing today,” said Michelle Meyer, director of the Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. The old playbook, she said, “doesn’t work anymore.”

If we rebuild it, it will flood again

Where and how developers build is a clear problem, she said Craig Fugateadministrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Barack Obama. He said this became clear to him 20 years ago when he worked in Florida, where four consecutive hurricanes were not enough to stop beach development.

“You have to ask yourself how many times do we have to rebuild something before we rebuild it differently or don’t rebuild it in the same place?” he said.

Fugate believes that taxpayers are increasingly shouldering the burden and funding expensive insurance programs for high-risk areas, while developers could instead stop building in storm-prone areas and move residents out of flood zones.

“It’s the hardest system to implement because people resist,” said Jim Blackburn, co-director of the severe storm center at Rice University. “People are generally very happy where they live.”

Buyouts in lieu of insurance payments are one way to get people to move, but Fugate notes that such programs often take too long to kick in after a storm hits. By the time such funds are ready, it’s “almost impossible” to convince someone to take a buyout, he said.

Problems with known solutions

Civil servants often know what measures are needed to limit serious weather disasters, but they find it difficult to implement them.

For example, the city of Houston commissioned a report documenting how falling trees caused power outages after Hurricane Ike in 2008. But no one wanted to cut down the trees that were still standing. These days, utility companies note, they install underground power lines for every new construction project.

Meyer said modernizing the city’s electrical infrastructure could also go a long way toward preventing power outages, pointing out that North Carolina did so after Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

“They were really thinking ahead, like, ‘Okay, we’re not going to get into this situation again,’” she said.

CenterPoint Energy, which supplies Houston’s power, has partially installed an “intelligent grid” system that automatically diverts power to unaffected lines during an outage. A document on the utility’s website said 996 of the devices were installed in 2019 — less than half of the grid at the time. It’s not clear if more progress has been made since then. The company did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

A changing reality

With more storms like Beryl expected due to climate change, cities need to prepare for the worst. And the worst is getting worse.

“It’s about learning to live with water,” Blackburn said.

After Hurricane Harvey — the strongest hurricane to hit the U.S. in more than a decade when it hit the Texas coast in August 2017 — Houston passed a $2.5 billion bond measure to fund flood mitigation projects in Harris County, where the city is located. The action resulted in “a lot of improvements,” Blackburn said, but was based on old flood projections.

In addition, a task force created by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in 2018 made dozens of recommendations in a nearly 200-page report, including examining ways to strengthen utilities and creating an inventory of mitigation and resilience projects needed across the state.

But as the weather becomes increasingly unpredictable, even cities that make improvements could be caught unprepared if they don’t plan with the future in mind. The “devilish” aspect of climate change, Blackburn said, is that the goalposts keep moving: Just as cities adapt to increased risk, the risk increases again.

Scientists are better equipped than ever to make decisions about evacuations, developments and other actions, using computer systems that can predict the damage a particular storm will cause, said Shane Hubbard, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin.

And yet, he added, all the computing power in the world can’t match the unpredictability of climate change. Warming oceans are causing rapidly intensifying weather events that defy models and rapidly alter conditions on the ground.

“That’s what I’m most concerned about” in the future, Hubbard said.

Complicating matters in Texas is that some leaders still don’t acknowledge climate change. The 2018 report by the governor’s task force noted that major natural disasters would become more frequent in Texas because of a changing climate. But it made no mention of “climate change,” “global warming,” or of curbing greenhouse gases in Texas, the epicenter of the nation’s oil refinery that leads the U.S. in carbon emissions. Texas is a state where politicians, at least publicly, are deeply skeptical of climate change.

According to Blackburn, cities must be willing to face the scientific facts before they can truly improve their planning.

When asked whether coastal cities in general are prepared for climate change, Meyer simply replied, “No.”

She said prevention and mitigation measures must evolve to the point where a Category 1 hurricane “will no longer be a problem.”

A city like Houston “should not be touched by a Cat 1,” she said.


Walling reported from Chicago. Associated Press/Report for America writer Nadia Lathan in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report. Follow Walling on X: @MelinaWalling.


Associated Press climate and environmental reporting receives funding from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded reporting areas at AP.org.

Leave a Comment