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Hurricane Katrina

Army Corps ordered to pay $550K to reservoir flooding victims

This could turn into a lot more if it is upheld.

More than five years after their homes and businesses were flooded, residents above the Addicks and Barker dams are learning how much money the federal government owes them for damage from Houston’s overflowing reservoirs.

A federal judge last week ruled that the owners of six upstream properties flooded during Hurricane Harvey should collectively receive nearly $550,000. The six were chosen — jointly by Justice Department lawyers and attorneys for hundreds of property owners — as test cases in a massive case initiated just moths after the historic deluge.

The decision could open the door to thousands more judgments for property owners and could result in the government paying out tens of millions more dollars, attorneys for the flooded residents said Wednesday.

The case falls under a special jurisdiction that oversees so called “takings” cases, involving allegations the government temporarily took control of private land for a legitimate purpose. If the court’s ruling survives anticipated appeals by the Justice Department, it could become the largest government takings case in U.S. history, according to attorneys representing property owners.

A ruling is still pending for separate group of residents and business owners whose properties flooded when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Addicks and Barker floodgates. The downstream property owners saw their claims dismissed in 2020, but in June a federal appeals court reversed the dismissal and remanded it to the lower court for further proceedings.

[…]

After the storm, more than 1,600 businesses and homeowners sued the Army Corps in the specialized U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., contending the government intentionally planned for the reservoirs to flood their land. In 2019, U.S. Judge Charles F. Lettow ruled government officials had knowingly and intentionally used private property to store rising floodwaters.

Then, in separate hearings, Lettow set about assessing how much money these property owners were owed. On Oct. 28, Lettow ruled on damages, laying out explicitly how much some property owners were owed for decreases in their property values, the damage or destruction of their personal property and the costs of being displaced by the floods.

“The plaintiffs are entitled to just compensation for the permanent flowage easement the government took through its construction, maintenance, and operation of the Addicks and Barker Dams,” Lettow wrote.

The six property owners included homeowners and owners of rental properties. The decision in these test cases will trigger a process for Lettow to assess how much compensation property owners might be owed in thousands of other complaints. If Lettow’s standard is applied to all the upstream homes and businesses believed to be flooded, the total compensation would top $1 billion, according to Daniel Charest, a lead attorney for the upstream plaintiffs.

Charest said he expected the Department of Justice to file an appeal within the next 60 days and will likely challenge property owners’ rights to damages.

See here for the previous update, and here for more on the other lawsuit. I have no idea what will happen with this on appeal, but note that we are five full years out from Hurricane Harvey, and the appellate process hasn’t actually started yet. Settle in the the long haul, is what I’m saying.

The nightmare hurricane scenario

Sorry, but we have to think about it.

Eric Berger, meteorologist, Space City Weather editor and senior space editor at Ars Technica, said when it comes to hurricanes there are three principal threats to worry about: storm surge, winds and rainfall.

“Typically, with a hurricane you might get one or two of these threats in a particular area,” Berger said.

Ian is different though.

“The reason I say this is a nightmare storm is because for a sizable chunk of Florida it brought all three threats,” Berger said.

He said it is absolutely possible for this kind of storm to hit the Houston area.

“The odds of it happening in any given year are pretty low — probably one in 100. But absolutely it could happen in any given hurricane season,” Berger said.

Surges generally only affect coastal areas or areas within 10 to 15 feet above the water’s surface level. In Houston, those would be places like Galveston and Seabrook, Berger said.

Unlike storm surges, wind can have a wider effect. Wind damage can extend 100 miles inland in the Houston area, Berger said. He noted Hurricane Ike in 2008, when winds were enough to take down the power grid for about two weeks.

For Ike, he said there was a fairly large storm surge along the coast and there was some wind damage, but inland rainfall wasn’t a major issue. For Harvey, he said there was not much wind or storm surge issues in Houston, but there was about 50 inches of rainfall. Houston has yet to see a triple threat like Ian with a damaging storm surge, powerful winds and heavy inland rainfall.

Berger said a storm like Ian would be the worst case scenario for Houston.

“It would really change our community forever,” he said.

He said the immediate impacts would be devastation to parts of Galveston island, Bolivar Peninsula and coastal communities, along with wind damage at least up to Interstate 10. Wind damage would rip roofs off buildings, knock trees down and cause power outages lasting weeks to months. A storm surge threatens to cause environmental catastrophe since many chemical facilities along the Houston Ship Channel are only built up to about 15 feet, meaning there could be facility flooding with toxic leakages in the environment, Berger said. All of this would amount to hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

“It would be very difficult for this population to come back as vibrant as it is now,” Berger said.

We hope that the long-awaited Ike Dike will help mitigate the effect of a large storm surge. Wind and rain, there’s only so much we can do and most of it is in planning and construction – engineer buildings to withstand high winds, and don’t build things in areas prone to flooding. Maybe there’s more than that, but it feels like mostly hope to me. And if something has a one percent chance of happening in a given year, then over a fifty-year span the odds it will happen at least once are about 40%. Not the most comforting thought.

We keep on building homes in the floodplains

It’s how we roll.

When Hurricane Harvey devastated the Houston region with a deluge of rain, one of the places where the water escaped its bounds was near a Spring Branch floodway known as Brickhouse Gully, satellite data shows. There, it filled a golf course, which federal maps indicated had a high risk of flooding.

Today, that golf course has been turned into a 115-acre master-planned community built on newly created hills above its neighbors. A series of man-made lakes double as detention ponds, meant to prevent heavy rains that previously had pooled onto the golf course from impacting neighbors or those living downstream.

The story of how it was built encapsulates the tensions between those seeking to build more safely in the floodplains and those who believe such practices will not protect against the heavier rains predicted in the future — and who would prefer such land to remain undeveloped to allow stormwaters room to flow.

Four months before Harvey made landfall, the Arizona-based homebuilder Meritage Homes announced it planned to build roughly 800 single-family homes on what had been the Pine Crest golf course. The master-planned community would be named Spring Brook Village.

One out of every seven residential building permits issued in Houston since Harvey were located in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 2009 Flood Insurance Rate Maps. While some were for pre-existing, flood-damaged homes that homeowners had decided to rebuild, many were for new homes that have put an increasing number of people in areas predisposed to flood. One of the highest concentrations of such permits was in Spring Brook Village.

After both Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricane Harvey, standards for building in floodplains were tightened. Homes are now required to be built higher and with more detention. Meritage Homes, which said no one was available for comment, was building to the updated standards. But it also had done something else — started the process of having the floodmap changed.

Since Harvey, a sweeping federal floodmap update called Atlas-14 has been underway. Anticipated to be released this fall, it will look at rainfall data up to and including Hurricane Harvey. An early analysis indicated that the size of Harris County’s floodplains would grow because the expected rainfall in a flood event had been revised upward.

But a number of small, manual changes to floodplain maps have been taking place. Developers can submit applications to the Harris County Flood Control District and FEMA arguing that the flood designation for their communities should be changed, often because of flood mitigation steps taken. Until floodmaps are updated to reflect new rainfall averages, these one-off revisions have had the opposite effect: On paper, the county’s floodplains have been shrinking.

The changes often mean that homeowners in the area will not be required by their lenders to purchase flood insurance — which makes buying a home in the new community more affordable but puts homeowners who opt out of the expense at risk if the area does flood.

What could possibly go wrong? It’s a long story, part of the Chron’s ongoing coverage of Hurricane Harvey’s five-year mark, so go read the rest. And maybe double-check the flood map your home is in.

Rockport, Dickinson, Port Arthur: Five years after Harvey

Yeah, we’re at “five years after Hurricane Harvey made landfall” time. Here’s a long story about how three smaller towns that were in its path are doing now.

Each day, Gary Billy drives past the empty corner lot where his restaurant once stood. Sometimes, he looks over at the scrubby grass, the crumbling foundation and the fading blue sign for JJ’s Little Bay Café.

“We put our hearts and souls into that business, into that property — expanding and doing things,” he said. “Sometimes it hits you and you’re just like, ‘Man, you miss it.’ But life just keeps going.”

The restaurant was among hundreds of buildings that were destroyed five years ago when Hurricane Harvey made landfall in this small Gulf Coast city.

Now, residents and elected officials here say they are recovering from the devastation, mirroring other small towns affected by Harvey. That said, they still have more work to do to bring displaced residents back home and get their infrastructure ready for future storms. The city also is facing an affordable housing shortage, a wave of ongoing construction projects and the lingering emotional toll from the disaster.

The Southeast Texas community of Dickinson has its challenges, too. Homeowners there remain skeptical that the city’s mitigation efforts are enough to prevent other disasters.

In Port Arthur, near Louisiana, the largest mitigation projects await federal funding approvals before they can get off the ground.

“The challenge is preparing for the next storm,” said Aransas County Judge C.H. “Burt” Mills, Jr. “There’s going to be one — we just don’t know when. (We’re) trying to prepare to where we don’t have near the disaster that we had with Harvey.”

[…]

The past half-decade has been trying for the city of Dickinson, which saw about 85 percent of its land mass go under water during the hurricane. Some people packed up and left, but most rebuilt, banding together in love of their community. Since then, however, they’ve taken on a particular, more despondent brand of resiliency: They eye the city’s ongoing mitigation efforts and fear that they are sitting ducks.

[Paster William H.] King meets those residents often. Leaving the church that day, he drove his truck through town and descended into the Bayou Chantilly neighborhood, cornered in by I-45 on one side and Dickinson Bayou on another.

It used to be a lovely place — lush and well-kept, homeowner Gayann Corbin said. Now, it’s dotted with “for sale” signs, displaying people’s slow exodus from the neighborhood.

She and her husband, Bob, met King on their corner along with a half-dozen neighbors. Most people in Dickinson know of King, since his church serves about 60 percent of the community and became a distribution center during Harvey. (He was also a city councilman for 21 years, and he’s running for county judge.)

The conversation turned to the city’s disaster response, and the gaggle erupted into overlapping speech. The most visible project to date is the widening of West Gum Bayou and the construction of several detention ponds to expand the capacity for floodwater. They weren’t buying it.

“I don’t have a degree in engineering … but I believe if we had a pump station pumping water out of the bayou into the contributory of the Galveston Bay, that would be better than widening the area,” Arthur Francis said. “It doesn’t matter how deep you have it and how wide it is. The water has nowhere to go.”

The city also is turning to voluntary buyouts and acquisitions, programs that allow it to buy people’s homes in flood-prone zones and either demolish them entirely or rebuild them higher. Corbin and Francis said they don’t expect many people to bite.

Francis said he hasn’t seen Dickinson keep a “pulse” on its people, and Noel Larsen added that she feels the city sat on its hands for years after the storm. In 2019, she saw some of her neighbors remove some obstructions from the bayou in order to aid water flow, frustrated that the city hadn’t done so itself.

Jon Junemann, who has lived in his home since 1975, jabbed his fingers in a fury.

“It takes a quarter of an inch of rain to absorb in this gumbo clay in one hour,” he said. “Where is the water going to go? It’s going to be right here in Lake Chantilly again.”

City Manager Theo Melancon took the helm in 2021 after a period of tumult among Dickinson’s leadership. He said residents in any city tend to feel hopeless when it takes years for the biggest projects to get underway, and King added that he feels Dickinson residents feel a particular apathy toward their local government.

Even then, Melancon said Dickinson officials haven’t been sitting around — they earmarked $70 million in state and federal funds for mitigation, with more in the application process. Already, the West Gum Bayou widening is underway, and about 110,000 square yards of dirt have been moved in ditch cleanups.

Dickinson also plans to construct a diversionary canal that reroutes floodwater and deposits it further east on Dickinson Bayou, and city leaders are exploring a pumping project at Benson Bayou.

“As dirt starts moving and turning, I believe people will see,” Melancon said. “I don’t think a lot of people understand the size and scope of the projects.”

Melancon agreed that the buyout programs might not have enough takers, especially since people worry whether they can find other, similarly priced homes in Dickinson.

There’s a lot more, and much of it zooms in on individual stories. I found the Dickinson stuff particularly interesting – my wife’s grandmother still lives in Dickinson, in a house that was completely flooded by Harvey and has been at least somewhat rehabilitated. I would not want to live there for a variety of reasons, but the concern that people won’t be able to find a replacement house they can afford is legitimate. I have no idea what can be done other than to throw a whole lot more money at the problem. Dickinson is in Galveston County, and since the story mentions it here’s the William H. King III for Galveston County Judge webpage. He’s not going to win, but if you live in that county you should at least know who he is.

What does the Army Corps of Engineers owe reservoir flooding victims?

We’ll soon find out.

Christina Micu sat on the witness stand and tearfully explained how she’d made a list of everything she lost when Hurricane Harvey flooded her four-bedroom home. Her son’s toys. Her kitchen stove. A rocking chair her mom had given her.

She threw it all away — and wants to be paid back for it.

“A lot of things were taken from me when we were flooded,” Micu said. “A lot of them are irreplaceable. I’ll never have them back, from heirloom items to baby pictures.”

Micu gave her testimony in Houston Tuesday as the long-awaited trial kicked off before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to determine what the government owes her and her neighbors for flooding their homes.

Senior Judge Charles F. Lettow, who is presiding at this week’s hearing, found the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers liable following a previous proceeding three years ago. The Corps held water behind two dams west of town to lessen flooding in central Houston when days of rain drenched the region in 2017. The vast majority of residents behind these massive earthen dams did not know they lived in the reservoirs.

After delays caused by the pandemic, the judge will consider what is owed to Harvey victims by examining a handful of individual flooding cases as examples. The outcomes will set criteria for what happens for thousands of others.

“Plaintiffs suffered at the hands of the government in order to save downtown Houston,” said attorney Daniel Charest, as photos of the flooding flashed on computer screens. “They only want to be made whole.”

This was the residents’ only chance to be paid back for their lost private property rights, Charest argued. And not only had they lost property, the value of the homes would drop as a result of the flooding the government inflicted, he said.

Representing the U.S. government, attorney Laura Duncan said the neighborhoods where homes flooded are still desirable. The real estate market wasn’t impacted, she argued.

There were two lawsuits filed over this. In 2019, the judge ruled that the Army Corps was liable – it’s not clear to me whether this is the outcome of one of those suits or if they were combined – and we are now at the damages portion of the trial. I don’t know what to expect at this point, but it seems likely to me that the homeowners will get something. It’s a question of how much.

UPDATE: This Chron story from Thursday afternoon, in a fortuitous bit of timing, answers my question about which lawsuit this is about. Tune in tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion!

This could be a really bad hurricane season

Anytime the year 2005 is used as a point of comparison, it’s bad news.

The Atlantic hurricane season starts on June 1, and the Gulf of Mexico is already warmer than average. Even more worrying is a current of warm tropical water that is looping unusually far into the Gulf for this time of year, with the power to turn tropical storms into monster hurricanes.

It’s called the Loop Current, and it’s the 800-pound gorilla of Gulf hurricane risks.

When the Loop Current reaches this far north this early in the hurricane season – especially during what’s forecast to be a busy season – it can spell disaster for folks along the Northern Gulf Coast, from Texas to Florida.

If you look at temperature maps of the Gulf of Mexico, you can easily spot the Loop Current. It curls up through the Yucatan Channel between Mexico and Cuba, into the Gulf of Mexico, and then swings back out through the Florida Strait south of Florida as the Florida Current, where it becomes the main contributor to the Gulf Stream.

When a tropical storm passes over the Loop Current or one of its giant eddies – large rotating pools of warm water that spin off from the current – the storm can explode in strength as it draws energy from the warm water.

This year, the Loop Current looks remarkably similar to the way it did in 2005, the year Hurricane Katrina crossed the Loop Current before devastating New Orleans. Of the 27 named storms that year, seven became major hurricanes. Wilma and Rita also crossed the Loop Current that year and became two of the most intense Atlantic hurricanes on record.

I have been monitoring ocean heat content for more than 30 years as a marine scientist. The conditions I’m seeing in the Gulf in May 2022 are cause for concern. One prominent forecast anticipates 19 tropical storms – 32% more than average – and nine hurricanes. The Loop Current has the potential to supercharge some of those storms.

It’s been a super warm month of May, so the conditions have not abated any. There’s only so much we can do about this right now except be prepared and hope for the best. At least now you know.

UPDATE: Just in time for more season predictions.

Hurricane season along the Atlantic Ocean is expected to be more active than usual this year, with a higher probability that major storms will make landfall in Texas and other areas along the eastern coast, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday.

The Atlantic hurricane season officially starts June 1, and the national agency’s findings are consistent with other scientific organizations’ predictions. According to NOAA, there is a 65% chance the hurricane season will be more active than usual and only a 10% chance that this year will have below-average activity.

NOAA expects this season, which extends until Nov. 30, will have 14 to 21 named storms. Six to 10 could become hurricanes — including three to six major ones with winds of 111 mph or higher. The average season has 14 named storms.

If the prediction comes true, 2022 will be the seventh consecutive above-average season for Atlantic hurricanes in the U.S.

Factors like La Niña, warmer sea surface temperatures and an enhanced West African monsoon will all likely contribute to an above-average season this year, NOAA officials said. Climate change has contributed to make those phenomenons more intense, NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said Tuesday.

[…]

A Colorado State University study similarly found that probabilities for major hurricanes this season are higher than average, with a 71% chance of at least one major hurricane across the continental U.S. coastline, compared to an average 52% chance. The study also found that the Gulf Coast, from the Florida Panhandle to Brownsville, has a 46% chance of at least one major hurricane this season, which is 16% higher than last century’s average.

“Essentially everything is pointing toward an active Atlantic season,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas state climatologist and director of the Texas Center for Climate Studies at Texas A&M University. “It doesn’t guarantee one but it makes it quite a bit more likely.”

Nielsen-Gammon said anywhere along the coast that’s less than 25 feet above sea level is potentially vulnerable to a storm surge, and that hurricane-force winds can be felt in Texas even hundreds of miles inland.

As I said before, maybe we need to redefine what an “average” season is now. In the meantime, get your supplies and have an evacuation plan in mind. And hope for the best.

Is there a better way to measure hurricane intensity?

Probably.

During the this week’s National Hurricane Conference in Orlando, a Colorado State University professor proposed a better a way to predict the damages of a devastating hurricane — do away with the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale.

Hurricane specialist, Philip Klotzbach, spoke Tuesday at Orlando’s Rosen Centre hotel about his crusade in doing away with the famous wind scale in favor of measuring surface pressure, the force exerted on the sea surface by the air above, as a better metric to predict hurricane damages.

“Wind hasn’t worked recently,” said Klotzbach, a CSU meteorology professor. “It’s not bad but pressure actually does (predict) better.”

Klotzbach spoke Tuesday to a standing room-only event during the four-day biannual Orlando conference, which showcases experts, authorities and entrepreneurs from all over the country versed in climatology, emergency management and tropical phenomenon.

His pitch was simple: replace the wind scale for a pressure scale. Klotzbach is not the only person supporting a movement of using pressure over wind, and Tuesday was not the first time the CSU professor pitched the idea. During the 2020 hurricane season, Klotzbach and other meteorological scholars, published a paper about the subject, but it went largely ignored and overshadowed by a storm of a different nature — the COVID-19 pandemic, Klotzbach said.

“Frankly, I think to get attention, we need a large hurricane like a Hurricane Ike, which was a Category 2,” Klotzbach said. “People said, ‘Oh, it’s not a major hurricane, I’m not going anywhere.’ And then, you know, 15-20 feet of storm surge in the Baltimore peninsula, and all those people lost their lives.”

[…]

Understanding pressure is crucial to the Klotzbach’s argument. Pressure is what is largely responsible for storm surge — which the National Hurricane Center has said is the most deadly force a hurricane produces. In 2019, the NHC found that most people consider wind to be the greater destructive force in a hurricane’s arsenal, however that isn’t the case, said NHC’s storm surge specialist Cody Fritz.

“Historically, storm surge has contributed to about half of storm-related deaths,” Fritz said.

A study of storm damage between 2007 and 2021 found that Saffir-Simpson scale predictions mostly didn’t see much of a consistent relationship between forecasted wind and excessive hurricane damages, according to CSU. However, CSU found a very strong relationship between predicted pressure and damages to an area, Klotzbach said.

Consider a tale of two hurricanes: 2004′s Charley and 2005′s Katrina. Both were devastating storms, but measuring the wind speeds before landfall predicted Category 5 Charley as the more threatening storm. Katrina was measured in as a Category 3 storm before landfall.

“But if we look at the pressure for Katrina, it was much lower than for Charlie when it made landfall,” Klotzbach said. The lower the pressure, the bigger the storm and more widespread its winds tend to reach, which means not only is there a wider coverage of strong winds but also a greater exertion of storm surge.

Hurricane Charley was devastating for Southwest and Central Florida, but the storm only produced about 7 feet of surge. Katrina put New Orleans through 28 feet of storm surge.

“The levees failed in New Orleans and all the damage that caused was devastating, but even had the levees held in New Orleans, we had 200 fatalities in Mississippi from storm surge,” Klotzbach said. About 1,800 people in total died because of Katrina. Comparatively, Charley was responsible for 37 deaths.

Applying the surface pressure scale to Katrina would have labeled the storm as a Category 5 hurricane, according to Klotzbach. The same could be said for 2012′s Super Storm Sandy, which made landfall in New Jersey as an extratropical storm under the wind scale, but a pressure scale would’ve labeled it as a Category 4 hurricane.

As I recall, Katrina produced the lowest-ever barometric reading as it was approaching the coast, so a scale that ranks it as The Big One makes sense to me. The Saffir-Simpson scale is easy to understand – it’s one through five, based on wind speed – but there are more dimensions to hurricanes. I think the same kind of simplicity could be applied to a pressure-based scale, and if that’s a better of when to run and when to hunker down, we should try it.

Bypass the GLO

Heck yeah.

All five members of Harris County Commissioners Court signed onto a letter Friday asking the local congressional delegation to ensure that future disaster relief bypasses the state government and goes directly to large counties.

The letter is the latest round of bipartisan outrage in Houston triggered by the Texas General Land Office’s decision last May to initially shut out the city and the county — the epicenter of flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey — from $1 billion in flood control dollars later awarded to Texas after the 2017 storm.

The letter suggests that Congress or a federal agency require future disaster relief go directly to counties with at least 500,000 residents, instead of being administered by state agencies.

The court’s two Republicans, Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, joined the court’s Democratic majority — County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — in signing the letter. Cagle and Ramsey had been sharply critical of fellow Republican George P. Bush, who runs the GLO, after the agency declined to award any money to the city or county.

In the letter, the five court members wrote that a direct allocation of federal aid would “bypass potential bureaucratic delay caused by various Texas agencies and by other entities that will harm our ability to have quick and efficient implementation.”

They did not mention the GLO by name, though the letter was sent to Harris County’s nine-member congressional delegation one week after federal officials halted the distribution of nearly $2 billion in flood control funds to Texas because, they said, the GLO had failed to send in required paperwork detailing its plans to spend the money.

I mean, based on past experience, why would we want to do it any other way? The GLO isn’t just not adding value here, they’re actively reducing it. It’s not a surprise that even the Republican commissioners signed on to this.

On a more philosophical note, a lot of federal relief funds that are targeted at cities and counties and school districts and whatnot have had to go through the state first. For the most part, with COVID funds, the Lege mostly rubber stamped it without much fuss. I know there had been concerns with the pace at which Harvey recovery funds had been spent and homes were being repaired – indeed, there are still a lot of unrepaired homes after all this time – but it seems that a big part of that problem has been having multiple layers of government involved, which led to conflicts and delays and issues getting funds to the people who needed them the most. Indeed, that story also cites issues with the way the GLO interacted with the city of Houston. With COVID relief there were issues with unemployment funds having to go through rickety state systems, no direct way to get other relief funds to people who didn’t have bank accounts, and so forth. There are bigger issues, having to do with underlying infrastructure, that are a big part of this. But even factoring that out, putting states in charge of distributing federal relief funds to localities has been a problem. More so in some states than in others. I don’t know what we can do about that, given everything else going on right now. But we really should do something.

Feds halt Harvey relief funds over GLO error

The continuing saga.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development on Friday halted the distribution of $1.95 billion in aid awarded to Texas after Hurricane Harvey because it said the state has failed to send the federal agency required paperwork detailing its plans to spend it.

The delay is the latest in a series of hold-ups; almost four years after Congress approved $4.3 billion in HUD aid for Texas, about half of it remains unallocated.

HUD said in a statement its formal action gives the Texas General Land Office 45 days to submit the missing document, which the agency said is an analysis explaining how the state’s proposed list of disaster mitigation projects helps the most vulnerable residents.

“We look forward to receiving and reviewing Texas’s submission of the additional information needed for approval,” the HUD statement said. “We are hopeful that Texas will take the steps needed to begin much-needed, forward-looking mitigation projects in the state.”

The decision prevents Texas from distributing $1.2 billion in flood mitigation grants to local governments it had selected through a funding competition, as well as $750 million to Harris County, which was awarded nothing from that contest.

HUD in 2020 signed off on the GLO’s plan for the funding competition, which selected 81 projects, and said it welcomed the subsequent proposal for Harris County. The agency on Friday, however, said moving forward with those plans depends on whether GLO provides the missing report.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she looked forward to GLO completing the paperwork. She said county staff are prepared to answer any questions from HUD about how its planned projects will help vulnerable residents. Hidalgo still is hoping for additional aid.

“This $750 million is a start, but more is needed since Harris County and the city of Houston took over 50 percent of the damage from Hurricane Harvey, and because millions of residents remain vulnerable to natural disasters,” Hidalgo said.

Mayor Sylvester Turner raised the same point about the unequal distribution of aid. He said he was pleased with HUD’s action Friday, and awaits the response from the Land Office.

We’ve been down this road before. The reason this is a problem for the GLO, and why they reacted so bitterly to HUD’s letter, is that they don’t have a good explanation for why they did the funding formula that they did. It was designed to screw the big Democratic cities and counties in favor of the rural Republican counties. That’s not the explanation HUD is looking for, so here we are. Tune in later in February to see how they try to wriggle out of it.

Maybe flood tunnels really are the answer

Time for another study.

Japanese flood tunnel

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is revisiting the idea of constructing a large, underground tunnel beneath the city of Houston — part of its efforts since Hurricane Harvey to alleviate the potential for flooding around the Addicks and Barker reservoirs and along Buffalo Bayou.

Engineers plan to spend two more years studying the possibility and other alternatives, the agency announced Wednesday. It will use $1.8 million in federal funds to do so; an additional $3.4 million from two Harris County county commissioners will further local study of the concept, which community advocates have supported.

The project extension and potential re-imagining of how flood control works here comes after earlier possibilities that the Corps proposed elicited major public backlash. Engineers in an interim report last year suggested digging Buffalo Bayou wider and deeper, or building a third dam and reservoir on the Katy Prairie.

Local advocates have long fought to protect the bayou in its natural form. And environmentalists rallied around the prairie, which supporters consider a necessary, natural way to address flooding and improve water quality.

The agency announced Wednesday that engineers will spend two more years analyzing the tunnel option and other alternatives. The Corps will use $1.8 million in federal funds to continue the study.

An additional $3.4 million from two Harris County commissioners will support complementary research at the county level.

The Corps previously considered tunneling floodwater under the city to be too expensive, with an estimated cost of $6.5 to $12 billion. Engineers envisioned a tunnel some 150 feet below ground, starting at the reservoirs to the west and perhaps following the bayou’s path to the Houston Ship Channel.

Yet the agency noted Wednesday that it had received “substantial” community input. The Corps now hopes to release a draft report and environmental impact statement for what it calls the Buffalo Bayou and Tributaries Resiliency Study next fall. It would then accept more input and issue a final report, aiming to complete the study by December 2023.

“We are very committed to this important, monumental project,” Commander Col. Tim Vail of the Galveston District said in a prepared statement, “and we have heard the public’s feedback.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. As the story notes, and which I don’t think I realized, Austin and San Antonio have similar tunnels, though they are much shorter than Houston’s would be. Look at the map in the story – these suckers would go all the way from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs to either Buffalo Bayou or the Ship Channel. Honestly, that price tag is not really that high, if there’s federal investment in the project. I say study away and let’s see where it takes us.

The 2021 hurricane season is now over

It was another bad one, even if it maybe didn’t feel so bad from our local perspective.

The 2021 Atlantic Hurricane Season [ended] Tuesday with 21 named storms, four major hurricanes and a new addition to the list of costliest U.S. hurricanes.

Ida, which hit Louisiana on Aug. 29 as a Category 4 hurricane, is now the fifth-costliest storm on record since 1980, with $64.5 billion in damages. It follows Hurricane Katrina from 2005 at $178.8 billion (adjusted based on the 2021 Consumer Price Index), Harvey from 2017 at $138.8 billion, Maria from 2017 at $99.9 billion and Sandy from 2012 at $78.7 billion, according to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information and the National Hurricane Center.

The 2021 hurricane season was the third-most-active year on record in terms of named storms — and it marked the first time that two consecutive hurricane seasons exhausted the list of 21 names. Last year had a record 30 named storms, which prompted the World Meteorological Organization to stop using the Greek alphabet for naming the additional storms. These letters had been designated for especially active seasons when the list of 21 pre-selected names was exhausted.

Of this year’s named storms, seven were hurricanes with winds of 74 mph or greater and four were major hurricanes with winds of 111 mph or greater.

One storm directly affected the Houston area: Hurricane Nicholas made landfall Sept. 14 near the eastern part of Matagorda Peninsula. It did so as a Category 1 storm that brought wind gusts and power outages but it, for the most part, left Houston unscathed.

You can see the NOAA press release here. With everything else that’s been going on, I confess that I haven’t given much thought to hurricanes since mid-September, which is the usual point at which the local risk of a big storm declines significantly. We made it through another season more or less unscathed, which is not something many other folks can see. If we can continue to be this lucky for, oh, the next 20 years or so, we’ll probably be fine. If not, well, I’d rather not think about it right now.

GLO still screwing Houston on Harvey aid

This shit has got to stop.

Harris County and the city of Houston this week blasted the Texas General Land Office’s revised plan for distributing billions in federal Hurricane Harvey aid, saying that while it is an improvement over the $0 the state originally awarded the local governments, it still is woefully inadequate.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and Steve Costello, Houston’s chief recovery officer, said in a letter Wednesday that GLO’s proposal to send $750 million to Harris County and still nothing to Houston ignores what Congress wanted when lawmakers approved the aid package for Texas in 2018 — to help communities devastated by Harvey.

“It is unconscionable that the State would expect that this amount in any way represents an amount that is sufficient to address the extensive mitigation needs in Houston and elsewhere in Harris County,” the pair wrote the land office.

The city and county want at least $1 billion each, which they say is fair since that sum would be roughly half of the $4.3 billion in federal aid that GLO manages and Harris County has about half of all the residents in the 49 counties eligible for the funds.

They suggested the state could abandon its proposal to send more aid to regional government entities, including the Houston-Galveston Area Council, to free up more money for Houston and Harris County.

[…]

The dispute with GLO has enormous consequences: Harris County is counting on federal aid to help complete projects in its $2.5 billion flood bond program and Houston desperately wants to improve urban drainage so neighborhoods no longer flood before stormwater can flow into bayous.

The GLO in May announced the results of a $1 billion funding competition for the disaster mitigation aid, which completely shut out the city and county governments, despite the fact that Harris County sustained the most fatalities and property damage from the 2017 storm.

Houston Chronicle investigation found the scoring criteria GLO used discriminated against populous areas and the state disproportionately steered aid to inland counties with a lower risk of disasters than coastal ones most vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding. Land Commissioner George P. Bush claimed falsely that federal rules were to blame for the result.

After criticism from Houston-area Democrats and Republicans alike, the GLO said it would revise its plan for spending more than $1 billion in additional federal aid it has yet to distribute. Instead of holding a second scoring competition as originally planned, GLO intends to award $750 million directly to Harris County, which it can share with Houston and other cities at its discretion.

An additional $667 million would be divided amount regional government entities, including the Houston-Galveston Area Council. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development must approve the revised plan.

In a letter of its own to GLO on Wednesday, Harris County walked a fine line between thanking the state for offering the $750 million and making a case for why it remains insufficient.

Given its own need to fund flood bond projects, the county is disinclined to share its allocation with cities within its boundaries. Instead, County Administrator Dave Berry said county leaders support Houston’s request for a $1 billion allocation.

“The majority of the amount the State of Texas (federal) allocation — by far — was due to Hurricane Harvey and the documented damage suffered in Harris County and the city of Houston,” Berry wrote. “Congress clearly intended for this money to go to communities most impacted and distressed by Harvey.”

See here for my previous update, and Zach Despart’s Twitter thread for color commentary. This is the same tired bullshit from the GLO, with more insults. We’re going to need the feds to step in and apply the hammer, and then we’re seriously going to need to vote a lot of people out of office. There’s no other way forward at this point.

It could have been worse

Just something to ponder, from Space City Weather.

First of all, if you can remember all the way back to Saturday, I presented three different scenarios for Nicholas’ track and eventual flooding in Houston. The first of these was the “Coast Hugger,” in which the storm remained close to the Gulf, brought 2 to 4 inches of rain to Houston and higher amounts along the coast, while keeping the heaviest rains offshore. This is largely what happened, with Nicholas remaining very close to the coast even after moving inland. If we look at satellite-derived precipitation totals for the last three days, the heaviest swath of 10-20 inches of rainfall came offshore.

A track even 40 or 50 miles further inland would have set up those heaviest rains directly across the Houston metro area, and created a much more serious flood situation. Hopefully this offers you some insight into the challenge of predicting these kinds of rain events. It was a very close call, a matter of miles, between significant inland rainfall flooding in Houston, and relatively clean bayous this morning.

The second factor is wind. Nicholas turned out to be a fairly nasty storm in terms of wind gusts, and pushed a larger storm surge—as high as 6.1 feet into Clear Lake—than predicted. This is a reminder of the power of a hurricane, even one that was “only” a minimal Category 1 storm. The truth is that the track of the storm was very nearly a worst-case one for Houston in terms of winds and putting a maximum storm surge across Galveston Island and into Galveston Bay.

It is September 14, the absolute peak of hurricane season in the Atlantic, and a time when sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are at their warmest of the year. So this morning I’m thinking about what would have happened if we had not had some wind shear over the western Gulf of Mexico yesterday, or if Nicholas had been able to consolidate a more well defined and consistent center of circulation. It would have been much, much worse for all of us had a significantly stronger hurricane made landfall last night. So while we pick up the pieces this morning, realize Nicholas could have been much more of a terror.

Not the first time this year that we averted a disaster by dumb luck. We’re four years out from Harvey, 13 years out from Ike, and we’ve had plenty of non-hurricane catastrophic floods in between, so it’s not like we’ve been living a charmed life here in Houston. Lots of people here have been hit very hard, and there’s a whole lot of talk about the trauma and stress that so many folks have experienced and still experience. This is life under climate change. There are things we can do to keep it from getting worse, and there are things we can do to make it better for those who have had the hardest time. But we can’t wish it away or ignore it, and we absolutely can’t deny it. It’s up to all of us.

Remembering Ike as Nicholas pays a visit

Won’t be as bad, thankfully. But still be careful.

Tropical Storm Nicholas is approaching the Texas coast Monday, threatening torrential downpours and flooding for Houston. It also brings with it memories of Hurricane Ike, which wrought havoc across the region on this day 13 years ago.

Ike made landfall in Galveston just after 2 a.m. on Sept. 13, 2008, and wiped out much of the property in the coastal city. The Category 2 storm punched above its weight as 110-mph winds sent water surging over Galveston’s seawall, reaching depths up to 13 feet on Galveston Island and up to 17 feet on Bolivar Peninsula.

The storm knocked out power for millions in the Houston area, with some outages lasting weeks. It cost the Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas areas about $29.5 billion.

The early evening Space City Weather report says that the flood risk is receding for those living more inland, but is still significant for those closest to the coast. As for Ike, well all these years later we’re finally on the verge of building the Ike Dike. Keep thinking happy thoughts for that one.

Also, too, think about how nice it must be to live in a state that has a real Governor.

There’s no partisan advantage to Abbott in answering questions, and he’s a weak leader with no ability to reassure people, so from his perspective there’s nothing to be gained from allowing himself to be asked questions. Also, he has a plan to eliminate hurricanes, which he’ll be announcing soon. So there’s that.

Another catastrophe averted, for us

Sooner or later our luck is going to run out.

If Hurricane Ida had veered west and hit Galveston, its 15-foot storm surge could have devastated the city and plowed up the Houston Ship Channel, smashing into residential communities and industrial facilities; its 150 mph winds could have left much of the Houston area without power for weeks, experts said.

The region dodged yet another bullet last Sunday when Ida made landfall in Louisiana, inflicting catastrophic damage on its residents, property and oil-driven economy.

But Houston’s streak of relatively good luck since Hurricane Harvey four years ago is unlikely to last as climate change is expected to bring about more destructive hurricanes and sea level rise. A Category 4 hurricane such as Ida — which brought a triple threat of wind, storm surge and torrential rainfall — would have wreaked havoc on the Bayou City.

Unlike New Orleans, which strengthened its levee system after Hurricane Katrina in 2007, Houston hasn’t completed any substantial projects to protect the region against surge from a major hurricane such as Ida. The stakes are high: The Houston area is home to 7.1 million residents, one of the busiest shipping ports in the country and the nation’s largest concentration of critical oil and gas facilities.

“We are sitting ducks right now for a storm,” said Bill Merrell, a Texas A&M University professor who began advocating for an “Ike Dike” coastal barrier system years ago that has yet to get congressional approval.

If Ida had hit Galveston instead of Port Fouchon, La., the hurricane could have caused devastating damage across the Houston region, meteorologists said.

Ida’s 15-foot storm surge would have been smaller than Hurricane Ike’s 22-foot storm surge, the worst of which hit Bolivar Peninsula and parts of Chambers County in 2008. The Port of Houston’s facilities, which are built 20 feet above sea level, likely would have survived.

[…]

Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation, said hurricane mitigation efforts should go beyond the barrier project. While the Ike Dike could help stop an Ida-like storm surge, the barrier system isn’t designed to withstand winds from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane or prevent major flooding inland from rain. Harris County has undertaken a number of projects since Hurricane Harvey to increase storage capacity for and conveyance of rainfall; a separate Corps project looking at addressing rainfall is still in the planning phase.

Just as power plants should be ordered to weatherize their equipment for winter freezes, Houston leaders should be urging the oil and gas industry to shore up thousands of chemical storage tanks along the Gulf Coast, which are vulnerable to spills in the event of storm surge and extreme winds. And more homes along the Ship Channel should be bought out or elevated, Stokes said.

“Even if you think the coastal barrier is a great solution, it shouldn’t be the end solution,” Stokes said. “Even if you had all the money in hand, it will take decades to build. We can be doing more in the short term that could make a big difference.”

This story is an advertisement for building the Ike Dike, but as it and this other story make clear, there has to be more. The Ike Dike is necessary but not sufficient. We have done some things in the Houston area, with the 2018 referendum helping out even as it has had its problems, but as always there is more to do.

I tend to look at problems like this through a cybersecurity lens. Anyone in that business will tell you that you cannot fully eliminate your risk – indeed, in the context of a large business network, it’s guaranteed that you will experience breaches and infections – but there are many things you can do to mitigate them. No one thing covers all scenarios, but the various solutions overlap and complement each other, with the idea being that if one thing doesn’t work then something else will, and if all else fails you can detect and respond to the situation quickly. It’s called “defense in depth”, and it’s sturdier and more resilient than any single solution, because if you just rely on one thing to keep you safe and that one thing fails in some way, you’re hosed. We need the Ike Dike and we’ve needed it for a long time, but even as we finally move towards getting it, we will continue to need more than that. The more we can do right now to bolster and complement the future Ike Dike, the better off we will be.

It’s the quick intensification of the hurricanes for me

New things to keep you up at night.

It’s a nightmare scenario that keeps forecasters up at night: A tropical cyclone strengthens quickly over a 24-hour period.

It happened last year close to home with Hurricane Laura, which evolved from Category 1 to a more devastating Category 4 before striking near Lake Charles, La., sweeping buildings from foundations and killing seven people with surf and falling trees.

Researchers in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agree it’s likely that the tropical cyclones that formed over the past four decades increasingly went through such a period of rapid intensification. They also say a greater proportion of future hurricanes will very likely be Category 4 and 5.

Coastal communities need to prepare, experts say.

The trend toward a greater frequency of storms getting stronger fast may continue, according to Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. Unexpected high winds and storm surges can cause disaster. Strong winds leave communities powerless and storm surges kill.

But evacuating vulnerable areas requires time; doing so too hastily can be dangerous.

“That’s really the nightmare scenario for forecasters and emergency managers,” said Robert Rogers, a research meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who studies storm intensity changes. “Imagine a tropical storm that’s approaching landfall, maybe a 55 mph tropical storm, and it undergoes rapid intensification to become a 130 mph monster at landfall. That’s really what keeps the forecasters up at night. That’s really what a lot of our effort is going toward trying to better understand.”

[…]

Area residents may not have five or six days to prepare for and evacuate from a storm, said Jeff Lindner, meteorologist for the Harris County Flood Control district.

Three-quarters of storms that struck Texas developed and hit within 60 hours, he said. Rapid intensification can add pressure to that timeline. Hurricane Humberto in 2007 famously went from tropical depression to tropical storm to hurricane in 19 hours, hitting east of High Island.

Other memorable storms intensified rapidly too: Ike’s winds in 2008 went from tropical storm-level to Category 4 in a 24-hour period when it formed, according to satellite estimates, but weakened before hitting Galveston with deadly surge. Harvey in 2017 rapidly strengthened to a Category 4 before striking near Rockport and later drenching the Houston area, unleashing catastrophic flooding.

What terrifies environmental attorney and longtime climate advocate Jim Blackburn is the scenario where people feel equipped to handle what they think is coming and are caught off guard when it becomes something else. He worries about coastal residents dying because they prepare to ride out a small storm — and a much stronger one hits.

“People have assumed or have fallen into routines based on the past,” Blackburn said, “and that’s the whole point of climate change. You cannot depend on the past to predict the future.”

I don’t really have much to add to that. Have your emergency kit stocked and ready, know what your plan will be, and hope like heck forecasting ability continues to improve. And yeah, build the Ike Dike.

Actually, I do have one more thing, as I had drafted this a few days ago: Be ready to donate to Hurricane Ida relief funds. Louisiana will need all the help it can get.

We still have half of hurricane season to go

Don’t get distracted.

Don’t be lulled by the quiet start to this year’s hurricane season in Texas. NOAA is maintaining its forecast for an above-average year and has upped the number of storms it’s expecting.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Wednesday there could be 15 to 21 named storms. Between seven and 10 of those could become hurricanes and three to five could be major hurricanes of Category 3 or higher, according to the agency’s Climate Prediction Center.

It had previously predicted 13 to 20 named storms, including six to 10 hurricanes and three to five major hurricanes.

Although no storms have reached Texas, NOAA said there have been five named storms this year. Hurricane Elsa became the earliest fifth named storm on record.

“After a record-setting start, the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season does not show any signs of relenting as it enters the peak months ahead,” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said in a news release.

This time last year, there had been nine named storms. But 2020 was a record-breaking year that ultimately saw 30 named storms.

The NOAA press release is here. Some years we’ve gotten lucky, some years less so. We have not faced the doomsday “big hurricane comes straight up I-45” scenario yet, one for which the Ike Dike will hopefully someday be made for, but that day is out there somewhere. We hope it’s not this year, at least. Stock up on bottled water and batteries and have an escape plan as needed.

Hurricane season is (almost) upon us

Are you ready?

Be prepared for another busier-than-normal Atlantic hurricane season, NOAA warned Thursday.

The agency is forecasting 13 to 20 named storms. Between six and 10 of those could become hurricanes and three to five could be major hurricanes of Category 3 or higher. Hurricane season starts June 1.

This forecast follows a record-breaking 2020 with 30 named storms (the initial forecast was 13-19 named storms). Of those 30 storms, 13 became hurricanes and six were classified as major hurricanes. Laura, Eta and Iota were retired from the list of hurricane names due to the damages and fatalities they caused.

“It was a mere six months ago that the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record ended,” Ben Friedman, acting NOAA administrator, said during a news conference, “and here we are now on the cusp of a new hurricane season.”

This year is not expected to be as active as 2020, but there are several layered conditions causing the “above-normal” forecast for 2021, said Matthew Rosencrans, a meteorologist at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

One is a warm phase of sea surface temperature in the North Atlantic Ocean. The sea’s surface temperature has cool and warm phases that may last 20 to 40 years, a natural occurrence that has been happening for at least 1,000 years. This current warm phase, which began in 1995, has favored more, stronger and longer-lasting storms.

Adding to this is a stronger west African monsoon. Disturbances that become tropical storms often come from Africa, and a stronger monsoon (more moisture being pulled into Western Africa) means these disturbances are better positioned to become tropical storms or hurricanes.

NOAA also expects that there will be weaker vertical wind shear and a neutral phase of El Nino, with the possibility of La Niña returning later this year. These provide conditions more favorable for storms to develop whereas their opposites (strong vertical wind shear and El Niño) could impede storm development.

See here for some background. As noted before, there will be no more Greek letter names for overflow storms, but maybe we’ll be lucky and stop at or before Wanda – the full list of names for 2021 is here. It’s not how busy the season is, it’s more about how many storms come to shore. Be prepared and hope for the best.

And when I say “be prepared”, I mean now. There’s no time to lose.

A disturbance near Bermuda is likely to become a subtropical cyclone on Friday, which would make it the first named Atlantic storm of the year, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The system was located about 800 miles east of Bermuda Thursday morning. It was forecast to move over warmer waters Thursday night, with a 70 percent chance of forming into a subtropical cyclone in the next two days.

National Hurricane Center forecasters have been issuing regular updates on tropical weather since May 15 — earlier than usual. Hurricane season doesn’t officially start until June 1.

Feels like they’re going to move the “official” start of hurricane season up a bit at some point, doesn’t it?

First look at the 2021 hurricane season

Yeah, it’s getting to be that time of year. From Space City Weather:

Good morning. The most reputable hurricane season forecasting service, led by Phil Klotzbach at Colorado State University, has released its first outlook for the 2021 Atlantic season. The forecast calls for above normal activity (see table below) with 17 named storms instead of the more typical 12; eight hurricanes instead of six; and about 50 percent total more activity, in terms of the duration and intensity of tropical systems, as measured by accumulated cyclone energy.

This outlook is consistent with other predictions, already released, in calling for a busier than normal season. What I like about Klotzbach’s forecast is that he’s very clear about his methodology—using a combination of statistical modeling, and historical correlations between Spring-time weather conditions and hurricane activity later in the year. Klotzbach also has a reasonable track record.

With that said, seasonal hurricane forecasts are far from perfect. I think, generally, we can expect a busier Atlantic season, but we’re almost certainly not going to see a brute of a year like 2020. Moreover, the chance of the Houston area being directly affected by serious tropical weather (in terms of floods, winds, or surge) is pretty low. Historically, the region only sees a significant storm about once a decade or so. Therefore, while it certainly is time to begin planning for the 2021 Atlantic season, I very much do not want you to start worrying or obsessing about it. Matt and I will, of course, be here every step of the way, and we’ll be releasing a new app before the June 1 beginning of the season to keep you informed.

“Not as bad as 2020” is a low bar to clear, but we have to start somewhere. There will be other forecasts, and that will give us a fuller picture of what is expected. Also of importance is predicting the development and path and severity of hurricanes and big rainstorms, and towards that end the NOAA rolled out a new model last month.

“You just get a better forecast,” said Lance Wood, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Houston/Galveston office. “The day-to-day reliability of the model forecasting would be better, though it would probably be more noticeable in something like an extreme rainfall threat.”

The upgrades include a variety of changes. For one, the Global Forecast System (an atmospheric model) can now interact with a global wave model. Running these models together will extend wave forecasts to 16 days, up from the current 10-day forecasts. This is particularly helpful to mariners planning long-distance voyages, Wood said.

The upgrades also provide a more detailed look at the atmosphere at various vertical levels. Previously, the model showed data at 64 different levels in the atmosphere. Now, it will show 127 different levels. This type of information can help provide more accurate cloud coverage forecasts — a weather outlook that’s often requested by general aviation pilots who want to know how thick the clouds will be.

And finally, the new-and-improved Global Forecast System will be able to pull more data from satellites that provide weather observations and planes that measure wind, temperature and moisture, Wood said.

In other words, we’ll have more time in advance of a hurricane to know that it’s coming and to prep for it. We need all the help we can get with that. Stay alert, be prepared, don’t panic, and we’ll get through this.

No more Greek letter-named hurricanes

Later, Eta.

Sororities and fraternities can keep their Greek letters — hurricanes will no longer use them.

The World Meteorological Organization, which maintains the rotating list of hurricane names and retires storm names when appropriate, has decided to stop using the Greek alphabet for naming storms. These letters were designated for especially active seasons when the list of 21 names was exhausted.

Last Atlantic hurricane season, with a record 30 named storms, used nine letter names from the Greek alphabet. It was only the second time the Greek alphabet was used to name storms.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, this caused several issues. Pulling out the Greek alphabet garnered a lot of attention — perhaps more attention than the storms themselves.

The pronunciation of several Greek letters (Zeta, Eta, Theta) is similar. It can be confusing when storms with similar sounding names occurring simultaneously. There can also be confusion when translating these names into other languages.

But perhaps the biggest issue is how to handle Greek alphabet names that need to be retired. There was no formal plan for retiring Greek names, and during the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season both Hurricane Eta and Hurricane Iota made landfall in Nicaragua as Category 4 storms. Hurricane Iota was the strongest storm at landfall in 2020.

James Franklin, former chief of forecast operations for the National Hurricane Center, suspected the Greek alphabet would be addressed by the Hurricane Committee, which serves North America, Central America and the Caribbean.

The issue had come up before, after the 2005 hurricane season (you remember, the one that included Katrina, Rita, and Wilma), but the Greek-letter-named storms were not big enough to be considered for name retirement, so the issue never got any traction. It’s different now, for obvious reasons. Most likely, there will be a separate B-list of names to use if and when the initial list of 21 names is exhausted, but the final decision is to be determined later. Just so you know.

There sure were a lot of named storms this year

Thirty of them, in fact.

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season had a record 30 named storms. Twelve made landfall in the continental U.S., including five in Louisiana.

Hurricane season ends Nov. 30 (that’s next week, so fingers crossed there isn’t a Thanksgiving surprise), but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its end-of-season report on Tuesday.

“The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season ramped up quickly and broke records across the board,” Neil Jacobs, acting NOAA administrator, said in a news release.

There were a record nine named storms from May through July. Then 10 named storms formed in September; the most for any month on record.

On Sept. 18, Tropical Storm Wilfred exhausted the pre-selected 21 names for this Atlantic hurricane season. For only the second time in history, the Greek alphabet was required to name subsequent storms.

Hurricane Laura was the strongest storm to make landfall in the U.S., coming ashore near Cameron, La., on Aug. 27 as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph.

Nicaragua was hit with two Category 4 storms: Hurricane Eta on Nov. 3 with maximum sustained winds of 140 mph and Hurricane Iota on Nov. 16 with maximum sustained winds near 155 mph.

A “normal” year has 12 named storms. We’re in a period of warmer sea surface temperatures, and that’s a phase that can last a couple of decades. So it’s probably not going to get much better any time soon, and that’s before we bring up that pesky climate change thing. And the US got off relatively easy while places like Nicaragua got slammed. Since Donald Trump couldn’t find Nicaragua on a map if you drew him an arrow pointing to it with a red Sharpie, let’s hope that the Biden administration will offer some support and relief. And also that we’ll get started on building that Ike Dike. Here’s a timeline if you want to relive the 2020 storm season.

Who cares how much it will cost to build the Ike Dike?

Imagine how much it will cost to recover from a catastrophic hurricane whose storm surge could have been mitigated by the Ike Dike. You know, like that hurricane from earlier this year that would have done exactly that had it hit 150 miles or so west of where it did hit.

The Army Corps of Engineers has revised its plan for a coastal barrier that would fundamentally alter the southeast Texas coastline, with massive sea gates across the Houston Ship Channel and 43 miles of dunes and renourished beaches spanning Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston.

The newest version of the coastal barrier, once known as the “Ike Dike,” was released Tuesday by the Corps and Texas General Land Office. While initial estimates said the project would cost as much as $32 billion, officials now peg the cost as $26.2 billion.

The plan incorporates feedback received during a contentious round of public meetings after the original plan was released in October 2018. Many coastal residents and environmentalists balked at a structure that they said could harm ecology and wildlife and tank property values.

But with three major hurricanes narrowly skirting the Houston-Galveston region this year during a particularly active season — 27 named storms — state officials noted that a project on the scale of the coastal barrier would protect the region for decades to come as the climate gets warmer and more volatile.

“The Corps of Engineers recognizes the coast as a extremely vibrant place to live and recognizes, and our metrics in the army show, that the Texas coast is leading economic growth for the nation,” said Mark Havens, deputy land commissioner for the General Land Office. “This hurricane season has given us pause because it’s given us too many close calls not to heed this warning.”

The Corps plans to convene three days of virtual public meetings, beginning Nov. 16. The public comment period will end on Dec. 14, and feedback will be incorporated into the final feasibility report, which the Corps plans to publish in May 2021. The Corps also emphasized interactive web features for the public such as 3-D virtual tours of some of the project’s features and flood impact maps.

Once the study is complete it will be proposed for congressional authorization and funding. If approved, it is expected to take 12 to 20 years to design and construct.

See here for the previous update. We are virtually certain to get a big honking infrastructure/stimulus bill from the Biden administration in its early days, and this project would fit nicely within it. All we need is for the Texas Congressional delegation to do its part. This will take a long time to build, as noted, so the less screwing around we do, the sooner we can get it started. In conclusion:

Indeed.

The post-Harvey flood control march

It’s a long journey, with a lot to be done. It’s going to take awhile.

Most of Kenwood, a working class, mostly Latino neighborhood, is so deep in the 100-year floodplain that Harris County engineers have concluded no flood control project could protect it from a strong storm. Instead, the county began a voluntary buyout program in Kenwood and seven other vulnerable areas two years ago, but found few takers. Under pressure to spend federal Harvey recovery aid more quickly, the county this summer chose to make the buyouts mandatory.

The extraordinary step only underscores that, more than three years after Harvey rolled ashore as the worst rainstorm in continental U.S. history — and amid a record-setting Atlantic hurricane season — progress toward reducing Houston’s greatest vulnerability has been painfully slow and piecemeal at best.

Voters passed a $2.5 billion bond two years ago, giving the county a huge injection of funding to tackle nearly 200 flood control projects. Those projects take time, often years, to complete, however. And county officials concede the cost to fully protect against 100-year storms is more than 10 times higher than what voters approved.

City Hall lacks a comparable cash infusion and so mostly is waiting on the slow-motion arrival of federal aid. Meanwhile, its voter-approved street and drainage program has been shorted by more than $260 million over the last six years, money that has been used on other city services.

The city and county did update their floodplain building standards in the months after the storm, but City Council has yet to follow Commissioners Court’s lead in strengthening storm water detention rules.

“Folks are definitely still quite dissatisfied with the level of flood protection that’s been provided thus far from the city and the county,” said Chrishelle Palay, director of Houston Organizing Movement for Equity. “When it comes to historically underserved communities of color, those are the communities where the infrastructure has been disinvested, both from street flooding and from watershed protection.”

The Houston region’s most readily available defense against future floods is the $2.5 billion county bond.

To date, the county Flood Control District has begun work on 144 of its 188 planned bond projects, but only 18 have reached the construction stage, said Deputy Executive Director Matt Zeve. A dozen projects the district funded with other revenues also have been completed since Harvey, removing an estimated 5,000 homes from the 100-year floodplain.

The bond funds are helping to accelerate long-planned projects and start new ones, Zeve said, but large infrastructure improvements cannot be engineered and built overnight.

“There are places in Harris County that are right where they were three years ago, but there are several areas where we’ve completed projects or are constructing projects right now, and those areas will have a lower risk of flooding in a future storm event,” Zeve said. “It’s not as fast as everyone wants, but we do feel like we’re making good progress on major flood damage reduction projects all over Harris County, with more to come.”

Home buyouts, though some take a year to complete, move the fastest, making the 560 repeatedly flooded homes the county has bought since Harvey among the few tangible signs of progress the city and county have made toward reducing flood risk since the storm.

Even this seemingly simple task, however, can be an arduous process fraught with difficulties and heartache for residents.

There’s progress, but it’s slow and spotty. We should acknowledge that capital projects take time by their nature, and so does relocating people. There’s a lot to be done because there was so much that hadn’t been done over the past thirty or forty years. I don’t know what else there is to say about this. We should keep a close eye on the progress of all of the projects, we should continue to demand that more is done, and we should be voting for politicians who work towards these goals, but in the end and under the best of circumstances, this is going to take time.

No, seriously, what are we going to do to prepare for the next Hurricane Laura?

I mean, the next one is coming whether we’re ready or not. We just don’t know when it will be here.

Though the storm ultimately tracked east, sparing Houston, the problem remains: The region is disastrously unready to handle any of the three main threats of an intense hurricane: a high surge, damaging winds and — even three years after Hurricane Harvey — flooding.

While Harvey’s devastating stall over the Houston area has resulted in billions of dollars of investment in flood control infrastructure and new regulations, Laura reminded the region of what a different kind of storm could do.

In its wake, leaders have made impassioned pleas about preparing for when — not if — that storm does arrive. Most notably, they have ramped up calls for federal funding on a so-called “coastal spine,” a system of levees, gates and dunes first proposed after Hurricane Ike in 2008, to protect the region from a storm surge.

Those plans, though, remain mired in the slog of the federal approval process. The kind of political will and cohesion needed to fast-track such infrastructure typically only forms after disasters, not before.

[…]

There are signs the region has reached an inflection point on the need to protect against that threat. A growing consensus among local officials around the effects of climate change has shifted the public policy debate to figuring out which infrastructure projects will help stave off its worst effects, and at what cost.

The proposed coastal spine, a 71-mile-long barrier system to protect the southeast Texas coast, has received the most attention since it was taken up by the Army Corps of Engineers in October 2018.

The plan is an outgrowth of the “Ike Dike” concept first pitched more than a decade ago by William Merrell, a professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M University at Galveston. It includes a series of gates that stretch the two-mile length of Bolivar Road, twin rows of 14-foot-high sand dunes across Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, a ring levee around Galveston’s city center and investments in ecosystem restoration.

The price tag has been put at $23 billion to $32 billion, with the dunes and sea gate at the ship channel alone costing up to $18 billion of that. It is in the midst of a five-year design and study process and is on track to be sent to Congress for final approval in May 2021.

“Quite frankly, we need it yesterday,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said last week. “We’re running out of lives, so to speak.”

Even on the most optimistic timeline, the coastal barrier is 10 to 15 years from becoming a reality. With the Houston-Galveston region a perennial target during the Atlantic hurricane season, there is a growing urgency to find a more expedient, cheaper solution.

The Galveston Bay Park Plan, first proposed by the Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education & Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center in 2015, includes similar protection features as the coastal spine, but adds a mid-bay barrier island system with a 25-foot wall that would protect the industrial complexes and densely populated areas in the west and northwest sections of Galveston Bay.

Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney and co-director of the SSPEED Center, says the plan could provide vital protection a lot sooner than the coastal spine, but that it also could complement that barrier. He estimates that if allowed to use dredging spoils from the planned widening of the Houston Ship Channel to build the barrier islands, the project could be completed by 2027 at a fraction of the cost of the coastal spine — an estimated $5 billion to $7 billion.

“You have a coastal defense and that’s your first line of defense and then you come in with your in-bay defense, that is really the one that can protect against your bigger storms,” Blackburn said. “It’s very much almost like thinking in a military sense of how do you defend against an enemy invasion?”

See here and here for some background. I’m of the opinion that we just need to start building something, and that the price tag is a mirage, because the federal government can absolutely afford this. What we can’t afford is to sit around on our asses until the devastating storm we’ve been warned about for years comes and wipes our unprepared selves right off the map.

Just build the effing Ike Dike already

Enough waiting around.

As twin hurricanes converge on the Gulf Coast this week, including one with a decent chance of affecting the Houston-Galveston region, a highly ambitious proposal for protecting the area from a massive storm continues to slowly grind its way through the federal approval process.

Twelve years after Hurricane Ike leveled much of the Upper Texas Coast, federal officials are still studying the effects of a proposed coastal barrier and looking for ways to pay for a project now estimated to cost $31 billion. The next draft of a plan is due out in October.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ current plan to build a 71-mile barrier system to protect the southeast Texas coast has changed significantly since the Corps’ first proposal in October 2018. That proposal — a system of levees and gates stretching from High Island to San Luis Pass — was a close approximation of the “Ike Dike” concept first touted by William Merrell, a professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M University at Galveston, more than a decade ago.

That original plan called for the construction of levees that would run parallel to FM 3005 on Galveston Island and Texas 87 on Bolivar Peninsula but behind the dune line. This plan for harder barrier would have left thousands of homes adjacent to the beach exposed to flooding and likely required extensive eminent domain buyouts.

The backlash to that original proposal sent the Corps back to the drawing board. By late 2019, the Corps had settled on a double dune system — a field of 12- and 14-foot dunes, approximately 185 feet wide, with a runway of 250 feet of renourished beach leading to the Gulf of Mexico.

[…]

Kelly Burks-Copes, the Army Corps’ project manager for the coastal barrier proposal, emphasized the agency is working with the data that the federal budget allows for at this time. She noted the Army Corps is still studying how ship traffic would navigate proposed sea gates crossing Galveston Bay and whether the gates would allow for minimal tidal flow between the bay and the Gulf of Mexico. All of that information will be in the next draft of the barrier plan.

“We still have to finish the environmental impact analysis, and the (barrier) footprints are gonna change slightly as the real estate gross appraisal finishes,” Burks-Copes said in February, referring to eminent domain buyouts that could be required to build the dunes.

See here for the background. I agree there has been a long debate about how to build an Ike Dike, with a number of possible variations and some passionate advocacy on all sides. I do want to make sure we do not have a negative effect on the environment in building it. But at some point we gotta start building. And for crying out loud, don’t come at me with concerns about cost, not after the Republicans spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for the rich and however many trillions on (very necessary and still insufficient) COVID recovery. The Ike Dike is peanuts next to that, and it’s vitally necessary. When the draft plan is submitted to Congress next May, there needs to be a funding bill attached to it. Get this done.

The bullet we dodged

We can exhale now.

Following days of warnings and calls to take Laura seriously, Houston and Harris County awoke to a typical late August day Thursday, virtually unscathed by the category 4 hurricane’s overnight landfall in western Louisiana.

The city and county saw occasional wind gusts of about 20 miles per hour but did not experience any of Hurricane Laura’s more damaging effects, officials said.

The National Weather Service said it had no reports of storm damage in Houston as of 6:30 a.m. The only noticeable effect was the occasional wind, according to Janice Maldonado, a meteorologist with the agency.

Houston’s Office of Emergency Management, which activated to maximum readiness in advance of the storm, began sending workers home overnight as the storm passed.

“From my understanding, Houston was pretty much spared,” said Cory Stottlemyer, spokesman for the agency.

Jeff Lindner, meteorologist for the Harris County Flood Control District, said 90 miles made all the difference between unscathed Houston and hard-hit southwest Louisiana.

“We really dodged a bullet,” he said.

Yesterday was spent in a confusing melange of heavy relief and pervasive survivor’s guilt. We escaped completely unscathed, while much of Louisiana got leveled by the winds. It’s a complex set of feelings, but this is not the first time we’ve had them around here. It’s just a bit more intense this time, three years after Harvey and with a full appreciation of what a monster Laura was and how utterly devastating it would have been to us if it had tracked farther west. If you want to know what that all looked like, see here and here. When you’re done, go find some ways to help, and act accordingly.

Hope now, support relief efforts next

This is so, so bad. And it’s terrifying to realize how much worse it could have been.

With winds topping 150 mph, Hurricane Laura is approaching Category 5 status as it barrels toward the Texas-Louisiana border.

As of 7 p.m., the system was located about 120 miles southeast of Port Arthur, moving toward the coast at about 15 mph. It remains course to make landfall near the Texas-Louisiana border around midnight, according to the National Weather Service. A roughly 150-mile stretch of coastline from Sea Rim State Park, Texas, to Intracoastal City, Louisiana, is expected to take the brunt of the storm’s impact.

Wind speeds and water levels are currently rising along the northwest Gulf coast. Sustained winds of 39 mph were reported at 6 p.m. along the southern-most edge of the Louisiana coast. Heavy rains also are beginning to spread onshore. The hurricane center said “possible tornadoes” were sprouting from Laura’s outer bands at 7 p.m. over southeastern Louisiana and extreme southwestern Mississippi.

Regions directly in Hurricane Laura’s path and east of the storm face catastrophic consequences from what the National Hurricane Center called an “extremely dangerous” storm expected to ravage portions of the northwest Gulf coast with “unsurvivable” storm surge, extreme wind and widespread flash flooding.

A tornado watch is expected to last through 9 p.m. for areas east of the Houston area and most of the Louisiana coast. The pressure around the storm has dropped to about 940 mb. Outer swaths of rain have been whipping across inland areas, with gusty winds and downpours expected in Liberty and Chambers counties.

How bad is Hurricane Laura? This bad:

Never good to be grouped with Katrina and Rita. And as bad as this is, shift this thing 150 miles west for a direct hit on Houston, and, well, I don’t even want to think about it. There are plenty of articles out now about how bad that would be. We need the Ike Dike ASAP, but we need more than that, too. We’re sitting on dynamite and playing with matches until we take this seriously.

Coronavirus and hurricane shelters

Two things we have to be thinking about today.

Houston officials and public health experts are expressing concern that Tropical Storm Laura could amplify the spread of COVID-19 by displacing residents to public shelters or residences outside the area, increasing opportunities for transmission.

With that scenario in mind, Mayor Sylvester Turner on Sunday encouraged Houstonians to get tested for COVID-19 before the storm makes landfall. Forecasters have predicted it will come ashore late Wednesday or early Thursday, though the path remained uncertain by Monday evening.

Officials from Harris County and the American Red Cross began preparing for potential shelter needs months ago, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Monday. At Red Cross shelters, officials will provide face coverings, conduct health screenings and follow federal social distancing guidance, the organization announced in a news release. It also will operate more shelters with a reduced capacity in each.

“This is not a situation where we would have the same kind of shelters we’re used to, where it’s completely open space and no division between folks,” Hidalgo said.

Turner, who urged people to get tested on Monday or Tuesday, tweeted, “You need to know your status for yourself, family members and friends.”

[…]

Dr. Peter Hotez, an immunologist at the Baylor College of Medicine, said that while disaster officials may come up with creative solutions to help contain the spread of COVID, public shelters would be “a nightmare even under the best circumstances.”

The effect may be especially pronounced, Hotez said, because those most likely to seek shelter in a public setting come from low-income communities where people are more vulnerable to the effects of COVID due to the prevalence of underlying health conditions.

It also would be difficult for contact tracers to follow the spread of the virus during an evacuation, he said.

“If you think about it, without a vaccine, what do we have? We have masks, we have contact tracing and social distancing — which are not great, but it’s all we have,” Hotez said. “With a hurricane, we’ve knocked out two of our three pieces of artillery equipment.”

These are obviously not the best of circumstances. Tropical Storm Laura is now officially Hurricane Laura, and it’s already a pretty strong one. Jefferson County, Chambers County, Orange County, and Galveston County are under mandatory evacuation orders, with parts of Harris County issuing a recommendation that areas in the storm surge zone evacuate as well.

Harris County officials urged residents of some coastal areas to evacuate Tuesday as Hurricane Laura could strike the Houston region Wednesday evening.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a voluntary evacuation order Tuesday afternoon for zones A and B and urged residents to leave immediately. She warned of a storm surge of three to five feet and high winds that could knock out power.

“All of us need to be prepared for the very real potential of a direct hit from this storm,” Hidalgo said. “Of course, we hope for the best, but we don’t want to find ourselves unprepared for the worst case scenario.”

These zones include part or all of Deer Park, La Porte, League City, Friendswood, Seabrook, El Lago, Morgan’s Point and southeastern portions of the city of Houston.

[…]

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner warned residents of congested traffic on freeways heading away from the coast and urged non-evacuating residents to avoid traveling if possible. Residents in the evacuation zone should not delay, he stressed, because Laura could change course unexpectedly.

“At this point in time, if it veers further to the west and becomes more of a direct hit on Houston-Harris County, we don’t really have a lot of time,” Turner said.

The mayor urged residents to be prepared for extended power outages, and noted that some households were without electricity for two weeks after Hurricane Ike in 2008. He said people should be off the streets by 8 p.m. Wednesday, but stopped short of calling for a curfew.

Immediate safety concerns take precedence over more theoretical longer-term safety concerns. In the meantime, we prepare for the worst and hope for the best. As of last night, it looks like the worst will probably (though not 100%) miss Houston, but that means Beaumont and Port Arthur are directly in its crosshairs. We’re going to need to mobilize a strong response, because it’s going to be bad.

As a programming matter, it is certainly possible that power and/or Internet outages will have an effect on my publication schedule. That’s a pretty minor consideration, but I wanted to note it just in case. Stay safe, everyone.

Here comes Laura

Be prepared.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo urged residents to prepare for a hurricane as the track and intensity of Tropical Storm Laura remains uncertain.

She said the greatest threat posed by Laura likely would be high winds and a storm surge, and urged the public not to make comparisons to historical storms.

“This is not Harvey, this is not Imelda, this is not Allison. This is Laura,” Hidalgo said. “Every storm is different, and we urge folks not to use any prior storm as a template for what could or will happen.”

Laura is expected to strengthen to a hurricane Tuesday, possibly as strong as Category 2, before making landfall in southeast Texas or southwest Louisiana on Wednesday, the National Weather Service predicted Monday afternoon.

Hidalgo said residents should prepare hurricane kits and check which evacuation zone they live in.

The mayor of Port Arthur ordered an evacuation beginning Tuesday morning for the 55,000 residents of that city on the Texas-Louisiana border. City of Galveston leaders issued a voluntary evacuation for residents in low-lying areas and on the west end of the seawall.

Houston and Harris County have no present plans to order an evacuation. Hidalgo said residents in coastal areas should be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, as an evacuation order likely would come sometime Tuesday.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said residents should be prepared for high traffic on freeways heading away from the coast. He asked residents to stay off the roads if possible to keep evacuation routes clear and secure anything outside their homes that could blow away in high winds.

Generally speaking, you run from flooding and you shelter from winds. Unless you’ve been told to evacuate, you should probably prepare to shelter in place. In the meantime, stay calm and check Space City Weather for the most up to date forecasts.

Hurricane season is just getting started

Just, you know, because we don’t have enough to be anxious about.

Already smashing records, this year’s hyperactive Atlantic hurricane season is about to get even nastier, forecasters predict. In the coming months, they expect to run out of traditional hurricane names and see about twice as much storm activity as a normal year.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Thursday upped its seasonal forecast, now predicting a far-above-average 19 to 25 named storms — seven to 11 of them to become hurricanes and three to six of those to become major hurricanes with winds of at least 111 mph (178 kph). That’s a few more storms than the agency’s May forecast. The agency increased the chance of an above average hurricane season from 60% to 85%.

“It looks like this season could be one of the more active in the historical record,” but it’s unlikely to be beat 2005’s 28 named storms because the oceans were warmer and other conditions were more conducive to storm formation 15 years ago, said NOAA lead forecaster Gerry Bell.

This year’s forecast of up to 25 is the highest number NOAA has ever predicted, beating the 21 predicted for 2005, Bell said.

Colorado State University, which pioneered hurricane season forecasts decades ago, on Wednesday amped its forecast to 24 named storms, 12 hurricanes and 5 major hurricanes — all higher than their June forecast.

[…]

An average year, based on 1981 to 2010 data, is 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes. Lead Colorado State forecaster Phil Klotzbach said all the factors that cause hurricane seasons to be busy are dialed up, including increased storminess in Africa that seeds the biggest hurricanes, warmer water that fuels storms and reduced high level winds that kill storms.

In a normal year, about 90% of storm activity comes after August 6, with mid-August to mid-October as peak season. So far this year, there have been nine named storms, with most setting a record for being early. The most destructive so far has been this month’s Hurricane Isaias which killed at least nine people and left millions of people without power.

“Nine storms to this date is crazy,” Klotzbach said. Since 1995, when the Atlantic started a more active period for hurricanes, the average season has seen 12 named storms forming after August 5, he said.

The number of storms don’t matter as much as where they go, MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel said, noting the busy 2010 hurricane season that barely touched the United States.

While the predictions are about the number of storms and don’t say where they strike, Klotzbach’s forecast says more storms increases the chance of another U.S. landfall. It says there’s a 74% chance that yet another storm will hit the U.S. coastline somewhere, with a 49% chance of a hit on the East Coast and Florida peninsula and a 48% chance of a hit on the Gulf Coast.

Most of this year’s storms so far have been weak, decapitated by high level winds and dry air, but Klotzbach said that’s about to change.

Sea surface temperatures in the eastern Atlantic are nearly 2 degrees (1 degree Celsius) warmer than normal. That not only provides more fuel for storms but changes air pressure and winds to make favorable conditions for storms to form and strengthen, he said.

You can see the NOAA’s release here. Just a reminder, 2005 was the fun year that brought us Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, among others. As noted, it’s not the number of hurricanes but where they go and what they do that really matters. Then again, the more hurricanes there are, the greater the chances that one will come your way. Who feels any confidence in Donald Trump’s FEMA to respond when that happens? Yeah. Stock up on supplies, have an evacuation plan just in case, and hope like hell these storms mostly blow out at sea.

More like Ike than Harvey

Not sure this is a choice I want to have to make, but here we are.

Hurricanes are expected to blow through Texas more quickly during the last 25 years of this century.

A study led by Rice University researcher Pedram Hassanzadeh found that climate change will make future hurricanes fast-moving storms like Ike in 2008 rather than slow-moving rainmakers like Harvey in 2017.

“We find that the probability of having strong northward steering winds will increase with climate change, meaning hurricanes over Texas will be more likely to move like Ike than Harvey,” Hassanzadeh said in a news release.

Hurricane Harvey caused an estimated $125 billion in damage, matching 2005’s Katrina as the costliest hurricane in U.S. history, according to the news release. Ike’s coastal flooding and high winds caused $38 billion in damage across several states. In 2008, it was the second-costliest U.S. hurricane. It has since moved to sixth.

The study is here. Ike cost less than Harvey, though that’s partially an accident of geography – had Ike stayed a bit more to the west it would have made a direct hit on Houston, in what has been described as a “worst case scenario” (at least pre-Harvey) for our town. Point being, neither is a good option. Maybe we ought to, I don’t know, do something about climate change so we don’t have to face choices like this in the future. Just a thought.

Hurricanes and pandemics

Summertime in the Gulf Coast, y’all.

Dealing with multiple disaster threats at the same time is nothing new for Francisco Sanchez.

As a 15-year emergency management veteran for Harris County, Sanchez understands the anxiety tugging at local officials wary of preparing for possible hurricanes while also dealing with the everyday reality of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sanchez also appreciates the instinct that some emergency management officials have to be as detailed as possible in anticipating all sorts of disaster scenarios when social distancing may still be recommended. But as counterintuitive as it might seem, details, he said, can be the enemy of the good when it comes to hurricane preparation.

“Whether you’ve done one disaster or dozens, you know that no plan fully survives its encounter with reality,” said Sanchez, the deputy coordinator for the Harris County Office of Emergency Management. “Develop concepts of operations that allow you to be flexible and scalable. It will allow you to cover more ground at a time where time is scarce, planning resources are scarce and response resources are scarce.”

The 2020 hurricane season, which [started] Monday, is poised to be significantly different than prior years given how the coronavirus outbreak has altered everyday life, including basic disaster planning. The stay-at-home orders that were in place prior to May 1 as well as current social distancing guidelines have forced many emergency management officials to scale back and adjust their typical hurricane season outreach.

Cities and counties that held annual town-hall meetings dispensing advice on evacuation planning and hurricane kits are now planning to do so virtually. First response agencies are adapting rescue protocols to include personal protective equipment. Medical centers and hospitals have to grapple with the possibility of having to evacuate coronavirus patients from hospitals. And residents are being advised to put together hurricane kits now so as not to inundate retail stores with large crowds in the days ahead of a storm.

“Restock that hurricane kit — now is the time to do it when we can maintain that social distancing very easily,” said Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist with the Harris County Flood Control District.

As a reminder, NOAA is predicting a busy hurricane season. Indeed, there is already a tropical depression in the Gulf that could possibly develop into a big rainmaking event in our area. What we all know is that it only takes one storm to make it a bad year. Do restock your bottled water and batteries, and as always pay attention to what the folks who know what they’re talking about have to say. Unless of course that interferes with your god-given constitutional right of FREEDOM, in which case go right ahead and drive on into the storm and show us that you can’t be pushed around – well, not by anything less than 100 MPH winds, anyway. Hope that works out for you.

By the way, it’s hurricane season again

Just FYI.

An above-normal Atlantic hurricane season is expected this year, including three to six major storms with winds over 111 mph, according to a forecast released Thursday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This would make 2020 the fifth consecutive above-normal hurricane season.

And this year has already seen a named storm: Tropical Storm Arthur. The earlier appearance of hurricanes in recent years has led to some calls for an earlier official start to the season, which now is defined as running from June 1 through Nov. 30.

The outlook predicts a 60 percent chance of an above-normal season, a 30 percent chance of a near-normal season and only a 10 percent chance of a below-normal season.

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is forecasting a likely range of 13 to 19 named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher), of which 6 to 10 could become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), including 3 to 6 major hurricanes (category 3, 4 or 5; with winds of 111 mph or higher). NOAA provides these ranges with a 70% confidence. An average hurricane season produces 12 major named storms, of which six become hurricanes, including 3 major hurricanes.

There were 18 named storms last year, if you can remember anything from the Before Times. Of those, six were hurricanes and three were major. So, you know. You can see a captioned video of the NOAA’s 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook here. Remember to buy some bottled water next time you venture out on a shopping run.

More flood tunnel studies

Has some promise.

Japanese flood tunnel

With engineers working at a feverish pace to get more than 200 projects in its $2.5 billion bond program moving, much of the Flood Control District’s efforts are focused on nuts-and-bolts improvements — including widening bayous, digging detention basins and purchasing flood prone homes.

From his cramped office at district headquarters, however, engineer Scott Elmer is pursuing the most ambitious project the agency has ever conceived: massive tunnels that could funnel stormwater beneath the region’s bayou network to the Houston Ship Channel.

The tunnels could provide a crucial new tool to complement existing flood control methods, as new development in fast-growing Harris County and more intense storms wrought by climate change place additional pressure on infrastructure.

“When you look at events such as Hurricane Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda, it’s time for that type of out-of-the-box thinking,” Elmer said.

The flood control district has considered tunnels since the 1990s, though plans have never advanced beyond paper. Since Harvey in 2017, which flooded more than 200,000 county residences and damaged many of the district’s defenses, the county has revisited the idea.

A study engineers completed in October reached two important conclusions — that tunnels feasibly could be constructed and they could move substantial amounts of stormwater that otherwise could pool in neighborhoods or push bayous over their banks. Encouraged by the results, the district has begun a second phase of research, which over the next year will map one to five possible routes. A third one-year phase would include a geotechnical analysis to evaluate construction challenges.

[…]

Experts also offer cautious approval. Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University, long has urged Harris County to more aggressively approach flood control. Tunnels are a bold idea, he said, so long as they do not exacerbate flooding downstream.

“What I’m concerned about is that in an effort to keep the cost down, they may attempt to terminate it in an area that may already be congested, from a water standpoint,” Blackburn said.

See here and here for the background. I assume this is the result of the study funded by a federal grant that was approved in February. Cost is an issue, though we can try for federal funds and the tunnels can be built in stages. This would just be one piece of an overall strategy, not the entire approach. No other place that has flood tunnels sees the kind of rainfall Houston does, so it’s hard to model an approach after an existing system. There’s more to it than all this, so go read the rest. It seems like a good idea to pursue, but we’re a long way from starting to dig.