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.