The Shell Center for Sustainability asks How Sustainable is the Texas Coast? Are we in a “state of denial”? at an Oct 29, 2014 workshop on the Rice Campus.
Researchers presented information on the impact of climate change on the Houston region.
Researchers cite the following disturbing trends:
- Rising sea level (meters)
- Increase in frequency of large storms
- Coastal subsidence
- Drought in the SW reducing flow in Texas rivers
- Suburban sprawl (pavement) increases runoff
- More people live and work in hazard areas
Abandon Coastal Cities or Engineer Solutions?
Although not as exposed as Miami or Galveston, Houston is a coastal city with a rapidly expanding population. The current shale oil boom and off-shore drilling are increasing development in all the petrochemical centers along the TX and LA coastline. This critical infrastructure is vulnerable to coastal storms. Experts predict that New Orleans will be significantly below sea level before the turn of the next century.
The petrochemical industry is hardening its newer infrastructure to better withstand sever storms, but little funding is available to retro-fit older coastal installations. Coastal communities have tightened building codes to require structures withstand a Category 3 wind, but many have not yet dealt with flood resistant structural requirements. Again, few codes require retrofit of existing structures.
Engineers tell us we can raise levees, as was done after Katrina. We can build higher sea-walls and add massive storm gates at rivers as has been done by the Dutch. Alternately, money could be spent on moving populations away from high hazard areas and limiting growth in low lying areas.
Should we all move inland?
Houstonians face increasing risk from storms and flooding and increasing insurance premiums. From both an economic viewpoint and the safety and security of our families and employees, should we expect Houston to be a good place to build a business over the next 20 year?
Although short-term growth prospects appear good, don’t expect to build in Houston without planning and paying for significant flood and windstorm mitigation, even for inland locations well above the historical 100-year flood plain, This prevention will be less expensive than the ever-increasing insurance premiums. In lower lying areas, to prepare for conditions anticipated by 2030-40, prepare for wind and storm surge as if your property were on the beach. In addition, select communities where infrastructure (roads, drainage, power) is hardened unless you plan on building a self-sufficient, off-the grid property.
Participants asked a hard question to which there was no good answer. How much money should we spend trying to preserve and even grow communities that will be inundated by storm surges over the next 50 years? Would our resources be better spent founding new communities inland, well above the coastline predicted for 2100? Instead of wasting FEMA and flood insurance funds rebuilding in an area that must be damaged again and again should the money be used to relocate the residents to a safer area?
Clearly, this question is not unique to Texas. The majority of the world’s population lives in coastal areas. Most appear to be in a “state of denial”. Conference participants suggested that Texas could do better. Solutions as simple as hardening buildings to survive the ever more hostile coastal environment could dramatically reduce insurance costs. Industry can site new facilities well outside projected hazard areas so that both commercial property and residences of workers are not in high risk areas. For example, energy company complexes toward Katy or ExxonMobil’s new facility in the Woodlands are lower risk developments than expansion in Clear Lake or Texas City. Before you decide where to site a business or a new home, imagine Katrina-like flooding in all low lying areas of Houston and think about where you would want to be under those conditions. Take a look at the flood maps from Allison. North is not necessarily safe.