The scale of Hurricane Harvey is unprecedented in U.S. history: more than 50 inches of rain falling in less than a week inundating a city of more than 2 million people.
As Houston begins to recover from the torrential storm that inundated the city’s streets, local leaders will need to grapple with the reality that Hurricane Harvey will not be the last devastating flood to strike the city. The problem is rooted in Houston’s geography, and the challenge facing Houston if city officials want to protect against long-term flood risk would test even the savviest urban planners armed with unlimited resources.
The chief issue is that Houston rose in a flat low-lying area with limited natural drainage. Because the land is flat, most storm water collects rather than flowing away from the city, leaving the lowest points vulnerable to flooding. The low elevation not far from Texas’ coast also means that storm surge — which occurs when storm winds push ocean water ashore — can easily inundate the city.