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Lessons from Hurricane Ike

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If Hurricane Ike had made landfall just fifty miles down the Texas coast, the devastation and death caused by what was already one of the most destructive hurricanes in US history would have quadrupled. Ike made everyone realize just how exposed and vulnerable the Houston-Galveston area is in the face of a major storm. What is done to address this vulnerability will shape the economic, social, and environmental landscape of the region for decades to come.

In Lessons from Hurricane Ike, Philip Bedient and the research team at the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center at Rice University provide an overview of some of the research being done in the Houston-Galveston region in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. The center was formed shortly after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Its research examines everything from surge and inland flooding to bridge infrastructure.

Lessons from Hurricane Ike gathers the work of some of the premier researchers in the fields of hurricane prediction and impact, summarizing it in accessible language accompanied by abundant illustrations—not just graphs and charts, but dramatic photos and informative maps. Orienting readers to the history and basic meteorology of severe storms along the coast, the book then revisits the impact of Hurricane Ike and discusses what scientists and engineers are studying as they look at flooding, storm surges, communications, emergency response, evacuation planning, transportation issues, coastal resiliency, and the future sustainability of the nation’s fourth largest metropolitan area.

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12 Chapters

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1. An Introduction to Gulf Coast Severe Storms and Hurricanes

ePub

 

2. Hurricane Ike

ePub

Philip B. Bedient and Antonia Sebastian

The arrival of Hurricane Ike on the Texas coast on September 13, 2008 marked the beginning of a re-evaluation of Gulf Coast hurricanes, both in terms of their perceived potential damage and in the ways that communities choose to protect themselves. Ike was the most destructive storm to make landfall on the Texas coast since the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and with $24.9 billion in damages, Ike was the third costliest storm in US history (Berg 2010).

At its peak intensity, Ike was characterized as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds reaching 145 mph and a minimum central pressure of 935 mbar (fig. 2.1). The wind field of Hurricane Ike spanned 450 miles at landfall, covering most of Texas and parts of Louisiana. In Texas, wind damage caused 2.6 million power outages and many people were without power until early October and some, even longer. The eye of Ike passed just north of downtown Houston and on the morning of September 13, the streets of downtown were littered with broken glass from the skyscrapers, blown out by the pressure of the storm and high winds (fig. 2.2). Trees across the city were uprooted, roads were blocked, and homes and cars crushed.

 

3. A Brief Introduction to the Meteorology of Tropical Cyclones

ePub

Jeffrey Lindner

Every year on average of 60–100 tropical waves emerge off the west coast of Africa and traverse the tropical Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico. Approximately 10–20 of these will develop into tropical cyclones in the Atlantic Basin. Tropical waves originating from Africa are the most common seedlings for tropical cyclone formation, but other types of weather disturbances can lead to their formation as well (fig. 3.1). On a global scale, tropical storm formation has been correlated with several climatic anomalies, including rainfall in West Africa in the prior year, the direction of the winds in the stratosphere, and the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon.

El Niño is characterized by a warm phase associated with high sea surface temperatures off the coast of Peru, low atmospheric pressure over the eastern Pacific, and increased vertical wind shear over the Atlantic. La Niña, on the other hand, is characterized by a cold phase with low sea surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific, low atmospheric pressure over the western Pacific, and decreased vertical wind shear over the Atlantic (Bedient et al. 2008). As a result of this decrease in vertical wind shear, La Niña often corresponds with increased tropical cyclone activity in the Atlantic Basin. Although the opposite is true for El Niño, powerful storms have still been known to develop while it is in phase, sometimes bringing devastation to US coastal and inland communities.

 

4. Flood Prediction and Flood Warning Systems

ePub

Jeffrey Lindner, Dave C. Schwertz, Philip B. Bedient, and Nick Fang

Floods and flash floods are among the leading causes of weather related deaths in the United States, resulting in 136 deaths per year and over $4.0 billion in property damage. With heavy rains and the continual threat of severe storms, the Gulf Coast region is particularly susceptible to flooding. Far from a declining hazard, population growth has caused expansion of residential and commercial areas deep within floodplains yielding ever greater property loss and more frequent damages (fig. 4.1). Urbanization alters the hydrological setting of watersheds resulting in faster watershed response times and higher peak flows.

Flood and flash flood forecasting skills have seen much less improvement when compared to tornado or hurricane forecasting. However, significant efforts were made to improve forecasting skills after the devastating flooding following Hurricane Floyd (1999) and the recent onslaught of inland flood damage from tropical cyclones making landfall on the Gulf Coast. Urban flash flood forecasting is the most difficult of all flood forecasting efforts due to the rapid response of urban watersheds and limited computer modeling ability, leading to untimely data when compared to flood forecasting for major river systems. Customized flood alert systems using radar, however, have seen some advance in Texas (Bedient et al. 2008).

 

5. Predicting Storm Surge

ePub

Clint Dawson and Jennifer Proft

Every hurricane has the potential to inflict damage in one or all of the following ways: wind, rainfall, tornadoes, and surge. Of these, storm surge has been responsible for some of the most devastating hurricane-related damage. Storm surge occurs when sea levels rise in the face of low barometric pressure. The resulting mass of water is pushed onto shore by strong hurricane winds as described in chapter 3 (fig. 5.1). Long known for its damaging effects, storm surge is difficult to predict and has been responsible for the loss of thousands of lives and billions of dollars in damages along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf coasts. Sea walls, levees, bulkheads and the like have all been built in attempts to protect lives and communities from the onslaught of this powerful force. However, as residents move towards coastal areas in greater numbers, the potential for significant loss continues to increase.

As in any natural hazard scenario, the safety of a community is directly tied to the ability of forecasters to successfully predict the location and timing of storm surge and respond. To do this, it is necessary to understand the causes and physical effects of surge, both on the meso- and the micro-scale. Recently, computer modeling has become an effective tool for studying storm surge mitigation. Modeling lets forecasters predict the location and severity of storm surge prior to hurricane landfall. Prior to the advent of computer-based modeling, one could only make an educated guess based upon historic, empirically observed data (Resio et al. 2008). For example, if a historical Category 2 hurricane resulted in a 5-foot storm surge, a future storm with similar wind speeds would be expected to have roughly the same surge effects.

 

6. Using Social Vulnerability Mapping to Enhance Coastal Community Resiliency in Texas

ePub

Walter Gillis Peacock, Shannon Van Zandt, Dustin Henry, Himanshu Grover, and Wesley Highfield

Disasters like Hurricane Ike, as well as severe storms such as Allison, Katrina, and Rita are often referred to as “natural” disasters. Rather than being wholly “natural,” however, these disasters result from the interaction among biophysical systems, human systems, and their built environment. Indeed, the emerging scientific consensus states that the damage incurred, in both human and financial terms, is largely due to human action or, more often, inaction (Mileti 1999). Communities in the United States and much of the world continue to develop and expand into high hazard areas. This contributes to increased hazard exposure and often results in the destruction of environmental resources such as wetlands, often increasing losses. In other words, many of the communities in our nation are becoming ever more vulnerable to “natural” hazards while simultaneously becoming less disaster resilient.

When disaster strikes, its impact is not just a function of its magnitude and where it strikes. Galveston, like most communities, is not homogeneous, but rather contains areas characterized by wealth, leisure, and privilege, as well as neighborhoods plagued by poverty, crime, and unemployment. Development patterns typified by sprawl, concentrated poverty and segregation shape urban environments in ways that isolate vulnerable populations. Severe storms like Ike are not “equal opportunity” events. These events affect different groups in different ways. Very often, the social geography interacts with the physical geography to expose vulnerable populations to greater risk.

 

7. Emergency Management and the Public

ePub

Bill Wheeler

Over the past 100 years, the speed of communication has increased dramatically, playing a vital role in disaster preparedness, response and recovery. Today, electronic communication is critical to everyday life and the average person is accustomed to having every form of information at their fingertips. In contrast, during the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 critical warnings were communicated via telegraph, a great asset despite the time it took for a message from the National Weather Service (NWS) in Washington to arrive in Galveston. Today, storm communications have advanced to the point where NOAA Hurricane Hunter flights in active storms transmit data that is received and reviewed by the public in real time. With the speed and turnover of different message delivery systems today, the challenge for emergency management in the coming years will be mastering those systems and formatting the messages so that they can be delivered to communities before it is too late.

Robust communication between public officials, emergency managers, and the community is critical for the successful defense and recovery of the Gulf Coast region in the event of a severe storm (fig. 7.1). This communication, tied with public education efforts, gives individuals and communities the tools necessary to plan ahead. To enhance community understanding of the risks of an approaching hurricane, these tools are communicated to the public by the media through public service announcements. In addition, it is necessary for elected officials to routinely discuss disaster plans and information in the media, increasing assurance, guidance, and public response during a disaster event (fig. 7.2). Communication between emergency management personnel and the community is the first line of defense in preparing for a disastrous event and is important for post-event recovery as well.

 

8. Emergency Evacuation and Transportation Planning

ePub

8

Carol Abel Lewis

On June 1 each year, Gulf Coast residents begin watching storm systems cross the Caribbean and listen as meteorologists predict approaching tropical cyclones. Given the forecast of the strength and point of landfall of a storm, emergency management officials determine the appropriate response and implement emergency procedures. In most cases, there is a call for a voluntary or mandatory evacuation to clear residents out of sensitive or low-lying areas. A key component of hurricane and disaster planning is moving people out of locations where dangerous conditions and potential loss of life are likely. Rapid population growth in the Gulf Coast amplifies the need for discussion about how to safely and efficiently evacuate these areas in the face of imminent storms. More than 700,000 people are projected to move into the evacuation zones by 2035 (HGAC 2007). However, future expansions of the roadway system are projected to be minimal, exacerbating a well-known, critical roadway capacity issue.

 

9. Lessons in Bridge Infrastructure Vulnerability

ePub

9

Jamie E. Padgett and Matthew Stearns

The performance of regional bridge infrastructure has a significant impact on the safety, effectiveness, and efficiency of the transportation system following hurricane events, which is crucial to facilitating post-event response and recovery activities (Fig. 9.1). Hurricane Ike caused notable damage to the infrastructure of the Houston/Galveston Area when it made landfall on September 13, 2008. Many local bridges were completely destroyed and although the majority of these were small timber structures in rural areas, multiple major bridge structures also suffered damage from debris, storm surge and wave loading. Much of the damage can be attributed to inundation of the decks, or superstructures, of the bridges, debris impact, and erosion of abutment supports and approaches.

This chapter presents a holistic overview of the damage to bridge infrastructure in the Houston/Galveston area caused by Hurricane Ike. Typical failure modes are evaluated by assimilating a rich data set of post-event assessment surveys and inspection reports. The data assembled include field reconnaissance conducted by the authors, HNTB (a nationwide bridge design firm) through the Texas Department of Rural Affairs, the Texas Department of Transportation, and interviews with local municipalities or other bridge owners. The performance of timber bridges, often located in rural areas, as well as major highway bridges is assessed. The damage summaries presented include a discussion of factors contributing to the damage, repair procedures, and simple capacity/demand checks for case studies in which bridges over water crossings were damaged during Ike.

 

10. Hurricane Impacts on Critical Infrastructures

ePub

10

Hanadi S. Rifai

Hurricanes have far-reaching impacts at numerous levels on the natural and built landscape. The effects are felt for years and the recovery process can be long and slow depending on the nature of the event. This chapter focuses on the impacts of hurricanes on critical infrastructure along the Texas Gulf Coast, specifically on the impact of Hurricane Ike on the Houston/Galveston area. Critical infrastructure is defined in this chapter in the broadest sense to include the built landscape, municipal infrastructure, environment, natural resources, industry (including ports and shipping), power and transportation networks, and public and private services. In addition to describing damage from Ike, this chapter provides some insight into potential damage to the municipal and petrochemical sectors in the event of a larger storm.

Hurricane Ike affected the regional infrastructure to varying degrees. Ike caused catastrophic damages to Galveston and coastal resources in Texas, but further inland, the most severe effects were loss of power due to toppled power poles and lines and damage on residential, commercial, and industrial structures caused by fallen trees. Some of the effects of the storm were secondary impacts due to primary effects on another element. For example, the integrity of water distribution network was lost due to loss of power. Fewer damages were incurred from flooding when compared to surge and high winds.

 

11. Land-Use Change and Increased Vulnerability

ePub

Samuel David Brody

With over 50 percent of the US population residing in coastal areas, local decision makers are finding it increasingly difficult to protect critical natural resources, and facilitate the development of hazard-resilient communities. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the Texas coast. Rapid urban and suburban development has resulted in loss of critical habitats and key species while at the same time placing human populations in areas vulnerable to natural hazards. These problems are exacerbated within major population centers, particularly the Houston/Galveston area, where population growth, sprawling development patterns, and the alteration of hydrological systems have created some of the most vulnerable communities in the nation.

The following sections trace the causes and consequences of development within coastal watersheds with special emphasis on flooding in Texas. The underlying premise is that human exposure to natural hazards, such as floods and hurricanes, is not solely a technical or engineering problem, but one driven by land-use change and the pattern of development across metropolitan regions. First, the causes of land-use change within coastal landscapes are addressed based on the following four factors: population growth, spread of impervious surfaces, loss of naturally occurring wetlands, and sprawling patterns of development. Next, the adverse consequences of land-use change with respect to flood damage, social vulnerability, and risk exposure to severe storms are addressed. Finally, the policy and planning implications for mitigating the impact of the built environment and more effectively protecting communities from the threat of coastal hazards in the future are discussed.

 

12. Steps to the Future

ePub

Jim Blackburn, Thomas Colbert, and Kevin Shanley

Hurricane Ike was not a worst case storm for our region. Ike came ashore to the east of metropolitan Houston and caused most of its damage through surge flooding to Galveston Island, the Bolivar Peninsula, and areas immediately adjacent to Galveston Bay, with more widespread wind damage over the Houston region. Major surge damage also occurred eastward into the Sabine Lake watershed. Although Ike caused upwards of $24 billion in damage, the damage could easily have reached $100 billion if it had come ashore further south, in the San Luis Pass area. More than anything, Ike exposed the vulnerability of the Houston-Galveston region to a major storm.

In the aftermath of Ike, a call for responsive action was sounded, first by Dr. William Merrell in his proposal for the “Ike Dike,” a levee and sea gate structure extending from Freeport to High Island, and then in the report of the Governor’s Commission for Disaster Recovery and Renewal. Following this report, the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District was created to study and potentially finance infrastructure improvements in Orange, Jefferson, Chambers, Galveston, Harris and Brazoria counties.

 

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