The Storms Keep Coming: Here’s How to Make Our Cities Safer From Floods

Barry Stiles
By Barry Stiles on Tue, Nov 13, 2018 - 1:44pm

Within hours of Hurricane Florence making landfall in September, cities and towns along the Carolina coast were already submerged beneath more than 10 feet of stormwater, and that was only the beginning. Four days of wind and rain were still to come, followed by at least two weeks of storm-related flooding.

As we saw with Hurricane Harvey last year in Houston, storms like these have massive short-term effects. However, it’s how the city is equipped to deal with stormwater that determines how devastating its impact will be in the longer term.

Hurricanes like Michael, Florence, and Harvey are becoming the norm, rather than the exception. To deal with the epic scale of floodwater coming in, we have to rethink how to absorb it all without extreme flooding endangering lives and public safety. We have to improve and update our stormwater infrastructure in order to recover from past storms and prepare for those yet to come.

Harvey’s Ongoing Impact on Houston Businesses

In the year since Hurricane Harvey, Houston has had to both shoulder the enormous burden of cleanup and rebuild its infrastructure to better manage stormwater.

Like most cities, Houston is smothered in asphalt and concrete that prevent water from being absorbed into the ground. Its stormwater management system — fairly standard in developed areas — is designed to capture stormwater into underground channels and redistribute it far away from buildings in designated bodies of water. On the surface, this makes sense. In practice, however, it means that large volumes of water are sitting and shifting around our communities. As they do, they’re collecting pollutants, contaminating drinking sources, affecting local ecology and, yes, causing more flooding at greater cost.

Harvey was a natural disaster, but its lasting impacts are, at least in part, due to the human element and ever-spreading real estate development using old technology. If we learn anything from Houston’s plight, it should be that effective, updated stormwater management is needed to mitigate the property damage and loss of life that can happen during major storm events.

The Dangers of Current Stormwater Management

Stormwater management itself doesn’t pose a problem. Inadequate stormwater management that doesn’t keep up with need, on the other hand, engenders billions of dollars of property damage to homes and businesses and causes business interruptions and shutdowns. There are also the inevitable and tragic threats to public safety: family displacement and even loss of life. The cost of cleanup and reconstruction is enormous and only continues to climb.

The problem boils down to development practices. Rapid development of land that prioritizes profit over sustainability is leading to vast swaths of urban area being surfaced with impervious materials. These surfaces mean that excess water has nowhere to go. Stormwater systems are quickly overwhelmed, and water inevitably finds its way into homes and businesses.

Such reckless development can’t continue. It’s in direct opposition to the kind of innovation it promises. It burdens local systems and engineering, jeopardizes its local community, and ignores the future.

How to Get Better at Stormwater Management — Quickly

Even as Houston and other cities stare down the barrel of another hurricane season, they are implementing lessons learned and investigating systems that can help cities evolve quickly. Here are some of the most important changes that cities must make.

1. Protect natural hydrology

Houston’s urban development has been heading toward low-lying areas outside the city’s existing limits. But experts are suggesting a move away from redevelopment. Instead, they recommend that developers and city leaders acquire this land for preservation, which will claim natural floodplains as a vital part of their stormwater management infrastructures.

Rather than sacrificing economic growth, reserving these wetland areas for natural stormwater detention is an investment in the ecology, sustainability, and safety of residents and businesses, which in turn will greatly serve its economy.

2. Replace impervious cover with permeable surfaces

Urban planners can take a shortcut to low-impact development by innovating the surfaces they use. By replacing unfriendly materials like concrete and asphalt with permeable paving, cities can reduce runoff and create on-site detention, where water can be quickly absorbed and detained, then released slowly without polluting water sources. Houston is already taking this key step, maximizing its land use for development that actually protects and serves the people and businesses that use it.

3. Cultivate more sustainable community relationships

Houston’s leaders know that to have even a chance at success, they must build more sustainable relationships among developers, city planners, and other community leaders. Water will always demand space in the city, says Jim Blackburn, a professor in Rice University’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. Reimagining the dynamic between business and environmental development is the key to providing water the space it needs while minimizing the risk to the community.

Growth and innovation cannot and should not stop, but failing to reshape infrastructure at the same time is negligent and dangerous. We can learn from Houston and other cities impacted by major storms how to mitigate the damage and keep our communities safe.

Barry Stiles is the founder and CEO of TRUEGRID Pavers, the 100 percent permeable paving alternative to concrete and asphalt that instantly absorbs stormwater and detains water below the surface. TRUEGRID is a green, permeable Lego-like paver system for the real world, made in the United States from 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic and filled with gravel or grass for a natural aesthetic. As an engineer and as a dad, Barry is passionate about TRUEGRID’s mission to provide green paving solutions to build a safer and cleaner environment for our kids.

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