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How Should Houston Prepare for Future Hurricanes and Floods?

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Always listen to authorities regarding whether you should evacuate or stay at home. If a hurricane is coming, you may hear an order from authorities to evacuate (leave your home). Never ignore an order to evacuate. Even sturdy, well-built houses may not hold up against a hurricane

Staying home to protect your property is not worth risking your health and safety. You may hear an order to stay at home. If driving conditions are dangerous, staying at home might be safer than leaving.

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That rosy notion now seems like one from a starkly different age, before August 26, 2017, when Harvey arrived and dumped 1.2 trillion gallons of water on Harris County over the next four or so days. Around forty inches of rain fell on the county during that period, more than the average annual accumulation in the U.S. last year. Though Harvey was defined as a hurricane, it was more importantly a nearly unprecedented flooding event that was, indeed, transformative. In Houston alone, it affected more than 300,000 houses and apartments and about 300,000 vehicles. Property damage estimates range as high as $200 billion. The entire downtown theater district was inundated, laying waste to the fabled Alley Theatre, fresh from a redo; the massive Wortham Center, where the ballet and opera perform; and Jones Hall, home to the Houston Symphony. To the east, the jail and criminal courthouse flooded too, along with a state-of-the-art jury assembly building that had been built, like some other downtown buildings’ electrical systems, underground. To the west of downtown, stretches of the once beautifully landscaped Buffalo Bayou—the 53-mile waterway that was also the site of the city’s founding, in 1836—was a murky, muddy, trash-laden mess. When the rain began easing up a few days later, the only part of downtown that seemed functional was the George R. Brown Convention Center, where storm refugees had begun streaming in before city or county officials had the time to set up any kind of system to process them. Considering the disaster’s magnitude, the death toll in Harris County was a mercifully low 36, in large part due to the bravery and generosity of Houstonians: people who launched their fishing boats to rescue strangers trapped in their homes or on their roofs, people who raced to the convention center with food, bottled water, clothes, and diapers

There was the woman who used an app to send help to stranded people, the surgeon who canoed to his hospital to perform emergency surgery on a teenager, the midwife who paddled an inflatable swan to help a patient in labor. The national media marveled that the lines of volunteers eager to help flood victims were longer than those in need of help. Local furniture tycoon Jim McIngvale, a.k.a. Mattress Mack, opened two of his enormous showrooms so that the weary could sleep on his recliners and Mack-O-Pedic mattresses. Houston Texan J. J. Watt raised more than $37 million for flood relief. Drenched but safe kittens and puppies made a lot of news.

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As shown above, Hurricane Harvey was a Category 4 storm that hit Texas on August 25, 2017. It caused $125 billion in damage according to the National Hurricane Center. That’s more than any other natural disaster in U.S. history except Hurricane Katrina. Harvey dumped record levels of rain, causing extreme flooding. At least 68 people died from the direct effects of the storm. Another 35 people died from related causes, such as car accidents. The storm dumped 1 trillion gallons of rain on Houston in four days. At its peak on September 1, 2017, one-third of Houston was underwater.5 Flooding forced 32,000 people out of their homes and into shelters.

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