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Houston Endowment Funds Study to Prepare for Next Hurricane

HOUSTON, Texas, June 22, 2009 (ENS) – What would happen if a major hurricane made a direct hit on Houston and NASA’s Johnson Space Center? Researchers at the center for Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters, SSPEED, at Rice University in Houston have received a grant of $1.25 million to find out.

Hurricane Ike, which struck the Texas coast on September 13, 2008, ranks as the third-costliest hurricane in U.S. history with an estimated price tag of around $32 billion. Yet, Ike dealt Houston only a glancing blow.

When it made landfall east of Galveston on the Bolivar Peninsula, Ike had weakened from the most intense storm in the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season, blowing across the ocean at 145 miles per hour, to a Category 2 hurricane with winds of 110 mph.

SSPEED scientists want to know what would have happened if Ike had not weakened but had hit the city at full force.

They are trying to anticipate damage costs if another intense storm strikes the Houston area, where NASA’s Johnson Space Center is located. The complex of 100 buildings in southeast Houston is the country’s center for human spaceflight activities, including all Space Shuttle and International Space Station missions.

“If you project the devastation at Bolivar taking place around NASA and the Clear Lake area instead, you can very quickly imagine a storm that’s more costly and deadly than even Katrina,” said SSPEED Director Phil Bedient, Rice’s Herman Brown Professor of Engineering.

Now, a new $1.25 million two-year grant from Houston Endowment, a private, philanthropic foundation, will enable SSPEED experts to put numbers to the damage estimates of a direct strike on Houston by a powerful hurricane.

NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas (Photo courtesy NASA)

“There’s no question that Houston dodged a bullet with Ike,” said Rice’s Jim Blackburn, professor in the practice of environmental law and co-principal investigator on the grant with Bedient. “It opened a lot of eyes to the vulnerabilities we face from a big storm. The reality is that we have developed this entire region without regard to the risks of a big hurricane.”

Formed in 2007, SSPEED is a multi-institutional collaboration that aims to address deficiencies in storm prediction, disaster planning and evacuations for communities stretching from New Orleans to Brownsville, Texas.

SSPEED’s partner institutions include the University of Houston, the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, Texas Southern University, Texas A&M University at Galveston, the University of Texas at Brownsville, Louisiana State University, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Houston-Galveston Area Council, southeast Texas’ largest council of local governments.

The Houston Endowment grant will allow SSPEED to compile all the lessons learned from Ike and make recommendations about what lawmakers, emergency managers, industry officials and homeowners should do to prepare for future storms.

“With hurricane season here, we can all appreciate the practical applications likely to be gained from the research that Houston Endowment has so generously funded,” said Rice President David Leebron.

“Ike may have been a once-in-a-quarter-century event, but the entire region will benefit if we better understand and plan for these storms,” said Leebron. “There are dollars and, more important, lives to be saved by improving our ability to make effective responses to these massive hurricanes.”

While compiling their report, Bedient and Blackburn plan to meet with many groups, including industry leaders and emergency managers, to share and gather information.

“Houston Endowment is doing what many people have only talked about for the past nine months; they are putting up the money to really study this problem and come up with both the long-term policy changes and the tactical plans that need to be ready at a moment’s notice,” Bedient said.

The project will examine:

  • Methods to better predict the likely impacts of oncoming storms.
  • Improvements in storm evacuation planning and education.
  • How to combine computer models of expected storm surges with models that predict inland flooding from rainfall.
  • Best practices for land use and development in areas vulnerable to storm surge or inland flooding.
  • Ways to take advantage of wetlands and other ecosystems that help mitigate flood risks.
  • Practices industry can adopt to better protect critical infrastructure in storm-surge zones.

SSPEED experts at the University of Texas at Austin are already working on new computer models that map the expected storm surge and wind effects of storms based on the latest tracks from the National Hurricane Center. Bedient said SSPEED hopes to be able to provide these maps in real time as storms approach the Gulf Coast.

“Another thing we plan to do is couple the models for storm-surge predictions with those for rainfall-induced flooding,” Bedient said. “I’m not aware of anyone that’s combining these right now, but for a heavily populated watershed like Clear Creek, that is absolutely essential because the problems compound one another.”

Blackburn, who practices environmental law in Houston in addition to teaching at Rice, said one lesson from Ike is that Texans need to be smarter about how they use land and develop private property that is vulnerable to storm surges. He said Texans also need to better prepare for storm recovery.

“A lot’s been done with evacuation since Rita, but a good bit less attention has been paid to what to do after the storm hits,” Blackburn said. “Ike clearly revealed the gaps in our preparations for recovery and rebuilding.”

Blackburn said federal and state money should be available to buy out homeowners in areas, like the Bolivar Peninsula, that are fundamentally unsafe due to their vulnerability to future storm surges.

Bedient and Blackburn said their first report about lessons learned from Ike will be complete by year’s end. A final report with recommendations for moving forward will follow within two years.

Houston Endowment has funded SSPEED research in the past. A 2007 grant funded the development by Rice and University of Houston researchers of a prototype smart-sensor system for real-time analysis of flood risks and water-quality hazards in Houston-area waterways.

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