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How will Texas’ most populous city handle excessive floods?

August 26, 2017 at 6:33 PM EDT
As Hurricane Harvey bears down on Texas, Houston -- the state’s most populous city, with a population of more than 2 million people -- could face 15 to 30 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service. To discuss how the city is coping, Dianna Hunt, metro editor of the Houston Chronicle, joins Hari Sreenivasan via Skype.

HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:  Two hundred miles east of San Antonio is Houston, the most populous city in Texas, with 2.25 million people.  It’s the fourth largest city in the U.S.  Houston is also a hub for the nation’s oil refinery industry.  The National Weather Service forecasts the city could be deluged by 15 to 30 inches of rain in the coming days.

Dianna Hunt is the metro editor of “The Houston Chronicle” and joins me now via Skype to discuss the impact Harvey could have and preparations for the hurricane there.

So, how is the city preparing?

DIANNA HUNT, METRO EDITOR, THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE:  The city is doing what it usually does.  People are hunkering down.  They’re putting, tying thing down.

We had a little bit of a break with Harvey, strange as it may seem, because we didn’t have the hurricane come ashore here.  So, we haven’t had the high winds that we can sometimes get with hurricanes.  Those have all been south of us.  So, the refineries and the oil industry here hasn’t been as devastated, hasn’t had to tighten things down quite as much as they would have normally.  We’ve had some winds, but they’ve not been hurricane force winds.

SREENIVASAN:  You know, one of —

HUNT:  So, now, we’re just waiting.

SREENIVASAN:  Well, one of the things I noticed on your site is a map of all the different areas in Houston that could flood or are prone to flood usually when you have high rains.  We’re talking 15 to 30 inches of rain over the next couple of days.  That’s a lot of water.

HUNT:  That’s going to be devastating.  That brings to mind Tropical Storm Allison.  It wasn’t a hurricane.  It was in 2001.  It dropped about 25 inches over about a 24 hour period, as I recall.  We had 18 wheelers floating down the interstate just north of downtown.

So, the city can’t handle that much rain over a short period of time.  The bayous flood.  We had rivers headed toward the gulf, the streets can’t handle it.  So, we get a lot of street flooding.  We have some areas now that are already having some street flooding.  We’re anticipating rescues maybe going on soon.

At the moment western part of Houston is not — were not even getting rain, but there’s some pretty rain going on in the northeastern part of the city and the county.

SREENIVASAN:  How about the people that do live in the lower lying areas in the Houston suburbs or in Houston proper, are they being told to evacuate or are authorities telling them listen, the infrastructure is not ready for the kind of water you’re about to get?

HUNT:  We — Houston is so big, it’s about 600 square miles and how much rain we get and where it hits can determine whether to evacuate.  So, there’s no massive evacuation of Houston and no real orders to that effect.  We had two back to back floods over the last two years.  Tax Day flood and then we had a Memorial Day flood before that.  And in those areas, the Greenspoint area had a lot of home flooding lots of apartments, a lot of people displaced.  But it just depends on how much rain a certain area gets at a certain period of time.

SREENIVASAN:  What about the drainage?  Were does all that water go that hits the asphalt or the pavement of Houston, it goes down the storm drains, and then what happens?

HUNT:  Well, we have a fairly elaborate bayou system here.  Bayous are a little bigger.  They’re bigger than a creek and smaller than a river.  But once the bayous are inundated, and the reservoirs get full, it just starts to back up.

That’s just the nature of Houston.  It’s basically built on a swamp.  It’s a very low city and we’ve had flooding here for decades.  It’s probably worse now than it has been.

SREENIVASAN:  All right.  Dianna Hunt of “The Houston Chronicle”, thanks so much.

HUNT:  All right.  Thank you very much.