How Houston Is Building for a Climate-Impacted Future: Experts say a proactive approach is essential

As climate change worsens, everyone is feeling it. Hotter heat waves, bigger storms, deeper freezes. One area that’s felt that pain acutely is Texas’ Gulf Coast. 

Harvey and Uri, two storms evidence shows were fueled by climate change if not directly caused by it, dealt rough blows to the Gulf. Harvey’s floods took people’s homes and in some cases their lives. Years later some residents of Houston are still struggling to reclaim what the storm took.

The Gulf houses about one quarter of the Texas population — about 7.3 million according to 2020 Census data, many of them in Houston. Most of the country’s petrochemical production is there too, right off the ship channel.

“Houston is the poster child for both human-built environmental change and natural change around climate. Both are happening at a very fast, somewhat unprecedented rate,” said Dr. Samuel D. Brody, director of the Institute for a Disaster Resilient Texas (IDRT)

Brody, a climate researcher for decades and an adjunct professor at Rice University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering focuses on what’s known as the “human-built environment” effects of climate change. And few places are a better microcosm of that than Houston, Texas.

“If Hurricane Harvey hit today,” said Brody, “It would be more than $100 billion in impact,” because of how much Houston continues to build and expand. 

So what’s being done to mitigate flood risk for the millions living in the Gulf? One project currently in the design phase is the massive coastal spine project, otherwise known as the “Ike Dike.” Based on the Maeslant Barrier in the Netherlands, it would be a gigantic wall against storm surge with a controllable gate to let water through. It has yet to break ground. 

Other measures are less physical but no less necessary. Building codes in Houston are being updated to account for increasing flood risk. After Harvey the city modified its floodplain regulations, mandating new buildings constructed in the flood zone be built two feet above the 500-year flood line. Planning based on watersheds, not county jurisdictions, is also an important piece of the puzzle.

“Buyers Be-where,” a joint effort between the IDRT and the Institute for Hazard Mitigation Planning and Research at the University of Washington, aims to give people data-backed risk assessments of individual properties. Once it’s live, anyone with internet access can reportedly get a “graphic and statistical risk assessment for a specific property.” A partnership with Texas real estate website HAR is in progress. 

These changes represent tangible steps toward meaningful flood mitigation, but Brody encourages people to think more proactively if they want to get ahead of the danger. 

He doesn’t want to see current investments wasted because we aren’t building with the future in mind. “Once we make huge investments that are not adaptive to future changes, that’s a problem, because then we’re stuck.”