Keeping an eye on gulf, Houston, Harris prep for possible tropical storm

1of3A Houston Police High Water Rescue responders checks on a vehicle stranded on the South Freeway near Holly Hall Wednesday, July 4, 2018, in Houston. ( Steve Gonzales / Houston Chronicle )Photo: Steve Gonzales, Staff photographer / Houston Chronicle

Emergency management officials in greater Houston spent Tuesday preparing for the potential of a tropical system hitting the area this weekend, as a trough of low pressure churned its way into the warm waters off the coast of the Florida Panhandle that afternoon.

Although Hurricane Harvey is fresh on the minds of those in Southeast Texas, and emergency protocols have been updated since the 2017 storm, local flood control infrastructure remains relatively unchanged.

“When people ask us today if we’re more prepared now than we were prepared for Harvey, the answer, unfortunately, is no, because federal dollars are slow in coming in,” said Steve Costello, chief recovery officer for the city of Houston.

Costello said a number of projects remain in the planning phase while the city awaits its share of $4.3 billion in federal funding needed to begin building. It also still is waiting for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to create guidelines that would dictate funding for flood mitigation projects spawned by Harvey.

The Texas Legislature approved and Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill that pulls $1.7 billion from the state’s savings account to help local governments make repairs and move forward on mitigation projects aimed at reducing damage from future floods. Officials said that much of that money will be used by the city and county as the local match for federal funding.

Harris County also is waiting on federal funding, but has been able to move forward with local money. Since voters approved a $2.5 billion bond in 2018, 135 of 237 flood control projects are underway, although few have been completed, Harris County Flood Control District spokesman Rob Lazaro said. Those include bayou deepening and widening projects, drainage projects, Hurricane Harvey-related repairs and property buyouts.

On Tuesday, Commissioners Court voted to speed up projects in 105 subdivisions that flooded during Harvey but are outside the floodplain.

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While the city has been unable to deliver many capital projects aimed at reducing flooding in the past two years, emergency operations officials have been able to do more with local dollars.

The Houston Fire Department now has an additional 15 evacuation boats, nine rescue boats, one fire boat, nine high-water vehicles and nine wave runners at its disposal. The fire department also created an 80-member water strike team that is nearly finished swift water training, evacuation boat training and high water rescue training, according to Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. Members of the team were first deployed during a flooding event in May.

The team, however, still lacks some equipment Lancton said, including dry suits, water-resistant bags and other rescue equipment. City council approved those purchases in February, but much of that gear is not expected to reach fire stations until near the end of hurricane season.

Some improvements that have been made include communications. Residents, for example, can sign up with the flood control district to receive alerts about flood gauges near their homes or businesses. Cory Stottlemeyer, public information officer with the city’s Office of Emergency Management, said the agency now is now able to send alerts through text messages, phone calls and push notifications, and those alerts can be geotagged to areas facing a specific risk. Previously, they could only send alerts through email, and those messages went out to the entire county.

“With a city as large and as expansive as Houston, now you’re not running white noise and not causing confusion among people outside the affected area,” Stottlemeyer said.

Meanwhile, flood control district crews this week will clear storm drains and remove debris that could clog bayous and other drainage systems. The city will decide whether to drain water from Lake Houston once the storm’s forecast becomes more apparent on Wednesday.

And officials with the city’s Office of Emergency Management will determine whether to activate its emergency protocols when the storm’s path appears better defined.

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Matt Lanza, a meteorologist and writer with the popular Space City Weather blog, said while many tracking models on Monday projected the storm could have a more direct impact on Houston, they began to shift eastward toward central Louisiana by Tuesday afternoon. Still, he said it will be hard to provide more definite projections until the storm’s center becomes better defined Tuesday evening and night.

The National Weather Service of Houston and Galveston echoed that sentiment, saying in an afternoon update that “uncertainty remains quite high” for the system.

“We are not out of the woods, although these trends would lessen the potential impacts on Southeast TX,” the agency wrote. “As quickly as the solutions converged on (Louisiana) today, they could change and shift the track east over the next few days as the system actually takes shape over the water.”

Regardless of where it makes landfall, Lanza said it is expected to move through the affected area within about 36 to 48 hours, unlike Harvey’s five-day onslaught.

Lanza said people tend to associate storms with their most recent experience, and for many Houstonians that means Harvey. He said no two storms are the same, and it would take a set of exceedingly rare circumstances for another storm to generate that type of devastation.

“Twelve hours from now, we’ll have a better idea where going, and 24 hours from now we’ll have a much, much better idea where this will ultimately end up,” Lanza said.

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