When a community is decimated by a 1,000-year weather event, with multiple feet of rain deposited on streets, parking lots and roofs, there is no way to plan where to put the water. The water must go somewhere.
Architects, designers and urban planners have been urging communities to plan for crisis-level weather events for years. Previous storms such as hurricanes Katrina and Sandy provided devastating and long-lasting effects from which we glean lessons on preparedness and construction, but no one can safely and legitimately plan for a rain and wind event that has a 1-in-1,000 chance of occurring. Instead, communities need to understand that events like Hurricane Harvey are the true definition of climate change.
This force of nature will change the geographical maps of the cities of Houston, Galveston, Victoria and Rockport — along with the State of Texas — and the natural boundaries of the coastline. The hurricane will change the flood maps for large parts of the country and may (hopefully) change zoning and building codes. And Harvey will change the patterns of weather and predictions for future weather events.
Houston was not silent before Hurricane Harvey when it came to understanding climatic risk. The city’s website provides a number of resources related to flood risk and insurance. The chief resilience officer, known as the “flood czar,” has been in office for more than a year, taking the position after the April 2016 floods displaced thousands of residents, and assisting the city in understanding how to protect its assets. However, Houston’s rapid growth comes with rapid conversion of pervious surface, from soil to concrete.
So where does the water go? The best-planned floodwalls and drainage can create worse consequences if water is pushed onto adjoining properties. The most resilient commercial office building or hospital can find itself isolated if neighboring properties are completely underwater and transportation is unavailable.
Sheltering-in-place can only last for so long. Climate-based planning needs to be undertaken at the community level with an embrace of natural systems — think barrier islands and wetlands — to follow where floodwaters will go.
When architecture firm Perkins+Will talks about climate adaptation or resilience planning, it means the ability of a building, a community or a city to bounce back from a shock or stress. Resilience planning is key to the preservation of life and property, and the continuity of commerce.
The District’s Climate Ready DC plan, released last year, is based on these principles. The plan details specific actions, such as taking a more critical look at flood mapping for Washington, addressing zoning codes to limit development in the most vulnerable areas, and better engaging citizens in awareness and readiness.
When the rain finally stops, Houston will rebuild. But we hope that, in doing so, it will consider the impacts of nature and how unpredictable it can be. As a society, we cannot wait for the next crisis to make changes to regulation. We must plan for and design resilient communities now, ensuring safety and prosperity while also creating a place for the water to go.
Jon Penndorf is an architect in the Washington office of the global architecture firm Perkins+Will and was part of the team that drafted the Climate Ready DC Plan.