Flooding is nothing new to Betty and Deb.
After Hurricane Alicia in 1983, they removed the carpeting by hand to clean and dry before reinstalling. During another flood, family members had to be evacuated by fire truck. But even the most resourceful of us can be pushed to our limits by extreme weather events.
“Our house was destroyed [during Harvey],” said Deb. “The worst thing was seeing our father crying in the driveway. He saw all the things that he worked hard [for] being thrown out. He just held his head crying. I felt like I saw him leaving us then. And a few months later, he passed away.”
Despite the destruction and trauma both Betty and Deb experienced, they have different opinions on their future flooding risk. Betty doesn’t entertain the possibility of another flooding event at Harvey’s level, and Deb thinks it’s possible — but wishes that it wasn’t. “What can I do but pray that it doesn’t [flood again]?” she says. “I can’t live my life thinking that way.”
These points of view mirror the ones held by hundreds of thousands of Greater Houston residents. What we’ve found is that recently Houstonians use Hurricane Harvey as a benchmark in which to judge all future flood events, and their opinions range on a spectrum from “it won’t flood like Harvey again” to “it will definitely flood like Harvey again.”
With the number of catastrophic flood events and community disasters increasing (over eight federally declared disasters in the Houston area since 2015), neighborhoods and parts of town that were once trusted dry spots are at greater risk of flooding, and areas of town that historically flood are getting worse.
According to Understanding Houston, the number of properties in Harris County at risk of flooding is projected to increase 20% from now until the year 2050. First Street Foundation identified more than 50,000 properties at risk for residential flooding than FEMA did. In fact, during Hurricane Harvey, 46% of the properties that flooded were not located in the floodplain. Climate change is affecting our weather patterns in increasingly unpredictable ways, and residents are in the dark. If they were informed that their home was in a low risk area when they moved in, they assume that their risk remains the same over time, despite how long they have lived in the home.
Though the science is irrefutable, human beliefs and behaviors are more complicated. Shifting this mindset and helping people truly understand their increasing flood risk will require trust building and support to reimagine their futures. This will take time, empathy and effort.
In the meantime, we can begin to change the way we speak about floods. The current way we talk about floods can be confusing and misleading, even for veteran Houstonians who have been through decades of severe storms and other weather events. Moving from the current terminology of “100-year” vs. “500 -year” floodplains to simpler, more accurate, time-based language is a good place to start.
SIMPLIFIED FLOOD RISK TERMS:
Terms like “immediate threat,” “expected threat” and “future threat” are much more actionable and reflect an urgency that standard flood language does not. This allows people to get a better understanding of their actual flood risk and prepare accordingly. It also clearly advises them on threats that a future property may hold, for example, if they decide to move to a different part of the city or coast.
Accessibility in language is a barrier that must be eliminated if we want to give everyone equitable knowledge surrounding their flood risk. While it seems like a simple change to move away from the traditional way we talk about floods, we believe it is an essential first step to equity in disaster recovery and preparation.
What would our community look like if everyone was aware of their current flood risk at any given time? What would it look like to equitably distribute flood mitigation resources in a way that prioritized high-risk, low-income communities? What would it sound like to hear floods being spoken about in clearer terms that everyone can immediately understand?
Each year, all of us brace for compounding extreme weather events, taking a wait-and-see approach to flooding. Like Deb, we hope and pray that the storms will miss us.
We need more conversation about realistic flood forecasting and how to set people up to flourish during flooding events. We need an equitable and coordinated way to distribute clear messaging about flood risks. We’re committed to making a more transparent and equitable system, and changing how we talk about flood risk is a small but impactful starting point.