Is Extreme Weather the New Normal? Planning for its Challenges

Three expert panelists analyzed the impact of climate change in Texas and the implications for emergency management, flood planning and infrastructure improvements at the November meeting of the Women’s Policy Forum.

The City of Fort Worth’s Emergency Management Coordinator Maribel Martinez-Mejia, Ph.D., CEM supervises a staff of 14 and prepares for every possible emergency including active shooter situations. Martinez-Mexia, who is new to Fort Worth, believes in building “muscle memory” through emergency drills and planning.

“My plan is more exercises, more drills and more personal preparation. Emergency Management must be humble and seek input from participants to get better. If we don’t receive input, we don’t know what to put in our overall plan,” she said.

Martinez-Mexia’s department just received a $2.9 million Department of Homeland Security grant to improve disaster response. She noted that families should prepare themselves and their households by developing emergency plans and taking simple, low-cost steps to prevent damage to their homes.

“I have weather alerts on my phone for myself and my family. I also have a second option if cell phone service goes out,” she said. “Simple steps, such as freezing bags of water ahead of a possible power outage to keep food cold longer, can make a difference.”

The North Central Texas Council of Governments Tamara Cook, AICP, LEED Green Associate
Senior Program Manager of Environment & Development, described the vast voluntary organization she represents that provides critical coordination among 16 counties and more than 200 cities. She emphasized  the exponential growth occurring in the region with an expected 14 million people expected to be living here by 2070. Combine that growth with the higher temperatures and weather variability anticipated because of climate change and the Council must take a thoughtful approach to long-term planning.

She unveiled the Fourth Annual National Climate Change Assessment that confirmed the impact of a changing environment. The Council works closely with local, state and federal authorities, as well as academics, business and schools to develop conservation plans.

The Council has developed tools over the last 15 years to help local governments work with developers to find ways to conserve water. “Seventeen cities have adopted the plan officially,” she said.

Nick Fang, Ph.D., P.E., Assistant Professor, Civil Engineering Department, University of Texas at Arlington, described the impact of Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath. Fang summarized the devastating damage caused by Hurricane Harvey in both visual and statistical terms:

               *$97 billion in damage to Houston and Harris County

               *80 percent of the city underwater

               *27 trillion gallons of water dumped. Hurricane Katrina, 6.5 trillion gallons

               *52 inches of rain in four days, 21 inches in one day

“Harvey didn’t behave like a typical hurricane. It added more vapor and dumped more water because it didn’t move inland where its power would dissipate,” Fang said.

Harvey blew through the estimated maximum rainfall forecast, “which has implications for planning in the future,” he said. “Harvey is an indicator that climate change is happening.”

Population increases in Harris County from 1990 to 2000 and land use changes in Brays watershed, where much of Houston’s growth occurred, created imperviousness that contributed to flooding. Harvey inundated Brays watershed and exceeded the 500-year flood level projection.

“Technology can help us with flood warning systems and improved zoning could reduce the impact of flooding,” he said. Harris County needs better development policy and water storage systems with a more proactive approach. “More storms like Harvey will happen,” he said.

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