Come ‘Hell and High Water,’ How Another Hurricane Could Destroy Houston

A new interactive project from the Texas Tribune and ProPublica shows the possible damage another hurricane could inflict on Bayou City.  

By Rhonda Fanning & Alain StephensMarch 8, 2016 10:18 am

Put aside worst-case scenarios in the petroleum infrastructure around Bayou City – there is another potential hazard in the region far more lethal and costly.

Recall the aftermath of Hurricane Ike in 2008: Winds over 110 miles per hour left 74 dead and nearly $30 billion in damage.

But there’s no assurance that the next one won’t be more lethal, more costly, and  – to make matters worse – no assurance that officials will be prepared.

The Texas Tribune teamed up with ProPublica for a new interactive series called Hell and High Water. Neena Satija, an investigative reporter for the Texas Tribune, is part of the project.

Satija says a conference she attended in 2013, on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Ike’s landfall, made her realize things have gotten worse in the years since.

“We’re more vulnerable than we were during Ike,” she says, “and we’re only going to get more vulnerable.”

Houston is in a hurricane-prone region and everyone she and her team interviewed framed it as a question not of if, but when. “We’re all sitting around waiting for this to happen,” she says.

The reporting team took experts’ computer models – including those from Rice University and the University of Texas at Austin – to depict the worse-case scenario: slightly higher wind speeds and a landing point that would most directly affect the highest-density residential areas of Houston, like Clear Lake.

“They literally create a storm,” she says. “You can calculate how high the storm surge would go in different areas. It’s really quite precise, within a few thousand square meters.”

Satija says they’re aware of risks, but it’s in the back of their minds. “No major public official that we spoke to said this would never happen,” she says, “but there wasn’t much of a willingness to talk about it openly.”

Listen to the full interview in the audio player above.