Fellow Houstonians, we are one month into the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season. Experts predict another above-average hurricane season this year — meaning we could see more storms active in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Coast. Indeed, the beginning of the season has already been very active.
Houstonians have experienced the devastation and loss from six federally declared flooding disasters in the past five years, most notably Hurricane Harvey. Weather events do not have to be a national disaster to make an impact. Even one inch of water inside a home can cause $25,000 worth of damage. Flood events that were believed to occur every 50 years have been occurring annually in recent years. This is not an anomaly. Research shows the frequency and intensity of rainstorms have increased throughout the Houston area, and the number of extreme precipitation days is only projected to worsen in the coming years.
“Even one inch of water inside a home can cause $25,000 worth of damage.”
People in general are not great about preparing for natural disasters like flooding and hurricanes. Psychologically, our minds have a hard time grappling with massive, far-off, highly uncertain things, which can result in poor decision-making if we are caught without a plan. Also, we tend to have short memories about how we felt in the throes of disaster – diminished memories reduce the sense of urgency we feel to prepare. For example, an August 2018 (one year after the historic Hurricane Harvey) online poll found that 72% of residents in Texas had not taken any precautions in advance of hurricane season and nearly two-thirds did not have an emergency bag prepared. And, given how eventful the first half of this year has been, it’s not surprising that preparing for hurricane season is not top-of-mind for most of us. But, it must be. Here’s why.
How COVID-19 complicates natural disaster preparation
Imagine there is an invisible shield protecting our community from the negative effects of flooding and natural disasters. This shield is composed of layers that include a prepared, healthy, financially and economically secure populace; a well-resourced and unconstrained nonprofit sector; plentiful capacity in our hospitals and emergency management sectors; and, of course, strong feelings of trust within and connection to our community at large. All these factors contribute to a community’s resilience and recovery from a disaster, strengthening the shield.
But this shield can only be as strong as its weakest layer, and right now, all layers are stretching their limits. We are experiencing record unemployment. More than 800,000 families in the Houston-area were economically insecure before the pandemic, and many are struggling financially as a result of impacts from COVID-19. Nonprofits are working at maximum capacity serving those affected by COVID-19. Our hospitals are beginning to reach capacity. And we are currently fighting the worst pandemic in a century, meaning resources are strained across the board — both public and private. Complicating rescue and recovery efforts, “neighbors helping neighbors” has added risk during a time when we need to practice social distancing. Even more worrisome, social distancing will be challenging in venues like NRG or the George R. Brown Convention Center which typically serve as temporary shelters during and immediately after major storms.
“The protective shield is made stronger each time one of us takes action to improve our chances of bouncing back from a serious storm.”
That’s why it is all the more important to actually prepare this year, Houston. The protective shield is made stronger each time one of us takes action to improve our chances of bouncing back from a serious storm. This includes doing things like preparing a disaster kit, formalizing a communication plan with our loved ones, and protecting ourselves and our homes. It is imperative we do these things since there is so much that we cannot control.
Take these steps now to prepare
- Get information. Visit your county’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management website for excellent resources on preparing for a natural disaster, particularly during a pandemic. These sites have checklists and suggested plans for preparing disaster kits, caring for your pets, communicating with loved ones, reviewing flood zone maps, and purchasing flood insurance.
- Prepare a disaster kit
- Complete a family communication plan. Plan how you will assemble your family and loved ones, and anticipate where you will go for different situations. Get together with your family and agree on the ways to contact one another in an emergency, identify meeting locations, and make a Family Emergency Communication Plan.
- Assess flooding risk. Know if your home is at risk of flooding. You can view a Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM or floodplain map) at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Map Service Center or at your county emergency site.
- Consider purchasing flood insurance. Harris County Flood Control District recommends that all Harris County residents become informed about their flood risk and have flood insurance no matter where they reside in Harris County. Flood insurance accelerates the rebuilding and replacement of personal property and fosters community resiliency as a whole. For information on flood insurance, visit the National Flood Insurance Program website or call 1-888-379-9531.
- Sign up for emergency alerts. The Flood Warning System (FWS) offers an alert feature that allows residents to subscribe to and receive email/text alerts that report near real-time rainfall and water levels. Residents are able to customize alerts and notifications for bayous and tributaries in their particular areas of interest. Sign up for the Alert Notification System at fwsalerts.org.
- Don’t get complacent – educate yourself. Check out these other great resources.
- Hurricane Guide from Harris County Flood Control District
- Hurricane Evacuation Planning from Houston-Galveston Area Council
- Disaster Education Network from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension
- Ready by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Office of Emergency Management
- Hurricane Preparedness from Texas General Land Office
- Texas Hurricane Center from the Office of the Texas Governor
We may contain COVID, but storms are here to stay
Time will tell if 2020’s COVID-complicated hurricane season will bring a storm as historic or destructive as Hurricane Harvey, but the steps we take to strengthen our shield today can also help to fortify our region for future natural disasters. After all, a lasting solution to COVID-19 may be around the corner, but flooding and hurricanes in Greater Houston are here to stay.
If you haven’t already, get ready. Hurricane season is a six-month marathon from June 1 through November 30. Let’s do our best to fortify that protective shield for our entire community. Let’s prepare, Houston.