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After Harvey, Texans Are Preparing For Future With Raised Homes, Private Flood Gates


Shortly after Hurricane Harvey rolled over Houston, country music stars put on a show to rally those affected.


GEORGE STRAIT: (Singing) I wouldn't be an American if it wasn't for Texas.


SIEGEL: There's plenty of can-do spirit in Texas. And right now we're going to hear from some people who are not waiting on the government to protect their property from future floods. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.


CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: I met the Soltani family in a hotel - Melissa, Reza and baby Luca. Their house in Houston's Meyerland neighborhood had flooded just a couple of months after they bought it. Their baby was 7 weeks old when Harvey's floodwaters started to creep under their front door.

MELISSA SOLTANI: With a newborn, having to get, you know, all the necessities from pumping to food to, you know, a dog and everybody just kind of pack your valuables and try to get as much upstairs, you know?

JOYCE: They were evacuated with two feet of water in their house. Some of their neighbors are sick of the flooding and are selling out. The Soltanis are staying, but they plan to elevate their house by at least five feet, well above the flood plain in their neighborhood. That's because Reza Soltani doesn't trust government flood maps.

REZA SOLTANI: It pisses me off that they call this an 800-year flood.

JOYCE: That is, a flood of the size you might expect about every 800 years. Soltani has a degree in engineering from the University of Houston. He says a warming climate and widespread development in Houston make the area's flood maps useless.

R. SOLTANI: I personally believe this is a 20 or 30-year flood, meaning within 30 years in Houston we're going to have another Harvey.

JOYCE: Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agree that Houston's flood maps are out of date. And Soltani says he's not waiting for government officials to figure out his real flood risk.

R. SOLTANI: The government is broken, all of it - from local levels all the way to the federal government. We just have - as private citizens, we just have to get used to it and repair and move on.

JOYCE: The take-care-of-yourself attitude in Houston extends to large institutions as well, like the Texas Medical Center.

SHAWN CLOONAN: Well, we have eight miles of private roads in the medical center, and probably 70 percent of those private roads were underwater with the storm.

JOYCE: Shawn Cloonan is chief operating officer at the center. It bills itself as the largest medical complex in the country. It sits right next to Brays Bayou, a big stream that runs through the city. Harvey flooded the streets at the center, but not the buildings. That's because 16 years ago, the center did flood badly. They said never again and took matters into their own hands. Cloonan shows me the big flood gates that engineers put in across parking garage openings.

CLOONAN: Talking about 10 inches thick, you know, steel, latched in three different ways for security. And it has sensors in place that can tell us at what level the water is.

JOYCE: They installed pumps to keep water away from buildings, and the county helped with new culverts to divert water. Cloonan says as a result of all this, buildings were dry and accessible during Harvey. But it did cost the center a lot of money, over $50 million. That kind of price tag suggests that an everyone-for-yourself approach won't work for an entire city. Environmental engineer Hanadi Rifai at the University of Houston says the government has to figure out the best defense for everybody.

HANADI RIFAI: Do we do a solution for everyone that everyone participates rather than close each facility by a berm? Do they all buy into some sort of gate structure or something like that? It's time to talk about these things.

JOYCE: Protecting the nation's fourth-largest city is a huge undertaking. And Rifai says the planning needs to consider worst case scenarios such as climate change, a subject she says Texas politicians tend to avoid.

RIFAI: Well, we call it weird weather if that gives you an idea. So, yes, for the past few years I think people have had hesitation to kind of address it right on or, you know, discuss it openly.

JOYCE: Texas officials are talking about a master plan for the city that would redraw flood maps and large stream channels, maybe build a new reservoir west of the city to hold more floodwater. They promise to buy homes that repeatedly flood and tear them down. All that will cost tens of billions of dollars. Who will pay and how much is still being debated in the U.S. Congress, and the next hurricane season starts in five months. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.