Jeff Lindner on Hurricane Harvey

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Harris County residents got to know Jeff Lindner, the meteorologist for the Harris County Flood Control District, during Hurricane Harvey. Harris County residents grew accustomed to Judge Ed Emmett as the voice of calm during storm events. After all, Judge Emmett taught us to hunker down.

At first, it was obvious that Lindner was not accustomed to speaking in front of the camera, but he improved over the Harvey days. People immediately took a shine to him and a group started a go fund me page to send him on vacation. As a county employee, Lindner was not allowed to accept these funds and instead donated the funds to flood victims. Jeff Lindner is just a good public servant story.

Last week, Jeff brought his presentation on Hurricane Harvey to Barry Klein’s group – the Houston Property Rights Association (HPRA). Barry’s group hosts guest speakers every Friday on local issues. The timing of Lindner’s presentation was impeccable because it allowed him time to reflect, gather information, and formulate answers to questions. Barry’s group is very well informed; so, speakers need to be ready for good questions.

Lindner was knowledgeable and came prepared with a slide presentation that included some great graphics. I asked him for a copy and he very graciously shared it with me. Lindner is just a nice guy.

I asked Lindner for information on important reports or studies on Hurricane Harvey. In response, he mentioned the NOAA Atlas 14 report, which is a peer reviewed study due out in May 2018. Some information about the storm was just released and the Chronicle has a story on the preliminary findings. These reports, studies, and findings on Harvey will serve as the foundation for moving the baseline flood elevations. Another recent article based on the NOAA Atlas preliminary findings focused on the increased rainfall amounts. I am concerned about the Chron’s motivations, but more on that later.

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Harvey was the largest rain event in the United States and exceeded the previous record (in Louisiana) by 14 inches of rain. Weather experts are still analyzing and processing data from Harvey. We have about 130 years of recorded rainfall history. If you graphed Harvey out and used a bunch of fancy algorithms Harvey was a 30,000 year event for parts of our area like League City and Dickinson where 75% of all structures suffered water damage. Lindner is always quick to point out that a 100 year storm means that it is a 1 in 100 chance of happening. The 1 in 100 chance could occur at any time. Same could be true if the probability is shifted to 1 in 30,000. Lindner stressed that Harvey was an exceptional regional rain event.

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Lindner pointed out that the forecast was exactly right for Harvey when the eye of Hurricane Harvey came ashore at San José Island, just across the channel from Port Aransas and Mustang Island. Weather meteorologists could see that it was a slow moving storm and knew that the worst case scenario for the Houston area was happening when Harvey backed out into the Gulf after devastating Port Aransas, Rockport, Refugio. Quickly, the long bands of concentrated rainfall began trailing into the Houston and overwhelmed our area until moving to the east. Harvey just kept picking up more moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and dumping it over the Houston area. If you were here, you will remember the first time you saw that weird orange thing in the sky (i.e., the sun) after Harvey.

In my opinion, the meteorologists called the storm exactly right and local politicians blew the call. Flood prone areas like Meyerland should have been evacuated. The failure to evacuate these residents put tremendous pressure on first responders.

Lindner’s presentation discussed the area infrastructure including dams, levees, reservoirs, and bayous, and how they relate to the area watersheds. Lindner was asked about the litigation and decisions made by the Army Corps of Engineers about opening the spillways. Lindner wisely said he could not comment on the subject matter because of the pending litigation. Judge Emmett and our County Attorney would have been proud of Lindner’s sidestep. Jeff discussed the importance of communication and dissemination of information on Twitter and other social media apps like Next Door. This capability is new and different from previous rain events in our area.

Lindner made it clear that the decision to release water from the spillways into Buffalo Bayou is made by the Army Corps of Engineers. The decision affected thousands of residents upstream and downstream. The downstream residents were impacted by the water releases from the Barker and Addicks reservoirs when that water flooded their homes. The upstream residents were impacted because the releases arguably did not occur fast enough and water in the reservoirs backed up into their homes. Many residents never knew they were in a reservoir or what that meant. But, people who lived in our area for any length of time were confused when developers began to build projects within the reservoirs. People that played in and on the spillways and reservoirs growing up were confused how people could live in a flood area. The fact that water pooled in a flood reservoir was not a surprise to many Houstonians.

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Lindner did describe a little of the decision making process when water began spilling around the north end of the Barker reservoir. A decision had to be made because neither the Corps nor the Harris County Flood Control District knew where that water was going to flow. The water flowed down Clay Road until it found its way back into the Buffalo Bayou stream. Lindner had a great photo of this occurrence. I was of course wondering why it did not spill into the nearest detention basins. Lindner explained that the water would naturally flow back into Buffalo Bayou.

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Lindner went on to explain a lot of what we saw with Harvey may never be seen again. During Harvey, the Flood Control District learned a lot about how our watersheds operate during a major rain event. Lindner did explain that water flows east to the San Jacinto River or the Houston Ship Channel. The size of the San Jacinto River watershed covers most of the county and Cedar Bayou and Clear Creek make up the balance. Jeff answered many questions about how certain watersheds would react in heavy rain. Again, this amount of water has never been dumped over a region before. The flow of water in an easterly direction was new to me. The logical assumption is that the water flows south into the bay – again, I learned something.

Much of what we know about the Harvey flooding has yet to be processed. Jeff Lindner’s presentation is based on his perception as a meteorologist. An engineering perspective needs to be incorporated into our thinking about Harvey and solutions to flooding. The process should include an accurate physical assessment of how watersheds performed. We are a long way from figuring out specific remedies and the first process should be to accurately define our flood maps. This process is underway with the NOAA Atlas 14 report. We need to make sure that we are not deceived by politicians and their developer/engineering buddies.

The political struggle over money, contracts, and development mitigation is in full swing. I am concerned that Judge Emmett has formed a working group composed of engineers and developers. Like Mayor Turner’s Flood Czar, Stephen Costello, many of these folks have either been sued or will be sued very soon. Lawyers are putting together plans to exact a pound of flesh for past sins. Engineers who placed their professional stamps on projects that suffered significant flooding will be targeted. Engineers who stamped plans within the flood reservoirs are brushing up on their deposition skills. The Texas Supreme Court has already spoken about Costello’s rain tax and associated charter amendment.

Spending money on preliminary engineering reports and assembling teams of engineers who work for developers is premature. Scientists need to finish evaluating Harvey before a proper discussion can be had on flood improvements. Allowing folks like Costello to have any say in the matter will likely result in a new disaster.

Turner, Emmett, and Houstonians must remember the big lesson that should have been learned from Costello (and Annise Parker) and the rain tax: the representations about the rain tax were false. There was never any lock box and the money designed for flood improvements was spent on everything but flood improvements. This was done while Costello’s company used the money to pay themselves for road improvements disguised as flood improvements. Just reading the city audit on Renew Houston should tell every politician to steer clear of Costello and his group of self-serving political opportunists.

The baseline flood elevation for many areas will have a big impact on property values. Many local governments, including the City of Houston, are going to rue the day they led people to believe they could be trusted to do anything about flooding mitigation. Much of the Project Brays remains stalled because the city’s bridges require widening downstream of Meyerland to the Houston Ship Channel. Costello spent the “rain tax” money on road improvements, not the bridges. Real solutions to the flooding problem need to be addressed. This needs to occur independent of political and development interests.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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