Essay | Flash flood warning: My home is drowning

A pick-up truck drives through a flooded intersection during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

A pick-up truck drives through a flooded intersection during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. (Jill Carlson/Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Growing up in Houston, “FLASH FLOOD WARNING” were my three favorite words. The blaring alert meant no school, sleeping in, and a free day off. Rather than feeling concerned about the imminent extreme weather, I was giddy about the rhythmic pitter-patter that would hit my windows as I curled up with a book. 

The morning of August 25, 2017, started the way most rainy days often do. The night before, my brother and I monitored the weather for the next day, secretly hoping that classes would be canceled so I could avoid my dreaded physics presentation. The next morning, our phones buzzed with incessant FLASH FLOOD WARNINGS and an email from our Head of School declared classes were canceled - here we go!

The aftermath of a flash flood near the author's home. Streets overflow with rain water.
Pictures of the flooding in my neighborhood and on the main road where people kayaked for transportation. (Aleena Fayaz)

Everything was routine, except something felt off. When the meteorologist spoke, he reported with urgency, panic, and a tinge of fear, sprinkling in words like “500-year flood” and “catastrophic rainfall.” Quickly, the sounds of the TV faded away and were replaced by muffled sounds of panicked phone calls about knee-deep water and shrieks from friends floating in the bacteria-filled floods. Our city was swallowed whole, and my mom muttered, “Oh no.” Within hours, Houston was underwater, and I wished I was in class.

News flash: More storms like Harvey are coming

Hurricane Harvey was a Category 4 hurricane that made landfall in the Greater Houston area and the Southern corridor on August 25, 2017, affecting more than 13 million people and forcing 39,000 people out of their homes. Just east of Houston, the rainfall totaled 60.58 inches (about the size of my 5-foot grandma) near Nederland, Texas, the highest amount in a single storm for any place in the continental United States. 

Houston is no stranger to extreme rainfall. With its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, a major source of moisture, the city is highly susceptible to flash floods. However, 2017 was a year of special devastation with exceedingly high multi-day rainfall. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, Harvey’s catastrophic rainfall was likely a result of warmer ocean surface temperatures feeding the tropical precipitation trajectories in Texas due to human-induced climate change.

Trajectories of tropical storms are depicted on this map of the Gulf Coast. Colored dots indicate where storms have increased and decreased in strength.
A map tracking tropical cyclones for the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season. (MapBox/OpenStreetMap/Open Database License)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts an above-average hurricane activity this year, marking 2022 as the seventh consecutive above-average hurricane season. Human-caused increases in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants have amplified atmospheric variability in the Atlantic Ocean, which scientists say has increased tropical cyclone activity since 1970. 

The new normal, a different meaning

When it rains, it pours, and hurricane intensity is only getting worse. Due to sea level rise, tidal flooding has increased by 490% in some areas of Texas since 2000. According to States at Risk, by 2050, an additional 117,000 Texans are projected to be at risk of coastal flooding. 

Along with devastating physical damage, Harvey brought with it $125 billion in damage, boasting the title of the second-most costly hurricane in U.S. history. In 2018, Harris County voters passed a $2.5 billion bond to go toward flood-protection projects to address these impacts. City officials have worked with the Harris County Flood Control District to modify channels, build stormwater detentions (basins), extend bridges, and construct levees in anticipation of future flooding. 

As the energy capital of the world and home to several oil and gas industries, Houston has a special responsibility to lead the charge in sustainability. Houston’s commitment to making the city carbon neutral by 2050 works in tandem with its first-ever Climate Action Plan, a science-based, community-driven strategy founded in 2020 which outlines transformative solutions for building operations and transportation networks, as well as how residents can prepare for storms with emergency tool kits. 

“FLASH FLOOD WARNING” holds a vastly different meaning to me now. A phrase of excitement and relief quickly turned to signals of fear and tragedy. There can only be so many warnings until it’s too late. 

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