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Researchers and engineers from the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC) were recently involved in a major investigative multimedia report on Houston’s vulnerability to major storm damage.

CERA image of Houston/Galveston area
CERA image of Houston/Galveston area

Hell and High Water,” a report by investigative journalism site ProPublica and the Texas Tribune, presents storm surge and flooding scenarios along the Texas coast using the ADCIRC computer model. ADCIRC was developed by a team co-led by CRC Principal Investigator and UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Rick Luettich.

The ProPublica article focuses on variants of Hurricane Ike, which hit the Houston/Galveston area in September 2008 but missed major industrial and population centers. Using ADCIRC it was possible to show that small deviations from the actual Ike track could have led to much higher flooding, destruction of property and possible loss of life. The report also highlights potential infrastructure projects that could mitigate losses from a storm that is larger or hits a vulnerable area of the city more directly.

A full explanation of the ADCIRC-based findings is available on ProPublica’s website.

“CRC engineers at Jackson State played a major role in this work and are now involved in the development of design options for a multi-billion dollar system for reducing risk in the greater Houston-Galveston area,” Luettich said. “Without some type of enhanced protection, the area is highly susceptible to massive devastation as demonstrated in the Ike-based findings.”

Bruce Ebersole of Jackson State University, a co-PI on the CRC project “The Incorporation of Rainfall Into Hazard Estimates for Improved Coastal Resiliency,” provided data for the report.

“During my employment with the Corps of Engineers…I got a good first-hand look at how vulnerable the Houston-Galveston region is to a major hurricane storm surge,” Ebersole said. “The region is steadily growing in population and infrastructure, so its potential for significant damage, and possible loss of life, during hurricanes is increasing….ADCIRC is an excellent tool for simulating hurricane storm surge [and] is central to the work which we are presently doing…. It is great to see ADCIRC get positive exposure as the valuable, reliable engineering tool that it is.”

Dr. Clint Dawson, head of the Computational Hydraulics Group at the University of Texas-Austin and a co-PI on the “Improving the Efficiency of Wave and Surge Models via Adaptive Mesh Resolution” project with the CRC, said ProPublica approached his team about the story about a year ago. Dawson and colleagues contacted the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center about using data that had been generated for the Center for the ProPublica feature.

“The outcome I hope to see is better awareness among the general public and decision-makers about the risk along the Texas coast,” Dawson said. “This research has received quite a bit of publicity in the Houston-Galveston area, but not so much outside of the area.”

Led by UNC-Chapel Hill, the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence is a Department of Homeland Security (DHS)-funded consortium focused on applied research, education and outreach addressing threats to coastal communities due to natural hazards and climate change. Further development and applications using ADCIRC are being pursued in several ongoing CRC projects.


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