Hurricane Harvey draws attention to planning, development on Texas coast

AgriLife Extension uses CHARM to help coastal communities plan

Writer: Paul Schattenberg, 210-859-5752, paschattenberg@ag.tamu.edu 

Contacts: Dr. John Jacob, 281-218-0565, (Cell: 832-671-8171), jjacob@tamu.edu

Steve Mikulencak, 281-984-7085, smikulencak@tamu.edu

HOUSTON – In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, attention has once again shifted to what can be done to make towns and cities along the Texas coastline and further inland more durable and flood-ready. And Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service personnel have already been helping in that effort.

“One of our main goals is to help elected and appointed city officials as well as planners and developers better understand how their decisions will affect people, resources, infrastructure and the environment,” said Dr. John Jacob of Houston, AgriLife Extension specialist and director of the Texas Coastal Watershed Program of Texas A&M University.

Teams participate in a CHARM planning exercise in the Galveston area. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

Jacob said while addressing flooding is the major issue after events like Hurricane Harvey, responsible development should also focus on making a town or city a safer and better place.

“The issue extends beyond floods and flooding, but such disasters as Hurricane Harvey remind us we should focus on ‘resilient growth’ so we can bounce back from adversity,” he said. “We want to get these communities affected by flooding to the point where a flood can be seen as an inconvenience and not a disaster.”

He said much of the area of Houston affected by Hurricane Harvey was in communities built before regulations regarding development on floodplains were put into effect.

“Like anything having to do with real estate, the most important thing is location, location, location,” he said. “Look for higher ground, but if you’re building in a low-lying area or floodplain. You also need to incorporate ‘freeboarding’ or a buffer zone into the planning.”

He said “just a few extra inches of elevation” can make a big difference in home construction.

“For example, pier and beam construction with a crawl space under the house can help you avoid flood damage in many instances,” he said.

Jacob said while environmentally friendly or low-impact development materials and techniques such as bioretention areas, permeable pavers and green roofs are useful and important considerations, “all bets are off” when it comes to a major flooding like that brought on by Hurricane Harvey.

“During a major flood, the standard retention areas overflow and green development materials are overwhelmed,” he said. “If you’ve had a flood, it probably doesn’t matter much to you if you have 4 feet of water in your house or just 3 feet; it’s still too much.”

Jacob said more major changes in development planning along the Texas coast are needed to address serious flooding.

“For example, we need to make sure to preserve prairie areas and wetlands to detain and clean water and help reduce flooding,” he said.

To assist coastal and other communities with information needed to make important development decisions, Jacob and AgriLife Extension specialist Steven Mikulencak have been taking elected and appointed officials to “CHARM school” by providing workshops on the Community Health and Resource Management, or CHARM, platform.

The CHARM platform allows for the overlay and integration of demographic, geographic and economic information over a 2.5-acre grid for that community. It is a user‐friendly mapping tool that allows officials and members of the public to create land use and planning scenarios incorporating a variety of factors and receive immediate feedback.

“This platform allows non-experts and non-specialists to engage with data and analysis about their communities in ways that are usually the domain of analysts,” said Mikulencak, program leader for CHARM. “Through this platform, we are bringing knowledge and technology to bear on local decision-making.”

Users interact with the CHARM map that summarizes 24 land-based characteristics and more than 40 scenario-based trends or indicators, including the dollar value of future losses. It also tracks over 200 scenario-based impact indicators that can affect habitats, resources and critical facilities.

Planning workshops have been presented in 14 Texas counties to about 400 local officials and others. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

“Over the past two years, we’ve brought the program to different towns, including the city of Rockport in Aransas County in 2016, and most recently to San Marcos in Hays County,” he said.

Mikulencak said Houston and other coastal communities need to look at planning in the long term – probably 15 to 20 years out. And even communities out of the 100-year flood plain should still plan with the possibility of a major disaster in mind.

“We’ve run these workshops in 14 counties and have had almost 400 local officials and stakeholders attend these half-day events,” he said. “We don’t tell communities what development to put in. Rather, we run the exercise as a game and give each team a population target, They can work toward the target however they want, adding a range of development styles to areas in their community,”

He said the CHARM dataset has more than two dozen mapping layers of data from federal, state and regional agencies to help determine the effect of development in relation to flood plains, elevation, population growth and density, rivers, water resources, the environment, and more.

“With this software you can actually simulate what might happen if there’s a major flood or storm surge and what the effects would be,” Mikulencak said.

Jacob said CHARM workshops have helped those involved better understand planning and zoning and the need to emphasize hazard mitigation.

“We try to get them to pay closer attention to where they develop and understand how to develop where people are kept out of harm’s way,” he said. “And also how to build safer and be more flood ready by adding in a buffer to accommodate for the unexpected.”

Mikulencak said one of his deepest concerns with planning is currently there is not enough coordination and cooperation for long-term planning and results.However, he said , sharing the CHARM platform has “helped get people talking.”

“In each of the workshops we’ve presented, there have been individuals with very different perspectives on development in attendance,” he said. “But when we lay out the most recent FEMA flood maps and they all look at the same data and get an objective look at the challenges and consequences of that development, they find it much easier to discuss things among one another as opposed to a lot of arguing and yelling.”

For more information on CHARM, go to http://www.communitycharm.org/ http://www.communitycharm.org/http://www.communitycharm.org/overview.

Both Jacob and Mikulencak said development should also improve the “social capital” of the area being developed and make it a more appealing place to live.

“We need to build in a way that’s not only durable but lovable,” Jacob said. “And by lovable I mean to make it a place where your grandchildren would enjoy and be happy to live.”

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