Steve Culver cries with his dog, Otis, as he talks about ‘most terrifying event in his life,’ when Hurricane Harvey blew in and destroyed most of his home while he and his wife took shelter there in Rockport, Texas. GETTY IMAGES PHOTO BY JOE RAEDLE
By SHELAGH BRALEY
As video footage of Houston residents wading through Hurricane Harvey’s watery swath becomes more familiar, a thought floats to the surface: Why is this still happening?
We have the technology, says entrepreneur Kevin Dutt, founder of Rainbank, the 2014 MassChallenge company that uses storm data and innovative water storage to prevent flood damage. But a pervasive fear of failure from our cities’ leadership keeps flood innovation from protecting those at critical risk.
“You need to create that environment where decision-makers are allowed to take risk. They don’t have it,” Dutt says. “Anybody in those positions, they agree the technology is necessary. But they say, ‘I’d lose my job if I tried Tech X, because it could fail.’ Until that fundamentally changes, it’s going to be tough.”
Texas emergency response officials are now calling Harvey the worst flood disaster in U.S. history, reporting that more than 300,000 residents have been displaced, and the death toll has risen to 14 as of Tuesday morning. They also predict more will die, as rescue efforts are hampered by more rain and surging waters. Still a named storm 72 hours after making landfall, forecasters have called for another 20 inches of rain by the end of the week, as the storm pivots toward the already embattled southwestern Louisiana. Stunned residents sit atop their sodden homes and in branches of trees, dodging filthy floodwater and tweeting out rescue pleas.
Since Hurricanes Sandy in 2012, Ike in 2008, Katrina in 2005, Ivan in 2004—all the way back to the historic Category 5 Hurricane Andrew in 1992— it’s hard to understand the implementation lag, especially while China has engineered sponge-based concrete and the Netherlands is known for its intricate drainage systems.
“Nobody wants to take a risk. It is frustrating but you can see how it comes to this. They don’t (address the problem) till they have to,” Dutt says.
In a time of increasing historic storms, where past performance has proven an unreliable metric, real-time storm water information like Rainbank collects is growing exponentially in value.
“We have all the data on water for each storm,” Dutt says. Rainbank creates technology for “blue rooftops” that can hold up to half a million gallons—basically, rooftop-installed trays with small holes that allow water to slowly drain off. “We’ve done all the tests to determine weight. The computer tells the drain to close, or let 2, 3 or 4 inches of rain trickle down. It can hold all the water up there till we tell it to release.”
The company has been steadily proving an innovative business model that moves it out of direct sale with municipal governments—another obstacle to scale that Dutt says scares off investors—and brings private business to the table to create solutions.
“We work with flat-roof locations like Home Depot, factories, big-box stores, to rent us their rooftops. Home Depot is perfectly happy to get a check for $52,000, it’s a revenue stream for them. That way, the risk on the city is way less,” Dutt says.
Rooftop rentals became easier, Dutt says, with the increasing accuracy of web search. “We used to struggle to find buildings that span 18 acres—how much water could that hold? The hard part was always finding places to store that much water. Now we can just look at Google Maps.”
Catastrophic damage from Harvey reportedly already surpasses that of Hurricane Katrina and subsequent Hurricane Rita in August and September of 2005 that hit the same area less than a month later. The 2005 storm system cost more than $91 billion total and remains one of the deadliest storms in U.S. history, with deaths exceeding 1,800 in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The final cost of Harvey could exceed $100 billion, according to Bloomberg.
“There is always a lot of money for cleanup,” says Dutt. “That’s a tremendous amount of money. Disasters happen, and now we have to respond to that. We’re still just so shortsighted. There are so many technologies that could save these lives and the money preventively, especially given the nature and magnitude of it. The problem is enormous.”
Although property insurance can cover wind damage, most are shocked to discover they are not protected from flooding. And according to the Insurance Information Institute’s 2016 figures, only 12 percent of coastal residents hold flood insurance.
The National Flood Insurance Program, a federal program managed by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the single source of flood insurance for most Americans, is already under water itself, owing nearly $25 billion to the U.S. Treasury. It was bailed out by taxpayers already once, post-Katrina, to cover claims. The NFIP backs separate flood policies sold and serviced by such private insurers as Assurant, Allstate and others.
“Secretly, we carry this hidden debt and we haven’t made it easy to test out new technology,” Dutt says.
He points out the challenges of being a first-mover with an unproven technology. “There isn’t a lot you see that comes from a place of trying something different. But the other side is the risk. They were hoping Houston would never happen,” Dutt says. “We’re conditioned to be firefighters, not preventive. We have to start working on prevention.”
If prevention were the goal, he says, you would see a lot of cities testing new technology in a controlled way, working out best practices. That is happening faster in other parts of the world, like China, Bangladesh and the Netherlands, where protecting lowlands and mitigating floods are urgent concerns.
“In certain areas, where there are huge issues, governments are making quicker changes in how they prioritize (flood mitigation). And some do take risks because they know what’s at stake. That is a relief,” Dutt says.
“Taking these risks is worth it. We’d rather hear cities say, ‘We did try. It cost $1 billion, but we tried (to save these lives).’”