Reviewing the 2017 Disaster Season – Hurricane Harvey


This is the fourth installment from our new commentary paper, “Learning from the 2017 Disasters to Create a Reliably Resilient U.S.” The full commentary will be shared on June 1 to mark the beginning of the 2018 hurricane season.

 Reviewing the 2017 Disaster Season – Hurricane Harvey

As we review the major 2017 disasters, we will comment on the potential presence of the six biases detailed in the Ostrich Paradox.  We will also identify potential strategic options to help overcome same that can increase resilience during the disaster recovery underway from California to the Caribbean.

Our current disaster management system is correctly rooted in the local nature of such events, but the decentralized approach has slowed wider-scale resilience reforms. That said, we believe that, like the volume created by the #HurricaneStrong campaign, the sheer breadth and legacy of last year’s events can help overcome the Build-Destroy-Rebuild cycle.

Here’s why.

Last year, in just under 60 days, the United States experienced the shock of multiple billion-dollar disasters at the total cost of more than $300 billion. The shock isn’t just quantitative, it’s qualitative too. We had epic, some say biblical, flooding; major hurricanes (it’s the first time two Atlantic category 4 U.S. landfalls have occurred in the same year[i]); and the deadliest spate of wildfires in California history.

Many have tried to describe and differentiate it—tipping point, paradigm shift, sea change, new world order. These are all ways to say that natural disasters cannot remain only local concerns that garner momentary national attention. We live in an anytime, all-hazard world, and the only way to adequately protect our communities is to embrace resilience across the board with no exceptions, no seasons, and no compromises.

We must overcome the bias of myopia, or nearsightedness. We need to accept that investing in, and prioritizing, safety isn’t negotiable. It is the obligation of all levels of government to protect its citizens. Moreover, embracing basic safety standards for construction and other disaster preparations saves lives, saves money, and spares communities inevitable decades of disruption.

The following will look to each disaster and explore what we knew, what we learned, and how we can move forward to improve disaster resilience in the future.

Hurricane Harvey

On August 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall near Rockport, Texas.[ii] Rockport and the surrounding areas endured a category 4 hurricane, but this was just the beginning. After the devastating wind damage, Harvey generated extraordinary levels of flooding. As of August 31, 2017, an estimated 70 percent of Harris County was flooded by at least 1.5 feet of water, with an estimated 136,000 flooded structures in the county alone. According to Jeff Lindner of Harris County Flood Control District, government personnel completed 60,049 water rescues with an additional estimate of 20,000 to 30,000 performed by civilians.

What We Knew

We understood ahead of time that a direct hit from a category 4 hurricane would cause the type of wind damage that devastated Rockport and Port Aransas because we have had decades of insights from wind science and engineering testing. As a result, we understand how buildings perform or fail in hurricane force winds.

Modern building codes incorporate these insights and high-performing building methods and materials, but Texas does not have a uniformly adopted and enforced system of building codes. That is why the benefits were not uniformly realized. NOAA’s latest damage estimate from Harvey is $125 billion, and engineering investigations will eventually establish the degree of avoidable loss suffered due to the absence of minimum building codes, enforcement, or effective floodplain regulations.

We also knew that catastrophic flooding in Harris County was likely given the rainfall predictions, although Harvey exceeded what was already expected to be an historic event. In fact, the National Hurricane Center found that Harvey was the most significant tropical cyclone rainfall event in U.S. history. [iii] To wit, the highest storm total rainfall report from Harvey was 60.58 inches.[iv] Furthermore, during Harvey, eighteen values over 48 inches were recorded across southeastern Texas.[v] This is one of the rare occasions that using the description of “biblical” flooding levels is not hyperbolic.

We knew that flood insurance market penetration was lacking. In the end, only an estimated one-fifth of Harvey victims were insured for flood risk.[vi]

We knew modern technology could help post-disaster, but we underestimated the potential, as well as the speed of deployment and adaptation.

What We Learned

Technologies deployed in Harvey swiftly evolved and later became tools for those in Irma’s path. One example is “GasBuddy.” The mobile app helped Harvey evacuees identify which gas stations had run out of fuel or lost electricity.[vii]

The expanded version of the app emerged after a run on Texas gas stations post-Harvey convinced the company’s CEO that GasBuddy needed to re-engineer their mobile app overnight to help Irma evacuees from the app’s usual purpose to price gasoline, to also help find available gasoline.[viii] GasBuddy did so quickly, and it was downloaded a total of 1.8 million times between August 26 and September 11.[ix]

Zello, a modernized two-way radio, is an app that uses Wi-Fi or cellular connection to link users around the world.[x] The app was used when Harvey hit Houston to help coordinate search and rescue missions, including by those in the so-called “Cajun Navy”, a group of Louisiana (and Texas) boat owners who conducted search-and-rescue missions.[xi] Zello connects victims and rescuers instantly, allowing both to post voice messages to specific channels.[xii] To gain a better understanding of how Zello was used during Harvey, read the Houston Chronicle’s article, “I downloaded an app. And suddenly, was part of the Cajun Navy.” As Irma headed for Florida, the Zello app took the top spot on Apple’s store.[xiii]

The role of drones in disaster recovery after Harvey, and then Irma, is also noteworthy. Drones, or Unmanned Ariel Vehicles (UAV), are vehicles that fly without an on-board pilot.[xiv] After Harvey’s landfall, drone operators responded to the area to support rescue and recovery efforts.[xv]

After Harvey, the American Red Cross tested the use of drones to speed up damage assessment and recovery.[xvi] Additionally, telecom companies Verizon and AT&T used drones to assess equipment damage, and some insurers have deployed drones to more quickly view and assess damaged areas.[xvii] We are aware of many insurers who used drones to swiftly adjust California wildfire claims as well.

There are still issues to address regarding the use of drones after a disaster for search and recovery. This includes FAA temporary flight restrictions on private drones after Harvey that were criticized as overlooking opportunities to increase rescue and recovery efforts. [xviii]

Another lesson learned from the Harvey experience is that we should reexamine how we communicate risk. A Huffington Post article, “Hurricane Harvey Is Testing Our Ability To Communicate Natural Disaster Risks,” discusses how meteorologists were unsurprised by the extent of Harvey’s destruction, but effectively communicating it to the public was a real challenge.[xix] A risk communication consultant was quoted, “We can describe a burrito and a pizza as ‘epic,’ but when we are trying to describe rainfall as ‘epic,’ and we’re truly meaning this is epic—we’ve never seen anything like this in this country—it’s not necessarily resonating.” [xx]

While Harvey was a catastrophic and historic event, flooding, even on much smaller scales, is a major source of disaster damage. A Pew Charitable Trusts report found that flooding events prompted 73% of federal disaster declarations between 2008 and 2017.[xxi] The report also noted that major flooding in landlocked states was more frequent than flooding along the coasts, as eight of 10 states with the most flood-related disaster declarations were inland states.[xxii]

How We Are Moving Forward

There is mounting evidence that Harvey may have led to a reduction in myopia among the building industry for disaster resilience.[xxiii] The benefits of resilient building, especially for resilience against flooding, may be realized by more in the industry and perhaps homeowners as well.

Harvey has served for many a reminder of the risks of catastrophic flooding, arguably overcoming an amnesia bias for many in other locations in advance of Hurricane Irma and the other storms post-Harvey.

It seems that Texans are now well-aware of their risk of flooding. Still, we can’t discount the influence of a famously independent culture on not evacuating or preparing, even in the face of a high likelihood of disaster. Optimism bias must be considered. And furthermore, this culture of self-reliance and resistance to outside influence feeds a herding bias. But the herd can move in positive ways too.

One developer, The Howard Hughes Corp., recognized the value in elevated homes on pier-and-beam foundations prior to Harvey, and homes in its Woodlands Reserve community, all built on pier-and-beam, were unscathed by the rising floodwaters.[xxiv] Frankel Building Group, the homebuilder for the development, expressed in a 2016 article that they noticed increased demand in the last year for elevated homes.[xxv]

If building codes and floodplain regulations require elevated homes in special flood hazard areas, then it becomes a default. Communities embed safety for their citizens when they make disaster-resilient building codes, including added provisions needed for their location. That overcomes an inertia bias, and it also simplifies what individuals and families need to do to prepare for disaster, in this case flooding, as critical building practices are already mandatory. This makes sense as homeowners have a fair expectation of community leaders to implement policies that make them safe and protect their property. Further, as stated above, homeowners are not typically present when the building standards are chosen or set.

There has been a lot of discussion around Houston’s limited building regulations and what has been called an “unchecked building explosion”, and the role of flood maps and regulations.[xxvi] While Houston is famous for its lack of zoning regulations, we’re more interested in how strong its buildings are required to be built, i.e., their building code, and their floodplain regulations. And not just in cities, but in unincorporated areas too. The unincorporated areas of Harris County have added close to one million people since 2000.[xxvii]

After Harvey, the Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approved more stringent regulations for development in the floodplain, including requirements for higher elevations, up to 8 feet higher in some areas, and that some new homes use pier-and-beam construction and be built to withstand high winds.[xxviii] Beginning on January 1, 2018, all new buildings must be at least 24 inches above the 500-year floodplain.[xxix] These regulations have been identified as the first major change in Harris County’s floodplain regulations in almost 20 years.[xxx]

Now Houston is following suit. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has championed the effort, and on April 4, 2018 the City Council approved a rule for new homes and other buildings in the city’s 100-year and 500-year floodplain that requires them to be built two feet above ground or above the projected water level in a 500-year flood.[xxxi]

This leadership in Harris County, and now Houston, post-Harvey is part of a larger movement. Resilience-minded leaders from all sectors have been working pre-Harvey to increase the level of U.S. disaster resilience through a continuum of steady, meaningful improvements and innovation. New FEMA policies, legislative initiatives by public-private coalitions, e.g., BuildStrong, and supportive federal legislation incentivize use of modern building codes to spare lives, save homes, and conserve taxpayer money.

Additionally, many new efforts capture the economics of resilience to equip decision-makers with economic data validating investments now to save more later. Examples of the growing body of evidence to demonstrate the value of codes and mitigation includes FEMA’s Loss Avoidance Studies and by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Additionally, studies like Mitigation Saves 2.0 that demonstrate a $6 to $1 return on mitigation investments are helping make the economic and societal case for resilience.

This type of economic data supports leadership decision-making in favor of sound resilience policies, and it is our hope that Texas Governor Abbot’s “Commission to Rebuild Texas” will evaluate and consider the information as it formulates recommendations and the strategy to not just build back, but build back better as it undertakes recovery from Harvey.

In 2012, we created the Texas State Collaborative (TSC), a private-public collaboration convened to address the most pressing issues affecting the Texas built environment. TSC is a volunteer group of academics, building code officials, consumer advocates, design and building professionals, emergency managers, home builders, leading insurers, meteorologists, nonprofits, product manufacturers, regulators, and government officials.

At the outset of the TSC formation, most agreed that Texas is without a consistent and high-quality building code system across the disaster-prone state, and transparency is lacking. Through the coalition, we performed hyper-local analyses of cities and counties across the state to identify building code presence or absence as well as amendments affecting potential disaster resilience of the structure.

The National Weather Service added hyper-local analyses of weather risks, and we collected the code and weather data into Leadership Toolkits. The Building Officials Association of Texas distributed the toolkits to the jurisdictions, and the inventory is showcased online at

The toolkits raise awareness of the top three weather perils in key Texas cities and counties, and they identify residential building code amendments that affect the relative resilience of that jurisdiction in the context of the weather perils present. The toolkits include recommendations and information about ISO’s Building Code Effectiveness Grading Schedule (BCEGS) for the jurisdiction, available mitigation incentives, and frequently asked questions about building codes.

Sharing hyperlocal building code data with the jurisdictions through the lens of disaster safety and resilience brought attention to the issue of disparity between city and county residential building codes. Specifically, counties interpreted Texas law as a barrier to residential building code enforcement authority. As a result, while builders had to have inspections on residential structures in counties that adopted such regulations, they were not required to pass the inspections. It is important to note that this situation only applied to those counties that chose to adopt a residential building code, and many counties do not.

The Texas Legislature learned of this disparity through the TSC education and outreach effort. TSC members with advocacy teams worked with the Legislature, and they enacted H.B. 2040 in 2017 to remedy the situation. As a result, counties now have the authority to require builders to pass inspections, however, the county leaders still must adopt and choose to enforce a building code for this change to improve resilience in Texas counties.

We hope that the members of the “Commission to Rebuild Texas” identify the law change in H.B. 2040 as an opportunity to extend much-needed residential building codes into counties as a critical means to increase Texas’ resilience.

The Harvey experience demonstrated that we must overcome existing biases and much, much more. Changes in technology and the advent of social media platforms have revolutionized how we get information to the public. Disaster preparedness and resilience remain some of the toughest sells for policymakers, however, we remain focused on identifying gaps and educating on the need for proven resilience policies and creative communication tactics as fundamental for success.

[i] Chris Dolce. Sept. 10, 2017. Hurricanes Irma and Harvey Mark the First Time Two Atlantic Category 4 U.S. Landfalls Have Occurred in the Same Year. The Weather Channel.

[ii] Sept. 2, 2017. “Historic Hurricane Harvey’s Recap.”!

[iii] Eric S. Blake and David A. Zelinsky. Jan. 23, 2018. National Hurricane Center Tropical Cyclone Report. Hurricane Harvey. National Hurricane Center.

[iv] Eric S. Blake and David A. Zelinsky. Jan. 23, 2018. National Hurricane Center Tropical Cyclone Report. Hurricane Harvey. National Hurricane Center.

[v] Eric S. Blake and David A. Zelinsky. Jan. 23, 2018. National Hurricane Center Tropical Cyclone Report. Hurricane Harvey. National Hurricane Center.

[vi] Ari Blask, Ike Brannon. Sept. 5, 2017. “Hurricane Harvey Proved We Need More Flood Insurance Competition.” Time.

[vii] David Wethe. Sept. 12, 2017. “As Florida Fuel Grew Scarce, GasBuddy App Change Filled Gap.” Bloomberg Technology.

[viii] David Wethe. Sept. 12, 2017. “As Florida Fuel Grew Scarce, GasBuddy App Change Filled Gap.” Bloomberg Technology.

[ix] David Wethe. Sept. 12, 2017. “As Florida Fuel Grew Scarce, GasBuddy App Change Filled Gap.” Bloomberg Technology.

[x] Stephanie Mlot. Sept. 11, 2017. “Hurricane Irma Pushes Digital Walkie-Talkie App Zello to No. 1.”

[xi] Peter Holley. Sept. 2, 2017. “The Cajun Navy’s secret weapon for saving lives: The human voice.” The Washington Post.

[xii] Peter Holley. Sept. 2, 2017. “The Cajun Navy’s secret weapon for saving lives: The human voice.” The Washington Post.

[xiii] “Hurricane Irma boosts downloads of walkie-talkie app Zello.” USA Today.

[xiv] Michael Alba. June 28, 2017. “Drone Age – Rise of the Flying Robots.”–Rise-of-the-Flying-Robots.aspx

[xv] Melissa Quinn. Sept. 9, 2017. “Harvey forces debate over using drones in disaster recovery.” Washington Examiner.

[xvi] Travis Bubenik. Sept. 22, 2017. “After Harvey, the Red Cross tries to speed up relief with drones.”

[xvii] Jennifer Huddleston Skees. Sept. 14, 2017. “4 Ways Technology Helped During Hurricanes Harvey and Irma (and 1 more it could have”. The Technology Liberation Front.

[xviii] Melissa Quinn. Sept. 9, 2017. “Harvey forces debate over using drones in disaster recovery.” Washington Examiner.

[xix] Chris D’Angelo. Aug. 28, 2017. “Hurricane Harvey Is Testing Our Ability To Communicate Natural Disaster Risks.” Huffington Post.

[xx] Chris D’Angelo. Aug. 28, 2017. “Hurricane Harvey Is Testing Our Ability To Communicate Natural Disaster Risks.” Huffington Post.

[xxi] Gloria Gonzalez. Jan. 26, 2018. “Floods dominate presidential disaster declarations: Pew.” Business Insurance.

[xxii] Gloria Gonzalez. Jan. 26, 2018. “Floods dominate presidential disaster declarations: Pew.” Business Insurance.


[xxiv] Paul Takahasi. Sept. 6, 2017. “These Houston homes didn’t flood during Harvey. Here’s why.” Houston Business Journal.

[xxv] Paul Takahasi. Junr 7, 2016. “Homebuilder: Demand for raised homes rise amid Houston floods.” Houston Business Journal.

[xxvi] Joel Achenbach, et al. Sept. 17, 2017. “Hurricanes Harvey and Irma offer sobering lessons in the power of nature.” The Washington Post.

[xxvii] Mihir Zaveri. Dec. 5, 2017. “Harris County Oks stricter development rules aimed at reducing flooding.” Houston Chronicle.

[xxviii] Mihir Zaveri. Dec. 5, 2017. “Harris County Oks stricter development rules aimed at reducing flooding.” Houston Chronicle.

[xxix] Brien Straw. Dec. 5, 2017. “Ed Emmet: Harris County Has Nation’s Toughest Floodplain Development Regulations.” Houston Public Media.

[xxx] Juan A. Lozano. Dec. 5, 2017. “Texas county approves post-Harvey flood construction rules.” San Francisco Chronicle,

[xxxi] Juan A. Lozano. April 4, 2018. “Houston Approves New Post-Harvey Flood Construction Rule.” Associated Press.

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