This morning the Corps of Engineer’s was finally overwhelmed and lost control of the flow rates out of Addicks and Barker Dams, losing the last controls over theBuffalo Bayou water level as it flows through the middle of downtown Houston. Dams are the most useful and also the most dangerous infrastructure in any community, and losing control of the outflow rate represents a significant escalation in the flood severity. Flood level management is an intricate dance of competing compromises, where retaining water behind the dam makes flooding worse upstream and releasing water makes things more severe downstream. The US Army Corps of Engineers does an excellent job navigating these difficult choices, and the disaster is always worse when the Corps loses their ability to influence the drainage patterns. Hopefully the impacted areas downstream have already been evacuated, and the rising waters spread slowly enough that first responders can help people out of harms way.
The focus of the regional emergency response system is, quite correctly, on assuring people’s safety and well being. Our work at Atlas includes participating in emergency planning efforts and also incident recovery efforts, but the actual emergency management is not part of our core expertise. For now we watch and wait, and hope that the available resources and management are enough to protect the people who are in harms way.
There’s a possibility that engineers at Atlas may assist with damage assessment and field-engineered repairs at flooded petroleum facilities along the Gulf coast. Until the flooding abates, though, there’s little that we can do besides monitor the situation and make plans for a rapid and efficient deployment. When the rain stops and the waters recede, that’s when it’ll be time for the engineers to go to work restoring safe conditions at dams, highways and bridges, industrial facilities, and other essential elements that make Houston a thriving metropolis.