What Cities Can Learn from Houston Metro’s Hurricane Harvey Experience

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

A Metro train runs along Main Street in downtown Houston on September 5, 2017, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

In early December, two groups of researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the World Weather Attribution, a global network of scientists, independently concluded that climate change made Hurricane Harvey’s record-setting torrents far more damaging. Hurricanes usually weaken and sputter out after making landfall, but Harvey sat and spun, drenching the metro region with nearly 50 inches of rain over five days. The storm surge that pushed against the coastline slowed the outflows from rivers already swollen by rainfall farther inland, contributing to major flooding.  

Climate change finds public transit agencies hard-pressed to confront and adapt to extreme meteorological events. Most transit systems have long-established emergency procedures to handle hazards like hurricanes, blizzards, or major accidents. But small and large systems alike are woefully unprepared for increases in the severity or frequency of storms. The performance of the Houston public transit system, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, known as Metro, during Harvey demonstrates that public transit systems can take steps in the aftermath of storms to address vulnerabilities and design longer-term strategies to address future weather events.

The Federal Transit Administration’s 2013 Gulf Coast Climate Change Adaptation Pilot Study analyzed the challenges facing Houston, Galveston, and Tampa, and how the experiences of those cities could inform how other transit agencies handle the growing environmental crisis. The region “experiences the impacts of tropical storms and hurricanes more than any other area of the United States,” according to the report. The study also noted that the Gulf Coast faces not only increasing hurricane and tropical storm intensity and sea-level rise, but also increasing temperatures, and precipitation extremes from extreme rainfall to drought.

Metro has robust mitigation, preparation, response, and recovery strategies. (About four million people live in the Metro service area.) How does Metro do it? To begin, it coordinates its emergency response through Houston TransStar, a partnership of the city of Houston, Harris County, and state of Texas. The organization manages the area transportation system and coordinates responses to storms and other emergencies. Metro has extensive checklists of responsibilities during weather events, including securing its vehicles; assuring that essential Metro employees are on duty, provisioned for, and available to respond as events warrant; and coordinating communications with emergency managers, first responders, riders, and the news media.

Although Harvey broke records, two earlier rainstorms hit Houston especially hard, with each deluge more breathtaking than the preceding one. The 2015 Memorial Day Flood (in less than 12 hours, one foot of rain fell, sparking flash floods) and the 2016 Tax Day Flood (thunderstorms stalled over the city, producing 17 inches of rain) prompted Metro officials to consider how to handle high water and protect buses, paratransit vehicles, and light-rail lines.

Those storms persuaded the transit system to add military vehicles to its fleet, which, unlike conventional buses, can navigate high water. Metro bought three Humvees and four 5-ton trucks for roughly $35,000 through the Federal Surplus Property Program. During Harvey, transit officials worked with emergency managers and first responders to decide where to deploy the vehicles.

“One of the things [Metro] can do is bring people out of harm’s way, out of high water, back to buses,” says Houston Metro President Tom Lambert. “Then buses [can] take them where they need to go.” Metro transported about 10,000 people to emergency shelters and helped move Red Cross supplies. The agency plans to purchase two additional Humvees and two more trucks through the surplus program.

Metro made other fleet decisions on the fly during the storm, making good use of its relationships with neighboring transit systems. Harris County Transit, which serves areas east of Houston, provided Metro with school buses—which actually can drive through high water, according to Lambert. With school bus drivers largely unavailable, Metro deployed its own drivers to ferry people out of flooded neighborhoods to emergency management command posts and then to shelters. “That’s never been done before in this region,” says Lambert. 

Metro also took precautions to protect its buses from flood waters. Officials stationed 120 buses on an overpass to avoid the flood waters that eventually inundated a low-lying depot. Of the system’s roughly 1,230 buses, only two were completely damaged in the storm; another 12 sustained minor damage. The light-rail system operated until rising waters forced its closure. There was no structural damage to the rail system and only minimal flooding damage to power facilities and a parking installation. Metro officials may consider moving one power facility to higher ground. Overall, Metro sustained about $15 million in damages, according to Lambert. (The system’s 2017 operating budget was nearly $570 million.) 

“Being very rigorous in identifying your vulnerabilities is important,” says Jon Brooks, an assistant research scientist at Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute, and one of the authors of the federal Gulf Coast transit study. “Some transit operations will have their fleet centered at one facility because they are rather small and that works for them,” he says. “Others in large regions will have multiple operations centers and should make sure that they are constructed and hardened against anticipated events.”

Metro knew which lines it wanted to get up and running first after the storm ended, and had pre-existing agreements for services like tree removal, so that the agency did not compete with other organizations to secure contractors after a major storm. Except for a few detours in the western sections of the city, the system was mostly up and running after Labor Day, a little more than a week after the hurricane. Metro captured about 80 percent of its ridership on bus routes north and south of the most severely flooded areas. You may not be able to serve 100 percent of the ridership but you can maximize [that by] adjusting the service plan and communicate that to get as many people riding on the system as you can,” says Lambert.

The system received high praise for keeping the public well-informed about real-time developments during Harvey and the subsequent flooding, particularly on social media. Metro was “as prepared as they could be for a pretty bad hurricane,” says Andrea French, executive director of Transportation Advisory Group Houston.

Why did Metro perform so well during Harvey? Like many public agencies, Metro adopted an “all hazards” approach to emergencies and disasters, preparing, training, and adapting to risks (particularly recurring events) ranging from hurricanes to terrorist attacks. Lambert is especially keen on the value of good professional relationships. During a disaster, he stresses that ties with other transit agencies, first responders, and other local, state, and federal emergency managers are key. Long before a storm hits or a fire burns out of control, transit officials should be actively involved in city, state, and regional emergency management planning efforts, he says, and employees must understand the plans and get trained to work with regional teams that respond to emergencies.


Yet Brooks notes that while major urban transit agencies like Metro have extensive emergency preparations, there are far more smaller agencies, with fewer management employees to take the lead during an emergency. (Most transit agency employees, of course, are drivers.) Larger agencies in a given region should consider having experienced managers provide relief and other assistance to their counterparts in smaller systems. There needs to be a way to “formalize volunteer assistance to peer agencies to prepare for that,” he says.

Across the country, voters have been eagerly demonstrating their willingness to raise taxes to provide more public transportation options. Whether the Harvey experience will translate into more focused attention and more funding to meet Houston’s public transportation demands is an unknown. “A lot of Texans love their cars,” says French, who notes that the political landscape is “very road-centric” outside the 610 loop, the inner beltway that encircles downtown Houston. Inside that beltway, residents want more public transit.

Houstonians’ perspectives on public transportation may shift dramatically after Harvey, however, if an individual or a family lost a vehicle due to flooding. The storm obliterated about one million cars. Carrin Patman, the chair of Metro’s board of directors, called Metro “a lifeline” for those residents in a September 2017 Houston Chronicle editorial. She also noted that the region’s population will increase to about ten million people in 20 years.

Harvey sparked a “huge need and push for transit,” French says. “Some could go out and buy a new car,” she adds. “But many could not.”

Metro continues to collect public input on a new regional transit plan. When that process ends, Metro’s board will decide which elements to include in the plan and likely design a bond referendum to reflect those needs. A measure which could go before voters in November may provide some clues about future transit priorities in post-Harvey Houston.  “That will be the report card, so to speak, about what Harvey did not or did not do to influence people’s opinions about public transportation,” French says.

There is one certainty, however: As metropolitan Houston keeps on growing, those residents can expect more severe storms, flooding, and other extreme weather.

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