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Rice University debuts new flood alert system for Houston

A Rice University professor has developed a new early warning system and planning tool for the city of Houston. Photo courtesy of Kinder Institute

It's no secret: certain areas around Houston are at a high risk of flooding. And risks associated with such natural disasters become even more substantial in the middle of a pandemic.

"What if first responders have to go to a shelter, a nursing home, or another facility where there's COVID, right in the middle of a flood," Phil Bedient, director of Rice University's Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center, asks in a statement.

His solution? To develop a new early warning system and planning tool for the city of Houston to help hospitals and other critical facilities on the watersheds of Brays, Sims, Hunting and White Oak bayous respond.

"The idea is to provide a tool that can help emergency managers better deal with situations with multiple risks," he says.

Dubbed the Flood Information and Response System (FIRST), the tool is a radar-based flood assessment, mapping, and early-warning system based on more than 350 maps that simulate different combinations of rainfall over various areas of the watershed. The maps are compared to a weather radar and stream gauges on the bayous to alert users of likely scenarios during a weather event.

FIRST was derived from the Rice/Texas Medical Center Flood Alert System (FAS), which Bedient created 20 years ago. The latest iteration, FAS5, debuted in 2020. Since the product's creation it has accurately alerted users in more that 60 storms and has warned hospital officials in the TMC of the threat of rising water in the area more than two hours before it would eventually occur, according to a statement.

FIRST was funded by federal CARES Act dollars and commissioned by the Houston Health Department, following concerns that overflows at wastewater treatment plants could potentially expose communities to the COVID-19, Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice, says in a statement.

"The FIRST model assessed what areas and facilities are at highest risk of overflows that could spread SARS-CoV-2 and other pathogens during flooding and similar events," Hopkins added. "During a flood, the information gained through this system will inform the public health response to control the spread of pathogens that could make people sick."

CARES funds for FIRST's development were approved in the fall and Rice University undergraduates jumped at the opportunity to build out the product by the December 31 deadline, using hydrologic software and maps they had created with training from Bedient about a year prior.

"They performed herculean tasks," Bedient says. "Our deadline was hard and fast, and they helped us deliver the operational project and report on time."

FIRST was reported to have worked well during May's deluge, and will continue to be refined as more data, storms, and floodwaters arise. A demo is available to test online.

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Building Houston

 
 

Business and government leaders in the Houston area hope the region can become a hub for CCS activity. Photo via Getty Images

Three big businesses — Air Liquide, BASF, and Shell — have added their firepower to the effort to promote large-scale carbon capture and storage for the Houston area’s industrial ecosystem.

These companies join 11 others that in 2021 threw their support behind the initiative. Participants are evaluating how to use safe carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology at Houston-area facilities that provide energy, power generation, and advanced manufacturing for plastics, motor fuels, and packaging.

Other companies backing the CCS project are Calpine, Chevron, Dow, ExxonMobil, INEOS, Linde, LyondellBasell, Marathon Petroleum, NRG Energy, Phillips 66, and Valero.

Business and government leaders in the Houston area hope the region can become a hub for CCS activity.

“Large-scale carbon capture and storage in the Houston region will be a cornerstone for the world’s energy transition, and these companies’ efforts are crucial toward advancing CCS development to achieve broad scale commercial impact,” Charles McConnell, director of University of Houston’s Center for Carbon Management in Energy, says in a news release.

McConnell and others say CCS could help Houston and the rest of the U.S. net-zero goals while generating new jobs and protecting current jobs.

CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide from industrial activities that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and then injecting it into deep underground geologic formations for secure and permanent storage. Carbon dioxide from industrial users in the Houston area could be stored in nearby onshore and offshore storage sites.

An analysis of U.S Department of Energy estimates shows the storage capacity along the Gulf Coast is large enough to store about 500 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to more than 130 years’ worth of industrial and power generation emissions in the United States, based on 2018 data.

“Carbon capture and storage is not a single technology, but rather a series of technologies and scientific breakthroughs that work in concert to achieve a profound outcome, one that will play a significant role in the future of energy and our planet,” says Gretchen Watkins, U.S. president of Shell. “In that spirit, it’s fitting this consortium combines CCS blueprints and ambitions to crystalize Houston’s reputation as the energy capital of the world while contributing to local and U.S. plans to help achieve net-zero emissions.”

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