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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

 
 

Vanessa Wyche, director of the Johnson Space Center, gave the keynote address at this year's State of Space event. Screenshot via houston.org

Is the Space City poised to continue its reign as an innovative hub for space exploration? All signs point to yes, according to a group of experts.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its annual State of Space this week. The virtual event featured a keynote address from Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA Johnson Space Center, and a panel moderated by David Alexander, chair of aerospace and aviation committee at the GHP and the director of the Rice Space Institute.

The conversations focused on the space innovation activity happening in Houston, as well as an update on the industry as a whole has space commercialization continues to develop. All the speakers addressed how Houston has what it takes to remain a hub for the sector.

"The future looks very bright for Houston that we will remain a leader in Houston spaceflight," Wyche says in her address.

Here are a few other memorable moments from the event.

"Houston, I feel, is poised to be a leader. We have led in human space flight, and we will a leader in commercialization."

— Wyche says in her keynote address, which gave a thorough overview of what all NASA is working on at JSC. She calls out specifically how startups are a driving force in commercialization. JSC is working with local accelerator programs at The Ion and MassChallenge.

"These startups help us to connect to tomorrow's space innovation leaders, and gives our team the opportunity to mentor these entrepreneurs as we work to advance both our scientific and technical knowledge," she says.

"The ability to have a place where government, academia, and industry can come together and share ideas and innovation is incredibly powerful."

​— Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines LLC, specifically talking about the Houston Spaceport, where Intuitive Machines has signed on as a tenant. Altemus adds that a major key to leading space commercialization is a trained workforce, which the spaceport is focused on cultivating.

"We shouldn't discount the character that Houston has from the standpoint as a great place to build a business."

— Tim Kopra, vice president of robotics and space at MDA Ltd., says, adding that Houston is a big city that feels like a small town. "We need to incentivize companies to come and stay," he says.

"Great cities — like great companies — understand that if you're still, you're probably moving backwards. ... I think Houston gets it in that regard."

— Todd May, senior vice president of science and space at KBR, says, adding that Houston realizes it needs to be on the offensive side to bring innovation to the game, positioning the city very well for the future.

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