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Dallas’ Flood Control Problems Go Beyond a Botched Response

Dallas got more rain in a 24 hour period last month than all but one time in the city’s history. The response could have been better, but climate change will bring larger concerns.
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Courtesy Adam Bazaldua

By the morning of August 22, more rain had fallen on Dallas in a 24-hour period than had ever fallen in a day’s time, save for once, in the city’s recorded history. It broke the record for its second-highest daily rain total, which had been on the books since 1932.

Some parts of the city—mostly farther east—saw more than 15 inches of rain over 24 hours. Thousands were left without power. There were 232 water-related emergency calls. Dallas Fire Rescue swift water teams pulled 21 people and 10 dogs from rising water.

Rocky Vaz, the city’s director of the Office of Emergency Management, told the City Council last week that his department was caught off guard by how much rain fell. He said the National Weather Service’s flood watch didn’t indicate how serious—and how fast—the situation would progress.

That meant 311 wasn’t fully staffed to take calls; there weren’t enough barricades at the ready, forcing police to use their cruisers to block intersections; and police, fire, emergency management, and public works departments weren’t working in tandem for a few hours. The after-action report also indicated that 465 calls to police were on hold because officers were busy blocking flooded roads, conducting traffic control, or responding to high-water calls. That required the department to bring in specialty units like SWAT to respond to callers who had been placed on hold.

Fixing the problems with the response will be paramount, but there is a bigger challenge looming. Every city in the country is grappling with the same problem Dallas is: our cities were not built to address climate change and the increased potential for severe weather. A warmer atmosphere fuels these storms, Washington Post climate change reporter Brady Dennis explained last week on NPR.

“A warmer atmosphere allows these storms that may have happened anyway to become supercharged in a sense. And so you see these events. And we’ve seen more and more of them that just dump, you know, insane amounts of rain on places,” he said. “And there’s just really no system and no infrastructure that we have to deal with that kind of water coming out of the sky in that time frame.”

Breaking down the National Weather Service’s warning and the city’s response

During last week’s meeting, Councilman Jesse Moreno asked if the city had any other way to monitor the weather, even internally.

“We rely on the National Weather Service,” Vaz responded.

Advanced searches on the National Weather Service’s Fort Worth bureau account for the days leading up to and during the flooding show that the agency issued a watch on August 21, shortly before 4 p.m. By August 22, at 1:20 a.m., the NWS Flash Flood account tweeted that a flash flood warning had been issued for Dallas County, and at 2:18 a.m., the Fort Worth office retweeted it.

According to the timeline in Dallas’ report, the city was aware of the watch issued on August 21. The first water-related 911 call came at 6 p.m. that day. The city virtually assembled the emergency operations center at 6 a.m. on August 22—four-and-a-half hours after the flash flood warning was issued.

According to a city spokesperson, the OEM has a duty officer monitoring the weather 24 hours a day, seven days a week, primarily using NWS alerts and local media. When tornados and other dangerous weather events happen, the city also has procedures for when to sound the outdoor warning sirens and activate the emergency operations center, which assists in creating a unified command.

“OEM also utilized social media to provide messaging to the public during severe weather warnings leading up to the August 21st and 22nd floods,” the spokesperson said. “OEM shared NWS flood warning messaging and safety tips on August 19th prior to the event, warning residents of a flood warning being issued from August 21st into August 23rd. OEM again published messaging on August 22nd from 1:00 a.m. throughout the next couple of days focusing on flood information and flood safety, to prioritize resident safety.”

That was not the messaging provided to the council Wednesday, and still doesn’t explain the gap in time between the NWS warning and the emergency operations center deployment. — Bethany Erickson

Terry Lowery, the head of Dallas Water Utilities, told Council that the city’s drainage system was built for the 1990s. There has been a ton of development since then, creating impermeable surfaces that worsen flooding and lead to drainage issues that will need to be addressed sooner rather than later. (DWU is undergoing a stormwater assessment to inform whatever changes will come to the drainage system.)

The sentiment among the City Council and the mayor seems to be that the response problems to the August storms can be fixed.

“The fact that we didn’t have a single fatality shows that we’ve done what we can do to be prepared for it,” said Mayor Eric Johnson, after he finished speaking at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin on Thursday. “I don’t think this is in any way a failure of infrastructure or a failure of our response system. … Unfortunately, we’re seeing increasingly frequent natural disasters.”

How can cities prepare for more frequent severe weather? During one panel at Trib Fest, the chair of Houston’s Cap METRO, Sanjay Ramabhadran, quipped that “we see land in Houston, or anywhere else in Texas, and we pour concrete on it. Five years later, we say, it floods!”

Earlier in the day, Ali Zaidi, the White House’s national climate adviser, noted that “we have unleashed some real effects from climate change and that’s the reality we have to live with.”

All major cities in Texas will be dealing with this. We’ve built out, and now we’ll need to figure out how to make where we live more resilient when the extreme weather dumps over a dozen inches of rainwater in a matter of hours. When concrete replaces grass and soil, water doesn’t have a place to go.

During his interview with Fresh Air, Dennis, the Post reporter, explained that he learned municipal infrastructure is not only just old, but it’s also built for a completely different climate. “That’s kind of the main problem we’re wrestling with and will very much wrestle with into the future,” he said. “The storms of the past, the rains of the past, the floods of the past are not necessarily indicative of what’s coming.”

As the mayor noted, the emergency response problems are fixable. The bigger challenge will be creating infrastructure solutions that will help Dallas avoid calamity in the future. There are interesting things happening, however. Take the planned wetlands in the Cedars, a neighborhood that was impassable for hours on August 21 because of high water. There, the 17-acre Dallas Water Commons will take in stormwater runoff and slowly release it into the Trinity. The area that will be developed into wetlands is currently an inaccessible ditch that pools with brown water when it rains.

Over in the Medical District, the Texas Trees Foundation is still working toward transforming Harry Hines and the surrounding infrastructure into something more pedestrian friendly—and green. All these things will help absorb water by removing hard surfaces.

When it opens in 2025, the Mill Creek Drainage Relief Tunnel will stretch 5 miles below ground in East Dallas, hopefully providing 100-year flood protection for the part of town that saw the most rain on August 22. The city’s current drainage system for this part of Dallas was built between 50 and 70 years ago and could only withstand protection from a two- to five-year flood. (Ironically, construction of that tunnel may have exacerbated flooding during the August event.)

“Unless we build our infrastructure and update our infrastructure in ways that anticipate what we’re likely to see, then these problems, we can only expect to see more of them,” Dennis told NPR.

On Sunday afternoon, blue skies turned gray. The National Weather Service reported winds of 48 mph at Love Field Airport. It knocked out power to about 10,000 Oncor customers across the region. And while rain totals were nowhere near what reached us in August, it was another reminder of how quickly and severely the weather can change—and that cities like Dallas will continue to be caught off guard.

Bethany Erickson contributed to this report.

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Matt Goodman

Matt Goodman

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Matt Goodman is the online editorial director for D Magazine. He's written about a surgeon who killed, a man who…

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