As Hurricane Ike bore down on Houston in September of 2008, emergency planners feared the worst: the storm's top winds and storm surge could head directly up the Houston Ship Channel, dealing a crippling blow to major infrastructure, releasing tons of toxic chemicals, and flooding tens of thousands of homes.

At the last minute, the storm veered slightly away, sparing much of the Houston metropolitan area from the worst of its destructive force. The storm's impact on Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula left thousands of residents homeless, and killed dozens (the full death toll is unknown, with some victims still counted as "missing"). But the damage could have been far, far worse, had the storm taken a slightly different course at landfall.

This month, non-profit news organization ProPublica has an in-depth report, produced in cooperation with the Texas Tribune, on the risk to the Houston area from the next powerful hurricane (see: "Hell and High Water," by by Neena Satija and Kiah Collier for The Texas Tribune, and Al Shaw and Jeff Larson for ProPublica). (Note: the story requires a web browser that supports WebGL — but for other browsers, ProPublica supplies a report in plain text format here: "Hell and High Water - Full Text").

"Houston’s perfect storm is coming — and it’s not a matter of if but when," ProPublica reported. "The city has dodged it for decades, but the likelihood it will happen in any given year is nothing to scoff at; it’s much higher than your chance of dying in a car crash or in a firearm assault, and 2,400 times as high as your chance of being struck by lightning. If a storm hits the region in the right spot, 'it’s going to kill America’s economy,' saidPete Olson, a Republican congressman from Sugar Land, a Houston suburb."

But despite the near-miss experience with Ike, "we've done nothing," said Phil Bedient, an engineering professor at Rice University and co-director of the Storm Surge Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center. Concludes ProPublica: "A devastating storm could hit the region long before any action is taken."