(U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Zachary Wolf)
(U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Zachary Wolf)

Hurricane Harvey made a second landfall on the Texas coast as a tropical storm this week, obliterating flood records and devastating coastal communities like Port Arthur. The New York Times had this report on Wednesday (see: "Port Arthur Faces Harvey Flooding Disaster: ‘Our Whole City Is Underwater’," by Jonah Engel Bromwich). As the storm finally moved inland, Houston caught a glimpse of the sun, but the city's flood crisis continued unabated. With access to the city still blocked by floodwater and with emergency responders still struggling to handle rescues, stockpiles of emergency supplies waited outside the disaster zone.

The damage toll is heavy. "Harvey flooded an estimated 136,000 structures in Harris County, or 10% of all structures in the county database, according to the flood-control district," reported USA Today on Friday (see: "In Houston, small signs of normal emerge from submerged city," by Bart Jansen. "The Texas Department of Public Safety says Harvey has heavily damaged or destroyed more than 55,000 homes."

Houston's heartbreak is an ongoing reality. But thoughts are already turning to the massive and unprecedented problem of recovery and rebuilding for not just Houston, but a huge chunk of the Texas coast. The Washington Post had this report (see: "Flood survivors face housing crisis during ‘many-year recovery’," by Joel Achenbach). When the time comes, Texans will find one resource right next door in Louisiana, where the LSU Agricultural Extension has developed a research and educational outreach program called the LaHouse Resource Center, with nationally recognized expertise in flood-hardy construction and flood recovery.

Rebuilding guidance. JLC spoke this week with Claudette Reichel, LSU professor and director of the LaHouse Resource Center. After Hurricane Katrina, Reichel worked with Building Science Corporation expert Joseph Lstiburek to develop "flood hardy" construction details for contractors and owners rebuilding flooded homes. JLC's Coastal Contractor covered Lstiburek's recommendations in a feature article in 2006 (see: "Low Country Rx: Wet Floodproofing," JLCs Coastal Contractor 7/06). Below, Reichel offers advice for homeowners returning to a flooded house ("Restoring Your Home after a Natural Disaster," YouTube).

Coastal Texas already faced a shortage of construction labor before this catastrophe. In the months to come, with local resources scarce and with few properties covered by flood insurance, homeowners and volunteers may be tackling most of the cleanup work. People getting involved in flood recovery for the first time will want to consult this guideline Reichel authored for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) (see: "Rebuild Healthy Homes"). HUD posted the work alongside an array of related resources, which Reichel listed for JLC earlier this year:

Flood hardy. FEMA's term for resilient construction assemblies that can withstand being inundated in a flood without being destroyed is "wet floodproofing." The idea is to distinguish these water-tolerant building details from the solution of elevating the building above the anticipated flood level — which is by far the best solution, but may also be prohibitively expensive. Claudette Reichel, however, prefers different language. "The official FEMA term is 'wet floodproofing,'" Reichel told JLC this week, "but the Claudette term is 'flood hardy,' because people understand it. I'm an extension educator, so I have to translate stuff for people to get it."

Faster recovery. Whether for new construction or for repairs after a flood, says Reichel, using the flood-hardy details described in Coastal Contractor's 2006 post-Katrina story can help homeowners recover faster.

"With flooding, the house isn't necessarily totally ruined," says Reichel, "but it's an expensive restoration." Grappling with insurance adjusters and government agencies adds hassle to the process for flood victims. Ironically, having flood insurance can slow the rebuilding process: in last year's Louisiana floods, says Reichel, thousands of homeowners had to wait for construction permits until they could document that their homes wouldn't exceed the 50% "substantial damage" threshold that would trigger a requirement for elevating the house. If the house has flood-tolerant detailing, Reichel says, the repair costs as well as the life-consuming delay can be drastically reduced.

For people who aren't required to elevate their home by regulations, and who can't afford the substantial cost of elevating, "the more practical course is to restore the house with flood-hardy details," says Reichel. "And one of the things that's good about it is that it's not 'all or nothing.' It's not one of those things where you have to do it all for it to work. Anything you do reduces your damage next time."

"The more wet floodproofing techniques people use in their repairs and rebuilding, the less damage, the less ordeal, the less time it would take to get back in next time," says Reichel. "If they do the drainable, dryable wall, and they use a water-tolerant floor covering, and they elevate their water heater and hopefully their air conditioning compressor, if it their home were to flood again in a future storm, they would not be homeless for a year. They would not be competing with everyone else for new materials. All they have to do is clean and dehumidify to speed-dry, and they’re back in. If we can get that message out to people, that would save folks so much and help them get back in their homes so much quicker after another flood event. But they have to get that message soon."

Harvey in pictures: The storm's scope and the drama of the aftermath may be better described by photos than by words. Here's a partial roundup of recent visual reporting: "Latest Photos of Harvey's Disastrous Flooding" (The Atlantic In Focus blog, compiled by Alan Taylor); "Before and After Aerial Images Reveal Hurricane Harvey's Destructive Category 4 Strike on Texas Coast" (the Weather Channel); "Satellite images show Harvey's impact on Texas towns," (by Cody McCloy, CNN).