Bridge Over Troubled Water: Benefits Of Undergrounding Utilities

Friday, Aug. 25, 2017, is a day not many in Southeast Texas will soon forget. By midday, light to moderate rain began to fall, the precursor to landfall of the infamous Hurricane Harvey. The 1,000-year storm did not want to leave the state, hanging around for several days before moving off to plague Louisiana and parts north.

It fact, later August to late September will be remembered as a month-long war with Mother Nature, as waves of hurricanes and two major earthquakes created havoc. First, Hurricane Harvey dumped seemingly endless buckets of rain on the greater Houston area (up to 55 inches was recorded in parts of the city). While Hurricane Irma didn’t pound Florida with quite as much rain, it did rake almost the entire state from the Florida Keyes to the Georgia border with massive gale winds. Next, Mexico was dealt a gut punch with back-to-back earthquakes (7.1 and 8.1 magnitude). Without pause, Hurricane Maria brutally smashed into Puerto Rico and brushed the east coast before moving towards the North Atlantic Ocean. We finally caught a break when yet another hurricane was turning north at press time into the central Atlantic and was not expected to impact North America. And hurricane season still isn’t over.

I’ve lived in hurricane country for more than 30 years. This is my fourth hurricane, and I don’t remember how many tropical storms and depressions. But as most will recall, Hurricane Harvey was unique in that overall weather conditions held the storm in the entire Houston area for several days, literally pouring rain before conditions allowed the storm to slowly drift north. While the massive Category 4 winds did tremendous structural damage when Harvey came ashore, landfall was in a lightly populated area. Densely populated Houston was on the “dirty” side of the storm where the winds were much less but the heavy rain, severe thunderstorms and scores of tropical cyclones/small tornados were much greater.

Amazingly, the vast majority of power and telecom lines, along with water plants, remained active throughout the storm. In this area, more and more of the utilities are located underground which facilitated minimal disruption. Even when water was standing in homes, you could still wash your hands, cook dinner, use the restroom or watch cable television. For most of the areas that did lose power, it was intentional. Utilities had to cut power as water levels rose so high that electrocution and exploding transformers became serious and deadly threats.

Undergrounding of utilities, especially in this area prone to hurricanes or tropical storms, paid major dividends during this natural disaster. While the “too-expensive” or “too-invasive” arguments against undergrounding persists, Harvey was a prime example that the investment was paid back in full. The costs to restore and rebuild the infrastructure in parts of Southeast Texas and much of Florida will cost many billions, not to mention ancillary costs from people unable to stay in their homes due to a lack of power and communication services. For most of us who weren’t forced to abandon our homes, we were able to ride out the storm replete with our creature comforts.

As flood reservoirs filled to record levels, a wall of water started backing up to areas previously not considered to be in a flood plan – such as my neighborhood. After surviving all the rain and staying dry, now I had to be concerned with a new threat. The flood control district had no choice but to release water from the reservoirs. Flood waters stopped about half a mile from my house. Of course, as water was released, homes downstream that had not previously flooded now found themselves stranded so fast that boats had to evacuate them.

One of the memories that will stand out in my mind is the unending sound of multiple helicopters flying overhead around the clock. Many were rescuing stranded residents from rooftops. Others were bringing victims to hospitals.

A very positive memory is the multitude of industry friends who followed our plight with concern and never ceased to offer aid or refuge as needed.

As the rain and flooding peaked, the pictures and video of underwater Houston were disturbing. At one point, I muted the television, turned to our latest electronic gadget, Amazon Echo, and said “Alexa, play ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ by Simon and Garfunkel.” It’s a beautiful song; the “troubled water” part of the lyrics just seemed fitting.

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