AS SUMMER CAME TO A CLOSE THIS year, Hurricane Harvey meandered over the Gulf Coast and dropped historic rainfall totals over the state. According to the Weather Channel, some parts of Texas saw 60 inches of rain over a nine-day period. Harvey was the first Category 4 storm to make landfall in the United States since 2004. After coming ashore near Rockport, it pounded the Texas coast and dumped rain from Houston to the Louisiana state line.
At the Texas Department of Transportation, we plan for hurricanes. We have individual plans for each district and multiple contingencies depending on the severity of the storm. We’re old hands at responding to severe weather, from ice storms to flooding. But each storm is different and Harvey tested the agency in ways we’ve not seen.
All 25 of our districts were eventually called upon to provide support as the storm stalled over the state and continued to drop rain. Areas flooded that had never flooded before. More than 4,500 TxDOT employees responded to the storm either directly or indirectly for a total of over 560,000 man hours. Thousands of pieces of equipment were on the ground monitoring, clearing and repairing more than 500 on-system roads that were affected.
In the days leading up to landfall, we put up barricades and cleared flood-prone areas on our system. We staged employees and equipment from several areas of the state strategically so they could be dispatched quickly when the weather cleared.
In the aftermath of the storm, one of our first priorities was to clear roads of debris for emergency response operations. Our convoys of trucks, front-end loaders, dump trucks, backhoes, sign trucks and signal trucks went to work to remove tree limbs, scattered debris, anything that could hamper rescue crews from getting help to those in need. And, at the request of cities and counties, we’re still in the business of removing debris from their roads. As of mid-October, we had removed more than 10 million cubic feet of debris, enough to cover about 186 football fields. Gov. Greg Abbott singled out TxDOT’s debris removal efforts for special praise.
Innovations at the right time
At TxDOT, we view every major weather event as an opportunity to learn and improve our response for the next time. During Harvey, we implemented two important innovations that we think served us well: AquaDams and base camps.
As the rains continued to fall during Harvey, many areas were completely cut off because of flooded roadways, trapping people in their homes and making it impossible for even emergency vehicles to get through. Using technology that was new to the agency, TxDOT was able to provide relief for some of these badly flooded roadways.
Seven miles of AquaDams were purchased from Aqua Dam Inc. in Louisiana, and were transported to strategic locations for use. AquaDam is a large mobile dam that can block off up to 30 inches of water that is rising or already in place. In the event of a flood, the AquaDam uses existing flood water to fill up the structure and create a barrier, effectively taking the problem and turning it into a solution.
Crews were able to install AquaDams in the Houston and Beaumont districts within hours and open up about 15 miles of I-10 that had been blocked.
The AquaDams proved to be effective and TxDOT plans to continue to explore their potential uses.
The other innovation that we found to be successful was the establishment of base camps for the TxDOT crews and equipment that rushed to help the affected districts. These camps were staging areas for heavy equipment and were stocked with water, food and facilities for employees. Tractor trailers lined with bunkbeds provided a place for employees to sleep after working 12-hour shifts. Portable showers allowed employees to clean up from hard days dealing with flood waters and debris removal. Hot meals gave them a break from an incredibly stressful situation.
Employee response to the base camps has been very positive and we expect we will continue to refine the idea for future events.
But mostly, I want to acknowledge the incredible response of our TxDOT crews during this unprecedented event. They worked long hours and made personal sacrifices to get the job done. Many suffered flooding in their own homes, but continued to do their jobs. Their selflessness was evident and I couldn’t be more proud of their TxDOT spirit.