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How bad would a big hurricane be to Houston?

Very bad. I trust you are not surprised by this.

When a really strong hurricane next blows through Houston, its winds – not its waters – pose the greatest threat to inflict damage unimagined by most living here.

Tropical Storm Allison produced a virtually worst-case flooding scenario in 2001, racking up $5 billion in damages. Hurricane Ike produced a destructive surge of water, and its U.S. damages came to $29.5 billion.

Such water damages, however, are nothing compared to the threat of a mighty blow, which Houston has not truly experienced since 1915.

A new, but unpublished, study reveals the true scope of damage Houston could sustain from a major windstorm if a hurricane were to strike Galveston Island and barrel on through Harris County.

According to the analysis by Civil‚ÄČTech Engineering, a Category 4 hurricane moving northwest at 10 mph would cause $309 billion in property damage and $65 billion in business interruptions.

The study predicts nearly 800,000 homes in Harris County would be severely damaged or destroyed – 80 percent of the total housing stock – along with 50,000 commercial buildings.

“That’s just wind damage,” said Melvin Spinks, president of Houston-based Civil‚ÄČTech. “It doesn’t include flooding from rain or surge.”

[…]

“We’ve always known there was significant risk from some of these much larger storms,” said Sharon Nalls, the city of Houston’s emergency management coordinator.

What isn’t clear, she said, is whether residents understand that risk.

That’s partly why the city commissioned the study. Since its completion in May 2010, the results have been used to prepare better tools for home and business owners to assess their risks.

In the next couple of weeks the city will roll out two new websites, Nalls said.

One is an update of its “Houston Hide from the Wind” website, offering real-time estimates of wind speeds, by ZIP code, based upon National Hurricane Center forecasts. The website will now include information for Harris and surrounding counties, not just the city.

Secondly, the city will launch a website on which residents can enter an address to view the potential wind, flooding and surge threats to their property from various strengths of storms.

After the regional evacuation from Hurricane Rita produced a massive traffic jam in 2005, city and county officials launched a campaign to better inform residents about who should go and who should stay.

The new wind damage data, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said, doesn’t change the basic message – run from the water, hide from the wind.

I’m pretty sure Judge Emmett meant to say “hunker down” from the wind. He must have been misquoted. Be that as it may, I’m not really sure how much value this has. I mean, I agree it’s better to know what you might be up against than to be ignorant about it, but what’s missing from this story is what if anything we plan to do about this. That’s a non-trivial question because anything we did do now, such as raise building code standards for unincorporated Harris County, would not affect any current structure. Individual property owners are of course free to take whatever action they think is worthwhile, but I have my doubts that a report like this will do much to spur anyone to action. It’s a matter of risk assessment: Clearly, massive hurricanes are (thankfully) very rare events for Houston, so any investment made to fortify oneself against them may well be wasted. Against that, the failure to be adequately prepared if one does come our way will have devastating consequences. Pick your poison, I guess.

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