UT Austin staff look to tackle flood response and prevention in Texas

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Researchers and staff at UT Austin’s Center for Water and the Environment are taking on several projects to improve the way Texas responds to and prevents flooding.

At a lab on the J.J. Pickle campus, scientists can test out a life-size model of a one-lane road housed in a lab. The structure, created in the 1980s is used more recently for projects like a study for the Texas Department of Transportation about storm drainage.

Ben Hodges, associate professor of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering, published research in 2017 from that study. His team found that the cheaper, longer “curb inlets” currently used on Texas roads are less effective at draining water than shorter, more frequent inlets placed along curbs.They believe the state will need to tailor roads accordingly, starting with the newer roads which will cost less to repair.

“The big problems we have, I think, in Texas from what I can tell is we have legacy infrastructure, that we have stormwater systems that were designed sometimes in the 1960s and the 1970s that really are insufficient for our needs,” Hodges said. “And the problem is that digging up the street to replace those to build those bigger is a really expensive proposition.”

“It’s a serious problem that we’re just beginning to think about what it’s going to mean,” Hodges explained. His team is looking to learn more about the best way to drain water from roads by tilting the road and adding other variables to it.

Hodges used some of his research to study places impacted by Harvey as well, and was struck by the lack of coordination between all the work scientists were doing around the flooding. He’s hoping to build a network of university scientists across the state to pool their data together, so they can better address floods and prevent them.

“We always spend a lot of money after the storm to rebuild things, and the question is, can we use the research of our universities to help make our recovery cheaper?” Hodges asked.

Also on the Pickle Campus, Harry Evans, who spent nearly 30 years working with the Austin Fire Department, is now working to bring another type of research to first responders. His team is working to create an approximate flood mapping system for emergency management for the state of Texas which would help predict flood impact.

Evans worked with AFD during the Onion Creek floods off 2013. He recalled how fire crews believed the flood danger was dwindling as the rain started to decrease, when in fact rain on other parts of the watershed left many people calling for help hours later.

“I caught us by surprise which was the motivation for creating a product to predict this,” Evans said.

UT’s Dr. David Maidment and Evans are working on a project that will ultimately allow them to provide real-time regional flood mapping with this data. What they have to work with right now are data points — and a lot of them. Starting in the summer of 2017 they’d gathered data from over 9 million addresses across Texas, specifically where they are located and how the elevation there might impact flood likelihood.

Our KXAN First Warning Weather Tesaysay that during this week’s weather event the areas around Onion Creek are expected to get two to four inches of rain depending on where the rain falls. Evans explained that fire teams can now look at individual addresses nearby and determine which places will be in danger if the creek rises a certain number of feet.

As of mid-2017, Austin Fire Department can use the data and maps UT created to size up which homes are most at risk under which conditions. During Harvey, this team of researchers also worked with state and federal groups to talk about how to get helpful information about problem spots in Texas.

“We all need to work together to create product that can be used at a time of a disaster,” Evans said. In the long run, his team plans to get their real-time data synced up with the National Weather Service. Ultimately, they want this information to be available to first responders and citizens alike.

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