News & Features

Hurricane Harvey: David Maidment Applies the National Water Model in Texas

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Oct. 26, 2017

As Tropical Storm Harvey evolved from forecast to disaster, Professor David Maidment, a National Academy of Engineering member, was on the front line, using his expertise to help protect the citizens of Texas during one of the state’s worst large-scale emergencies.

Before the Storm

For three years, Maidment and a team at the UT Austin Center for Water and Environment (CWE) helped the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) prepare to launch the National Water Model. The model, which launched in August 2016, is a real-time forecasting tool that continually simulates and forecasts how water moves throughout the nation’s rivers and streams, including 190,000 miles of rivers and streams in Texas.

Over the past year, Maidment and CWE researchers have also been working with the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) to develop a Texas Flood Response System to leverage the water forecasting from the National Water Model and transform that into a flood response system for the state of Texas.

His team also compiled 9.2 million Address Points from Emergency Communications Districts throughout Texas which are used for dispatching emergency response vehicles by 911 systems. This Address Point map helps to assess how many people are impacted when a particular community is flooded.

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Hurricane Harvey: ‘We are Facing a Catastrophe’

As Category 4 Hurricane Harvey made landfall causing major destruction along the Texas coast, meteorologists soon began to issue separate storm surge warnings of disastrous flooding. After looking at data based on the current and expected precipitation and flows across Texas, Maidment saw the writing on the wall. A historic flood was inevitable.

Recognizing that despite the state’s best efforts to assess and respond to the weather, it would overwhelm public safety agencies and first responders’ ability to protect people and their property. He told his CWE research colleagues to prepare for the worst as he realized, “we are facing a catastrophe.”

As predicted, Harvey regained strength after circling back to the Gulf, bringing a second wave of severe weather to the Houston area after it had already been pounded by heavy thunderstorms and tornadoes in some areas. Many families were already being rescued from their homes or under mandatory evacuation due to rapidly rising waters before the heaviest rainfall even began.

Houston received the brunt of Harvey’s rain, with parts of the city receiving more than 50 inches. The storm made its final landfall in East Texas and Louisiana, dropping dozens of inches of rain on Port Arthur and Beaumont for days.

Saving Lives: Data and Supercomputers Put to the Test

As flooding conditions dramatically worsened, public safety officials needed information to quickly organize large-scale disaster relief. A real-time flood inundation map of the impacted area was desperately needed to help figure out the best plan for helping people in the vast flooded zone, and how to quickly and accurately get information out from emergency management channels to first response personnel.

TDEM requested the mobilization of the National Weather Center to assist with flood inundation mapping in response to Hurricane Harvey. Maidment and his team offered their technical support by engaging with the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). They provided the center with terrain data and analyses, and computer code for the map.

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In the high performance computing environment at TACC, a map of the impacted zone, which included nearly 90 counties and 40,000 miles of flooded rivers and streams, was generated. TDEM subsequently combined that with flood mapping from other sources and swiftly delivered Governor Greg Abbott a map of the overall impact of Hurricane Harvey in Texas.

State of Recovery: What's Next for Texas

Researchers made significant contributions to public safety through their technical analysis and use of advanced computing during and after the worst-recorded storm in U.S. history. The collaboration between the academic community, the National Weather Service, and local and state emergency response communities was put to the test during a time of chaos, when information was needed quickly so that decisions could be made and lives saved.

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As massive cleanup and recovery is underway in Southeast Texas and the Gulf Coast, Maidment is thinking about the way ahead for Texas. Continued investment in national and state water data infrastructure and learning from Harvey’s archived data are both integral. This data will help the research community and future engineers understand how such large and sustained flooding and rainfall events could have occurred, and how critical infrastructures should be designed.

 Maidment says “Hurricane Harvey was the first severe flood event where flood inundation mapping was created for thousands of miles of streams and rivers in real-time. With the experience gained in this event, Texas flood responders will be able to better plan for future large scale floods in Texas.”