Communities across East Texas and the wider region are reeling after an onslaught of rain and flash flooding left Houston and other cities underwater this week. The heavy rain comes only weeks after the United States closed out the wettest 12 months on record, a period that has also seen much of the Midwest devastated by flooding.
Some Houston schools were closed Friday while the city’s fire department fielded more than 75 calls related to water issues across the area. Around 21 million people can expect possible flooding this weekend, including residents in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
As of Saturday morning, the National Weather Service (NWS) had issued an ongoing flood watch for the area stretching from Houston, Texas, to the coastal city of Galveston, Texas. Much of the state’s southeastern and south-central region were similarly warned to expect an uptick in severe rain and potential flooding as water continues to pound the state. Some areas have also reported hail the size of ping-pong balls.
“Another round of showers and thunderstorms is anticipated to develop Saturday morning into the afternoon,” NWS warned. The national forecaster said that “if any of these rains fall on already saturated grounds, more flash flooding could develop,” advising that residents should “not attempt to travel” if extreme rain occurs.
A separate warning has also been issued for the Central Texas region including the cities of Austin and San Antonio, both of which have also endured major flooding this week. In downtown Austin, a man was found dead in Lady Bird Lake on Wednesday after being carried away in the water. City officials expressed concern about the dangers posed by more rainfall, with the city’s dams already inundated with excess water.
The region-wide deluge is unusual, even though the Texas coast is prone to flooding, particularly in cities like Houston. The fourth-largest city in the country has struggled as rain becomes a more persistent issue, and one that Houston’s drainage infrastructure is not equipped to handle. The city is also still recovering from Hurricane Harvey, which hit in 2017, killing dozens of people and causing billions of dollars in damage.
But across the country, trends indicate that flooding is becoming the new normal. On Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that the amount of U.S. land experiencing drought has dropped to its lowest levels in decades. That dive has come hand-in-hand with a major uptick in saturation — from May 2018 to April 2019, the country saw its wettest year on record.
Approximately 36.2 inches of rain fell in the contiguous United States during that period, a 6-inch increase above average that has left drought impacting only around 2% of the country.
Much of the increase in rain, however, is thanks to severe weather. Hurricane Florence devastated the Carolinas and other Southern states last fall, marking the second-wettest storm to hit the United States after Harvey. A “bomb cyclone” in March also unleashed a torrent of rain over a number of Midwestern states, including Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa. Many impacted states are still struggling to recover from the damage, which has taken a toll on agriculture and the region’s economy, in addition to destroying homes and businesses.
Climate scientists say it is a challenge to connect isolated events to climate change, but they have linked the wider trend uptick in rain and disasters to global warming. According to the U.S. government’s 2018 National Climate Assessment (NCA), regions like the South and Midwest are set to see fluctuating rain associated with flooding as climate impacts worsen nationally.
Heightened concern over flooding risk may not translate to national preparedness, however. President Donald Trump’s proposed 2020 budget makes deep cuts to resilience efforts, and targets the Flood Hazard Mapping and Risk Analysis Program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Relief in the aftermath of flooding is also in question — the White House has stalled for months on an aid bill that would benefit the victims of disasters across the country, including those impacted by flooding.