Rice University crafts pivotal new flood tracking system for Houston’s most vulnerable spots

The recent Houston deluge is a sobering reminder of the constant potential of flooding here, especially in at-risk areas. To that end, a local university has devised a new tool to tackle high water threats in vulnerable spots.

Engineers at Rice University have crafted a new radar-based flood assessment, mapping and early-warning system to help planning for and responding to flooding at Houston hospitals and other critical facilities, namely on the watersheds of Brays, Sims, Hunting and White Oak bayous.

Dubbed the Flood Information and Response System (FIRST), the system covers several flood-prone and at-risk communities, including Kashmere Gardens, Gulfton, and Sunnyside, a press release notes.

Funding for the project comes courtesy of the CARES Act; the system was commissioned by the Houston Health Department. Experts notes that the FIRST system is much like FAS5, the latest version of the Rice/Texas Medical Center Flood Alert System. FAS5, created by Bedient, has performed accurately in more than 60 storms in Brays Bayou, including Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricane Harvey.

How does it work? According to a description, during a storm, weather radar is used to measure how much rain is falling over each portion of the watershed. That data, along with information from stream gauges on the bayous, is fed to a computer that compares the input with pre-populated scenarios from the map library.

For example, FAS5 has warned hospital officials in the Texas Medical Center as much as 2 1/2 hours before rising water has arrived at their doors.

FIRST’s maps also show the location of hospitals, nursing homes, and fire stations in the four watersheds. Emergency managers can establish warning thresholds so they have access to flood level information during rain events.

“What if first responders have to go to a shelter, a nursing home or another facility where there’s COVID, right in the middle of a flood,” Phil Bedient, the lead engineer on the project asked in a press release. “The idea is to provide a tool that can help emergency managers better deal with situations with multiple risks.”

Those interested can check out the new tool here.

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