Watch CBS News

"We've covered our sponge up": Harvey reveals problem decades in the making

Pavement and Harvey
Why was Harvey so devastating to Houston? 02:45

HOUSTON -- Harvey dumped a year's worth of rain on Houston in a matter of days, shattering last year's above-normal rainfall and bringing this year's total to an unprecedented 73 inches.

But according to Jim Blackburn, a professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Rice University, the storm wasn't just a natural disaster.

"This was a climate-influenced storm. There's no question," Blackburn said. "The temperature in the Gulf of Mexico where the tropical cyclone grew in two days to a Category 4 hurricane was 2 to 7 degrees above normal."

Blackburn has studied the effects of storms on cities for nearly 40 years. He said that when Harvey came ashore, the storm laid bare another problem decades in the making: the massive paving over of the area's natural wetlands and prairies.    

Helicopter view of Houston shows extent of flooding damage 02:12

"We've covered our sponge up," Blackburn said. "The sponge we had here was wonderful. It would hold water, but … in order to develop it you had to drain it. You had to get rid of the water. And as we've developed out we've dumped water back on ourselves."

Since the 1950s, nearly 88 square miles of wetlands have disappeared in the Houston area due to development. And the region's system of canals and bayous are overwhelmed by increasingly heavy storms.

"Basically, Harvey is the new norm," Blackburn said.

He said a photo of nursing home residents in waist-deep floodwater illustrates the problem. The residents were evacuated, but the home was built on land directly across from a floodplain boundary.

Jim Blackburn CBS News

"And part of it is getting an adequate amount of room for that water to come through the city, which means buyouts, evacuation and sort of a green space," he said, which means "not rebuilding in some areas."

It also means moving past a politically charged debate around climate change in a way many can understand, he said. It's not just about the environment -- it's about money.

"Houston's economy has been disrupted. We are going to have a hard time recovering and we're going to wear the brand of having this on us," Blackburn said.

"This is what climate scientists have been telling us would happen," he said. "Absolutely, it's a game changer."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.