Archive for September, 2008

How Twenty Miles Saved a City (The Hurricane Ike Edition, Part 1)

Posted on September 22, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , |

While people in most parts of the United States welcome the arrival of summer, those of us living along the Gulf Coast and in the coastal communities of the Southeast note the season’s arrival with a certain amount of anxiety, and mark its passing with a sense of relief. It’s not so much the heat and the humidity, although we (or at least I) look forward to that about as much as a Chicagoan pines for the frigid winds blowing off of Lake Michigan on a January morning. The real source of worry is that we must once again endure that meteorological game of Russian Roulette known as hurricane season.

Imagine for a moment having to keep one eye on the tropics, making judgments of where a churning storm might land, how strong it might be at landfall, and whether you and your family should shelter in place or evacuate. And if a storm does strike, will anyone be hurt? What will become of your home? Your neighborhood? Your city? Will everyone and everything survive? Or this time, will it all be washed away? Hurricane season is serious business. It’s no wonder that “summertime” music comes from places like southern California, rather than the otherwise rich Gulf coast musical mecca of New Orleans.

In the wee hours of Saturday morning, September 13th, the eye of Hurricane Ike made landfall on the east end of Galveston Island in Texas, and pushed inland across the Houston metropolitan area, following a path generally parallel to but a few miles to the east of Interstate 45. Houston was pummeled, and a week later half the city was still without power. The City of Galveston was devastated by the storm, so much so that the remaining people who chose to ride out the storm were ordered to leave. The communities of Bolivar Peninsula , just a short ferry ride from the northeastern tip of Galveston, simply do not exist any longer. They are gone.

People who live with the reality of hurricanes are well aware of hurricane geography. The counter-clockwise circulation of the storm means that the wettest side of the system is the eastern side, with water picked-up from the ocean and dumped onto land disproportionately in the northeast quadrant. This so-called “dirty” side of the storm often brings tornadoes, further adding to the destruction. Worse still, this is the side of the storm that creates the largest storm surge, where a dome of seawater is literally pushed inland by the strong winds. The storm surge in Galveston was 12 feet. The highest point on the island is 17 feet, which is the seawall that protects a portion of the city from the Gulf (prior to construction of the seawall in 1902, the highest point was less than 9 feet above sea level). Waves crashed over the seawall, but the full force of the surge was blunted by the seawall on the eastern side of the island. The west end had no such protection.

Had Hurricane Ike made landfall literally twenty miles to the west, I might very well be writing about Galveston in the past tense. The predicted storm surge to the east of the eye was 20 feet, which would have overtopped Galveston’s seawall and the entire island. Instead, the lesser-populated Bolivar Peninsula took the peak surge, and will never be the same. Progressing inland, moving the eye just 20 miles westward would have put the most densely populated portions of Houston on the dirty side of the storm, with the peak surge thus pushing into Galveston Bay and some of the Houston-area bayous, creating the potential for serious flooding. Most of us in Houston are actually feeling pretty lucky, all things considered.

I will devote a few entries for this blog to lessons from Hurricane Ike, but I’d like to briefly flirt with the messy topic of professional responsibility. In my previous job as an urban planning consultant, I personally billed quite a number of hours to projects related to proposing or studying the creation of special districts to encourage development in a number of Texas coastal communities, including Galveston. The Galveston districts were on the west side of the island, beyond the protection of the seawall. And therein you see the dilemma: where and under what circumstances is development appropriate, what role can and should government take in controlling development (especially on barrier islands), and what are the obligations of a professional consultant even if development in such locations has the backing of government?

These are not easy questions to answer, and in the wake of the storm, I’ve not been able to escape them. When I ask myself what a sustainability professional might have done differently than an ordinary consultant, I believe the answers can be derived from some of the basic characteristics of the profession:

  • First, we are conversation starters. We don’t necessarily have the answers, but we raise critical issues of environmental consequence.
  • Second, we connect the dots, whether it’s with issues or with making sure the right people are speaking with each other. Getting the right people to the table can be critical to bringing about more sustainable outcomes.
  • Third, we often frame discussions further into the future than general practice, which allows issues of longer-term risks to not be entirely drowned-out by shorter-term interests.
  • Fourth, the nature of our profession is that in many instances we have a particular point of view or framework based on ecological principles that drives decision-making, which keeps us from playing both sides of an issue (depending on who is paying the bills) as readily as a typical consultant.
  • And fifth, we are systems-thinkers rather than silo-thinkers, and that makes it harder for us to disassociate ourselves from unsustainable outcomes by saying that it wasn’t our job to consider “the big picture”.

With that said, perhaps a sustainability consultant would have approached this issue of the creation of incentives to spur development on an unprotected section of a barrier island by first asking whether the same desired outcomes could be achieved by focusing on redevelopment of areas that already have structural protection. If not, then that consultant might organize a scenario planning session, engaging experts who could speak to the probabilities of storms of a particular size and strength, and how structures and infrastructure would perform under those conditions, and whether steps are available to bring levels of damage to within an acceptable range. This would mean that the politicians who ultimately decide whether such districts are created would be presented with (or not allowed to avoid) critical information concerning risk.

But let’s be frank. When you’re a junior-level person in a typical consulting firm asking hard questions that a client might not want to hear, you risk your job, not to mention your firm’s ability to get future work from that client. It’s never easy speaking truth to power, and that needs to change. At least universities (the sector where I now work) don’t typically punish those (as harshly) who are willing to speak honestly about challenging subjects. No wonder I left consulting!

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Questioning Assumptions

Posted on September 3, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , |

There are times when we stumble into our lessons.

A few years ago, when I was first getting my feet wet as a campus sustainability professional, I was unexpectedly called upon in the middle of a design meeting for a new building and asked to lead a conversation about energy efficiency. As my mind began to race, I found myself thinking that there was about 200 years of combined design and construction experience assembled at the table, and that I was without a doubt the least experienced of the group. My eyes must have been as wide as saucers.

I began by charting the rapid increase in energy costs to our university. I explained that every dollar spent on utilities is a dollar that can’t be spent on teaching, research, students, or any other aspect of the school’s educational mission. I encouraged the design team to make every effort to embed energy efficiency into the building’s design. It was a pep rally speech, and it was going nowhere.

I was grasping, so I asked the mechanical engineers to briefly explain their design to me. I have no background in mechanical engineering, and I struggled to follow their answer. I then asked a question that has since served me well: “Tell me about the assumptions that guided your design.”

I soon learned that the HVAC systems of buildings are designed to particular summer- and winter-time thresholds set by ASHRAE (the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers) using fifteen years of historical hourly weather data. The summer design temperature is the point that contains 99% of all of the hourly summer readings, meaning the threshold will only be exceeded 1% of the time, on average. Similarly, the winter design temperature is set at the 99% condition, with only 1 hour in every 100 falling below this bound during a typical winter.

For the project at hand, the upper bound was 97 degrees, which seemed reasonable enough. However, the design team reported that they were using a winter design temperature of 20 degrees. Suddenly, there was no doubt who in the room was from Houston and who was not.

I’ve lived in Houston for a combined 26 years. I remarked that I could probably count on one hand the number of times that the temperature has dropped below 20 degrees during those 26 years, and that’s probably true. The coldest month in Houston is January, where the average high is 63 degrees and the average low is 45. Since the beginning of record-keeping for such things, the temperature has never been colder than 10 degrees in January in Houston.[1] This year, the coldest recorded temperature in January was 33.8 degrees, and that happened twice. All told, we’ve only spent 44 hours this year to date below 40 degrees. In 2007, the mercury dropped below 40 degrees for a grand total of about 120 hours, with a minimum recorded temperature of 32. We haven’t had a single hour below freezing since early March of 2002.[2] That winter design condition of 20 degrees just did not seem right to the Houstonians in the room.

With a few minutes of pouring through design guides, we found that the appropriate winter design temperature for Houston as established by ASHRAE is either 29 degrees or 27 degrees, depending on the site location in the city. Even those values seemed low to us, but nevertheless far more reasonable than 20 degrees. Somewhere along the way, someone had padded an established standard with a significant “factor of comfort”.

So why does this even matter? The capacity of the HVAC equipment is designed in part to meet these conditions. We were over-designing for the winter, and doing so would cost us energy and money. We might not have ever uncovered this had we not questioned the design team’s assumptions.

With that issue resolved, we examined several other assumptions, and over the course of the meeting developed a series of proposed changes – most of which were adopted – that saved up-front equipment costs while slashing the building’s anticipated energy consumption by 15-20%. We weren’t sacrificing the functionality of the building – we simply were correcting a previously undetected over-design. Who knows how many we didn’t catch?!

A challenge for campus sustainability professionals is that we participate in so many different kinds of conversations with such a broad range of people that we can’t be experts in everything. There are going to be moments – perhaps many – when we are the least experienced people in the room. Bringing the conversation to a fundamental level enables us to partially overcome the experience gap, to start to play to our strengths, and to make constructive comments. This is such a young profession that we’re all climbing the learning curve together. I’d be interested to know if others have similar tips to share. We need all the lessons we can get!

[2] Temperature data drawn from the Bayland Park weather station, located at the corner of Hillcroft and Bissonnet in southwest Houston. Data available online at

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