The Texas Medical Center (TMC) was close to flooding during and after Hurricane Ike, but a long-term collaboration with Rice University paid off by calming fears of the kind of deluge that caused extensive damage during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.
With stunning accuracy, Rice researchers predicted the peak surge of Houston's Brays Bayou during and immediately after Ike, despite power outages that shut down the university's computing center at a critical time.
"The TMC was very happy about how well the system worked and the fact that we were able to pull this off via a long-distance connection," said Phil Bedient, Rice's Herman Brown Professor of Engineering and a widely known expert on flood warning and storm surges. "They were very concerned, because if the medical center had gone under, it would have been a mess."
Bedient, who with the TMC set up a real-time flood alert system in the years since Allison, saw that effort pay off during the storm. "We absolutely nailed it," he said. Having lost power at his own Houston home, Bedient spent a long night during Ike evaluating radar rainfall data coming by phone from the National Weather Service's radar through Vieux & Associates Inc. in Oklahoma and calling medical center officials with his predictions.
"Brays was two feet from going over its banks," he said. "The measured water flow in the bayou was 25,500 cubic feet per second. We had predicted 26,800, and we predicted it to occur at almost exactly the same time." The bayou, which runs just to the south of the medical center, floods at 29,000 cubic feet per second, he said.
"If we'd gotten another inch or two, the bayou would have gone over," said Bedient. "And that inch or two could have come hours later."
Bedient and his colleagues at the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disaster Center (SSPEED) are working to extend those same predictive capabilities to all of Greater Houston. SSPEED is an organization of Gulf Coast universities, emergency managers and public and private partners formed to address deficiencies in storm prediction, disaster planning and evacuations from New Orleans to Brownsville.
The goal, said Bedient, is to provide authorities with information from a new flood-prediction tool while there's still time to save lives and property. If a road is likely to go under or a bridge may be washed over, officials will get the word quickly.
"We love meteorologists, but they always look up, and they don't look down," he said. "We're doing the evaluation down here on the ground, where the meteorology meets the road."
SSPEED will host a major conference at Rice on severe storm prediction and global climate impact Oct. 29-31. For information, visit the Web site at http://hydrology.rice.edu/sspeed/.
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