The similarities are striking between Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, and this week’s strike of Hurricane Harvey on Houston and Southeast Texas. Many residents of the Houston area—home to between 6 and 11 million people, depending on which way one counts—can look forward to weeks, if not months of economic and personal discomfort and hardship, as life slowly normalizes.

But even at this early date, some lessons learned over the past 12 years are resonating. The most important of these just might be the resilience of Houston’s electricity grid. Recent investments improved the grid’s operation in ways that kept electricity flowing for more than 90 percent of the area’s customers throughout the hurricane, even as more than 4 feet of water fell from the sky over two days.

By contrast, electricity didn’t return to New Orleans for weeks, a scenario that contributed directly to much of the havoc and breakdown in civil order that came to represent the post-Katrina crisis in late August and early September 2005.

It turns out that with a continued flow of electricity comes all the other attributes of modern civil life. Cell phones and land lines work, giving first responders proper direction to those most in need. Stores stay open, which depresses the likelihood of looting. People with homes that aren’t flooded can invite neighbors and displaced strangers to come to where the showers and refrigerators still work.

Houston didn’t immediately learn how to adapt its electrical grid after Katrina, but Hurricane Ike in 2012 gave the city a gut punch, taking 2 million people offline for several days. In response, the city’s power company, CenterPoint, spent nearly $500 million to reinforce the system, raising substations in low-lying areas and cutting down tens of thousands of trees along grid corridors.

As Congress meanders its way toward what could be a $1 trillion infrastructure bill in 2018, more attention should be given to grid resiliency, not just along the Gulf Coast, but everywhere where energy infrastructure is vulnerable to natural disasters.

Image by AMFPhotography


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