Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Thomas Colbert, 1954-2015

I never had Tom Colbert as a studio instructor at the University of Houston College of Architecture, but I knew him well. He was on several of my design juries while I was a student, provided me with some ideas when I was working on my Master's thesis at UT, and eventually became a neighbor of mine when he moved into a house a couple of doors down from me and my ex-wife in the University Oaks neighborhood adjacent to campus.

Hardly an afternoon went by when he wasn't in his front yard playing fetch with his chocolate lab. He had purchased a vacant lot down the street and I was always interested in what kind of house he would eventually build there. Unfortunately, he never got around doing so:
Tom Colbert, a University of Houston professor who fought to protect Texas' coastline, died Friday after a battle with stomach cancer. He was 61.

Colbert grew up in New Orleans, and Hurricane Katrina affected him powerfully. As I wrote in 2013, "He knew what that drowned city had been, knew how much was lost when its levees broke. After Katrina, Colbert's elderly father took refuge in a facility that ran out of drinking water. Nurses resorted to using saline IV bags to keep survivors hydrated."

What, Colbert asked himself, would happen to Houston, his adopted city since 1985, if a similar storm hit? The scientific projections, he found, are terrifying: If a worst-case storm hit Houston, the economic damage and loss of life wouldn't just be as bad as Katrina. It would be much, much worse. If a hurricane storm surge rushed up the Houston Ship Channel, knocking over and busting open the enormous chemical tanks there, toxic goo would slosh all over the city, going wherever floodwater carried it. The result could easily be the worst environmental disaster the U.S. has ever seen.
Colbert, working with Rice University's SSPEED Center (it stands for Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters), championed flood-protection infrastructure that wouldn't just fend off disaster. Done right, he argued, floodgates, levees and buffer zones could actually improve everyday quality of life — or even be tourist attractions. Levees, he noted, can be attractive public spaces, like the levee/park behind New Orleans' Cafe du Monde.
I had no idea that he was battling cancer, so coming across this article was a shock for me. He seemed to be doing well the last time I saw him, which was at a Houston Tomorrow event at H-GAC not too terribly long ago.

As we come upon the tenth anniversary of Katrina, we can only hope that Colbert's vision - storm infrastructure that enriches as well as protects - is realized before it's too late.

Colbert's full obituary is here. Like Bill Stern, Colbert was an immensely-talented UH College of Architecture instructor that cancer took from us too soon. He will be missed.

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