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In 2017, Houston and Harris County experienced what may be the most damaging storm in United States history according to a 2018 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA 2018a). As set out in meteorologist Jeff Lindner’s final report on Harvey for Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD), Harvey caused about $125 billion in damages, with over 150,000 homes being flooded as well as thousands of businesses (Lindner and Fitzgerald 2018). Harvey’s financial impact is the same as that of Hurricane Katrina (NOAA 2018a). If nothing else, the last year has revealed the full extent of the problems generated by Harvey as well as by past flood control policies and practices. There are difficult issues and choices ahead that require creative thinking and leadership to come out of this situation positively.
One clear accomplishment in the months since Harvey is the decision by the Harris County Judge and Commissioners to call an election for the public to vote on the issuance of $2.5 billion in flood control bonds to finance various local and federal projects (HCFCD 2018a). The election has been set for August 25, 2018—a Saturday that is also the one-year anniversary of Harvey. The special election date was selected by the Harris County Commissioner’s Court and subsequently authorized by Texas Governor Greg Abbot. As this is being written, a series of public meetings have been initiated by Harris County to discuss and solicit possible projects to be funded by this bond money, providing the kind of transparency and public involvement demanded by those harmed by catastrophic flooding events in Harris County, including Harvey, the Tax Day Flood of 2016, the Memorial Day Flood of 2015, and Tropical Storm Allison of 2001.
Harvey jolted the local community, causing many to take an interest in flooding matters that often have been conducted out of the public eye. This has led to demands for more information and transparency by governmental entities responsible for flood control, such as the HCFCD. Those desiring to participate in the public meetings to identify flood- related projects to potentially be funded by the bonds had the opportunity to do so during June and July of 2018 prior to the upcoming election on August 25. This transparency is one clear result of Harvey, and it is necessary, important, and refreshing. A second clear result of Harvey is that Congress has appropriated $15 billion for infrastructure projects for areas affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in HR 1892 (Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018). Due to the congressional prohibition on earmarks in appropriations, it is not clear exactly where these funds will be spent or on which projects. Additionally, the language in the bill is confusing—the entire construction appropriations section is one sentence with over 500 words—but it is clear that at least some of the infrastructure money is destined for the Houston area and the Texas coast. In fact, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced in July that $4.88 billion had been set aside for Texas (Pulsinelli 2018). There is also additional funding coming from both the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, with an initial $1 billion in Community Development Block Grant funding designated for the city of Houston and another $1 billion for Harris County. For many federal projects, a local match is required, which is one reason for the proposed August 25 bond vote. If it passes, a substantial amount of money will be available to begin addressing key flooding problems in Harris County.
The mere availability of funds, however, does not guarantee success in addressing the area’s flooding problems. Good decisions and good choices must be made about spending these funds, and such decisions require information. The current paper is written on the heels of an excellent publication by the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium (GHFMC), which is composed of academic researchers. Their report, “Greater Houston Strategies for Flood Mitigation,” is primarily focused on strategies for flood mitigation and is an excellent primer on many of the issues covered herein (GHFMC 2018). The current paper differs from the consortium report in its focus on certain policy issues and in its presentation of an overall flood management vision.
To this end, this paper is organized as follows. First, the issues of obsolete 100-year floodplain maps and increasing rainfall are discussed because they are key to fully understanding the current dilemma and shaping alternative concepts for long-term protection. Second, a geographic overview of the flood issues and potential responses to various watersheds across Harris County are set out. Third, different flood management concepts are discussed for three zones of the Houston area that have different flooding issues.
This material may be quoted or reproduced without prior permission, provided appropriate credit is given to the author and Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. The views expressed herein are those of the individual author(s), and do not necessarily represent the views of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.