In a straight-talking, down-to-business brief, Jim Blackburn, co-director of Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disaster Center, spells out the steps that need to be taken to better protect the Houston area from future flooding, including everything from coordinated buyouts, to redrawn floodplain maps and changes to state and local development practices.
“All residents of Houston and Harris County were complicit in the creation of these problems because we allowed them to happen,” writes Blackburn, professor of the practice of environmental law in the civil and environmental engineering department. “It is time for those of us affected by this action to take a role in our future.”
Detailing his vision for change, Blackburn notes that such large-scale efforts will likely require “significant private sector assistance,” and indeed, one of his proposals is the creation of a non-profit dedicated to flood resilience to help push for everything from honestly assessing the “severity of storms that may be facing us in the future” to developing flood warning systems.
But he also sees a big role for government at all levels to step up, starting with the federal government and its funding.
With estimates of the damages rising above $50 billion for Texas, Congress approved some $7.4 billion shortly after Harvey and looks likely to pass another $36.5 billion in a larger package but the governor was critical that it did not include specific allocations for Harvey relief. In response, members of the Texas delegation later released a statement saying some $15 billion in the package could go to benefit recovering Texans.
Though many have said the federal government is unlikely to provide the full amount identified as needed by the region and state, Blackburn says the money could still go a long way if used strategically.
“The highest priority is money for buyouts, primarily through the Federal Emergency Management Agency,” writes Blackburn in the report co-published by the Baker Institute for Public Policy and the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. Part of that urgency comes from the fact that the Addicks and Barker reservoirs are considered two of the six most dangerous in the country. “We need these dams repaired and restored to first-class condition,” urges Blackburn.
Second on his list is funding for the mid-bay alternative, a proposal created by the SPPEED center that offers similar storm surge protections as the Ike Dike but at a significantly reduced cost.
And third on the list are changes to the federal flood insurance program, including suspending the current arrangement that allows Harris County to do its own floodplain mapping. “There is no doubt that our 100-year rainfall used to guide construction of roads and buildings and to determine protection levels for industry and hazardous waste is too small,” writes Blackburn. Maps based on underestimates of rainfall “are essentially obsolete on arrival,” adds Blackburn, “a situation that guarantees future flooding.”
At the state level, Blackburn calls on the state legislature to change a part of the Local Government Code that has allowed Harris County to essentially not build flood mitigation projects it collected an impact fee for from developers. Citing a specific instance on White Oak Bayou, Blackburn writes, “Harris County charged developers an impact fee to be paid in lieu of building a detention pond.” That money was then supposed to be used to create a “regional” detention pond but the county did not raise enough money, according to Blackburn, and so the reservoir was never actually built. This later worsened flooding downstream, argues Blackburn.
Homeowners who are flooded downstream through a governmental “taking” now have little legal recourse, according to Blackburn, but a statute or statewide vote on a constitutional amendment could change that.
County and city entities “have the greatest involvement in our flooding problems,” according to Blackburn. “At its core, our flooding problem is a local problem.”
Which means there are local solutions, including redrawing county floodplain maps with an engineering firm that has no ties to developers and disallowing additional changes to the map.
The county flood control district has identified a site for a third reservoir, which should be pursued as a bond item, according to Blackburn, in addition to using roughly $1 billion for buyouts both inside and outside Houston city limits. Both the City and County should work together on “the best flood warning system” in the country. In addition, the City should increase its development standards, using the 500-year floodplain as “an interim development standard until new maps using realistic rainfall amounts can be prepared,” Blackburn argues.
The City should also develop new regulations for redeveloping areas as well as properties in its extraterritorial jurisdiction. And the building code should be more stringent with regard to flood prevention.
“No commercial structure should be allowed to have critical electrical, heating and cooling infrastructure in the basement,” writes Blackburn.
It’s worth noting that some of Blackburn’s suggestions have already gained traction with officials, including expanded buyout programs. But challenges remain, including the fact that there are simply so many officials and organizations that will need to work together on this.
“In all, there are 34 floodplain administrators in the county and the Flood Control District is not one of them,” the Harris County Flood Control District said in an earlier statement about its responsibility regarding flooding that emphasized the unprecedented nature of a storm like Harvey. “The floodplain administrators at each municipality within Harris County are responsible for enforcing floodplain management rules and regulations that govern construction in the floodplain. The Flood Control District does not oversee or enforce floodplain management rules and regulations that govern construction in the floodplain,” the statement continued.
But the Harris County Flood Control District did say it was committed to pursuing buyout programs, implementing its $60 million per year Capital Improvement Plan and maintaining its current infrastructure, including mowing 18,000 acres three times a year. And it was the Harris County Flood Control District that published a report back in 2015 that noted how vulnerable the neighborhoods surrounding the reservoirs were.
“While the Harris County Flood Control District acknowledges that the incredible magnitude of Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall has an extremely low probability of occurring in any given year (less than 0.01 percent chance of annual occurrence),” the statement continued, “we are working closely with our many partner agencies and area floodplain administrators to learn from the devastating flooding experienced by our county and provide a more resilient region for the many generations to come.”
In the meantime, the City of Houston has also had to balance ongoing needs with new concerns after Harvey. An otherwise routine bond proposal for things like a long-delayed multipurpose center now faces increased public scrutiny. The city’s chief resilience officer, Steve Costello, has spoken in favor of some sort of storm surge protection infrastructure and statewide support for flood prevention efforts.
“The ideas set out in this document are one person’s view of what needs to be done,” Blackburn concludes in his brief. “I hope that our current elected officials will take this in the spirit in which it is offered—a call to action. But we must act.”