Houston’s flooding issues under the lens in a Texas Tribune piece

This week the Texas Tribune, along with ProPublica, unleashed their second in-depth piece on Houston’s flooding risk. This one, entitled “Boomtown, Flood Town,” takes a closer look at the Tax Day flood event of last April and a broader look at Houston’s flood risk in the context of policy, development, and future climate change. It’s a long, thorough read, and I highly recommend the piece. This supplements their work earlier this year about our hurricane and storm surge risk. I personally think that is one of the more important articles that exists on Houston’s vulnerability to hurricanes.

In the “Boomtown, Flood Town” piece, a number of issues related to April’s flood event and Houston development are addressed. As I said, I encourage you to check it out yourself, but in the meantime, here are some key points that I’m taking away from this

Problems

Houston’s flooding issues are important because more people die in Houston from flooding than in any other city. No other urban area in America has flooded as much as Houston in the last 40 years.

"Boomtown, Flood Town," from the Texas Tribune and ProPublica.

“Boomtown, Flood Town,” from the Texas Tribune and ProPublica.

Houston is inherently flood prone. But as the climate warms, evidence continues to mount, that the intensity and frequency of heavy rain events will continue trending up.

Harris County Flood Control District & Houston’s Flood Czar

Fairly or unfairly, the leadership of the Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) don’t come off looking very good here. Their comments are provocative, sound quite combative, and they seem to discount a lot of universally accepted science. At one point, the recently retired head of the HCFCD said, “You need to find some better experts.” It’s really just not a good look in this piece, as the pro-development county official seems unwilling to accept the reality that this growth makes flooding worse. Good governance requires one to recognize a problem in order to mitigate it.

The City of Houston’s new position of “flood czar” (Stephen Costello) comes off sympathetic in the piece. The sense I get is that he’s somewhat hamstrung to make a lot of headway on these issues. Costello will hire his first paid staffer in the weeks ahead according to the piece.

Other Points

Some of the residents interviewed have seen their property (including some not in FEMA floodplains) flood multiple times in the last 10-15 years after never flooding for years before. The piece tackles the patchwork and often lax enforcement of development regulations and addresses the fact that explosive development of the Katy Prairie may be redirecting water in ways such that it now impacts people downstream who have never flooded in the past.

The piece hits on development in the Cypress Creek watershed in northwest Harris County, policy issues in Houston since Allison in 2001, Addicks Reservoir and how a new reservoir would be a big help, and how Fort Bend County has seemingly done a better job at addressing some of these problems than Harris County.

I think the big takeaway here is that Houston is and always will be a flood prone place. No two flood events are identical, and changes in development and land-use over time, coupled with climate change are sure to make future flood events behave differently also. The bigger immediate problem seems to be that not much is really happening with regard to serious area-wide mitigation. There are ideas, but a lack of resources or political willpower to move them forward, given the high cost. Overall, this piece is very informative, and I think most people can take something away from this. Eric and I support this sort of awareness continuing. We’ll be sharing stories like this with you and pursuing our own stories when we can.

17 thoughts on “Houston’s flooding issues under the lens in a Texas Tribune piece

  1. Said Assali

    Eric,

    Are there things we can do to push the city and county to act on this? I’m moving back to Houston after having been away for 3 years. This is a very serious issue and share the concern that we can’t afford the status quo. The only way to get the city and county to act quickly is to apply pressure.

    1. Eric

      The only real point of leverage you have right now is your county commissioner and, to a lesser extent your state representative and senator.

  2. Mike K

    Exactly right. The new developments of old flood plains along the Colorado and Brazos rivers is exasperating the flooding issue we are now facing. Pecan river bottoms and pastures need to be left alone. Yes they’re pretty to build on, but Mother Nature will destroy your house and home if your are in an area along a nearby river bottom. Just like what happened to the Wimberley area on the Blanco river bottom in 2015.

  3. Michelle

    Thanks very much for this write up and summary. It’s concerning their comments that the recent flood events are “freak occurrences” and not a new pattern or normal with climate change. That seems like writing the problem off. I think if you look at the floods in WV and LA this year it shows it’s not just here in Houston, but our over- development here just makes it much worse.

  4. Chuck Hoffheiser

    I lived in the Tulsa area between 1984 and 1993. Area cannot be classified as “tree-hugger paradise.” They elected officials recognize that commercial development is needed for a healthy economy, BUT, said development MUST include proper storm water management. So, approval of the development permit is contingent upon either installation of an adequate system, or paying the city / county up front to complete it before the first shovel of dirt is turned. The determination of what is needed is done by a storm water engineering consulting firm that is on retainer to the governments. So, anyone can sell their land for development, but there is a requirement that there is no increase in flood risk. Houston area ought to do the same thing.

    1. Matt

      Exactly. It’s not a difficult thing to mitigate to some extent. You can be pro-smart development without being anti-development. People turn it into a silly political war, labeling someone as anti-development, when the reality is you can ease problems by enforcing rules, and yes, some regulations. Houston is always going to flood, but we can at least mitigate it and be smarter about what we’re able to control.

  5. Cynthia Neely

    Eric, thank you so much for sharing this and your commentary. Our nonprofit organization Residents Against Flooding has been working for over 9 years to get the City and County to address man-made flooding to no avail. We finally had to resort to a federal lawsuit this year against the City of Houston and a local Tax Increment Redevelopment Zone to seek remedy. We are not asking for money but for the city to take action against causes of preventable flooding. Unfortunately, even if they took emergency action TODAY it would be too late for some homeowners when we have the next storm. Many have not even moved back in from the LAST flood. Many have used up retirement and savings and are trapped in a house they cannot sell. The stress of knowing they will probably flood again is putting some folks I know close to a mental breakdown. Though I and MANY others have spoken multiple times to City Council and several Mayors, at no time did they ever appear to be shaken or moved to treat our situation as the true crisis it is. It is heartbreaking to know that more people will die and more will lose everything because their government fails to take action. We need our voices heard. We need more voices to join our cause. We need donations to keep our legal team in the trenches working towards flooding solutions. Donations are tax deductible.
    Cynthia Neely
    Board Member, Residents Against Flooding (all volunteer, unpaid)
    http://www.drainagecoalition.com

    1. Chuck Hoffheiser

      I lived in the Tulsa area between 1984 and 1993. Area cannot be classified as “tree-hugger paradise.” They elected officials recognize that commercial development is needed for a healthy economy, BUT, said development MUST include proper storm water management. So, approval of the development permit is contingent upon either installation of an adequate system, or paying the city / county up front to complete it before the first shovel of dirt is turned. The determination of what is needed is done by a storm water engineering consulting firm that is on retainer to the governments. So, anyone can sell their land for development, but there is a requirement that there is no increase in flood risk. Houston area ought to do the same thing.

  6. ERA

    Thank you for sharing this thought-provoking piece which I would not otherwise have seen. I will be forwarding this to several people.

  7. Angie

    I’ve been wondering if TxDoT had some responsibility for helping out with drainage since they’ve been expanding the toll road and freeways. With the Aggie Expressway expanding, it’s only going to get worse in Tomball. There’s still subdivisions going in. It seems impossible that the 100 or 500 year flood plains could stay the same with so much construction.

    1. Matt

      They really ought to. In my relatively limited experience in observing this kind of thing, it’s almost as if one agency does work, but it’s another agency’s responsibility to handle the problematic aspect of the work. Then each agency passes the buck to avoid blame or having to remedy the problem. It can get extremely frustrating. Hopefully we don’t have to find out if the flood plains have changed up that way for a while yet.

  8. tanstaafl

    Developers want to build thousands of new homes in Northwest Harris County along the new sections of the Grand Parkway between I-10 and highway 249. If you haven’t driven that way, take a drive (though it’ll cost you a bundle in tolls). These sections of the Grand Parkway have already flooded. Of course, once the developers make their money they don’t care any more. This is why someone has to represent the residents and enforce flood control measures.

    1. Matt

      The rapid expansion and development of NW Harris is definitely a concern. Again, it’s important to distinguish being pro-smart development and being anti-development. I think the large majority of people are the former…just do it sensibly and allow for mitigating downstream impacts. It’s incredibly simple: Continue to research the problem and stop denying science & facts if you don’t like the results, implement or allow for regulations (which I know can be a 4 letter word), and just enforce the rules that are already in place. The Houston region should be leading the country, and frankly the world in this department. We have experience, science, ideas, brains. Now we should muster the political will to put them to use.

  9. Blackhawks Fan

    Thanks. A lot of info to be sure but it is important. Will figure in my decision regarding how much longer I continue to live here. The summers are bad enough, but I doubt I want to be dealing with floods and hurricanes after I retire.

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