Talking hurricanes and flooding with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo

Following her election victory in 2018, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has made regional flooding one of her top priorities. With the onset of the 2019 Atlantic Hurricane season, Hidalgo sat down with Space City Weather managing editor Matt Lanza to talk about that, what she’s learned about flooding in Harris County, and what she’s doing about it.

“First, everybody needs to have a plan for themselves, for their families and their pets,” she said during the interview. “That means having their gas tank fueled and having a safety kit. Make sure folks have medicine, food, and water for seven days. That’s what we like to ask folks to make sure to have.”

Seven days may seem like a long time, but as Hidalgo and the rest of the region experienced after Hurricane Ike in 2008, and like most of us witnessed after Harvey, it’s not unreasonable to expect to be homebound for an extended period of time after a storm.

The Harris County Emergency Management website, “Ready Harris,” has a checklist of emergency essentials for building your kit (The Houston National Weather Service guide to hurricanes and severe weather is also useful). It also wouldn’t hurt to bookmark the Ready Harris website if you live in Houston or Harris County, as Hidalgo anticipates it will become the one stop shop for official information during disasters.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo speaks in May. (HCOEM)

“Our vision is to really make Ready Harris the hub for everything,” she said. “It’s not (yet) where it needs to be. We’re working on it. We have a very exciting vision for it. Part of it is like what you guys do: Putting things in very accessible terms. Making sure that we’re informing the community and that we’re very clear. And that we have the information that they need and only the information that they need.”

Flood mitigation

Ultimately, every conversation about Houston and hurricanes or weather comes back to flooding. Most of our readers know this topic is unavoidable. And the bulk of my conversation with Judge Hidalgo centered around flooding. Flooding happens rather frequently around here. “We’ve always faced the challenge of flooding, and people who’ve lived here 5 years and 50 years all understand it,” she says. The topic of how to control it or mitigate it is pretty unavoidable too.

Hidalgo has become fluent in flood control in the time since she decided to seek office. “That’s part of why I decided to run,” she said. “I asked some folks in the department of urban design (at Harvard) ‘Why? This is clearly getting worse. Why does it feel like the government isn’t really doing anything about this? Is it that it’s an impossible problem or is it that the investment isn’t there?'”

The answer was that, yes, certain things could be done to mitigate some of our problems. “I decided to run, and then Harvey happened and it was even more of a call to action.”

And after Harris County voters passed a $2.5 billion flood bond in 2018, flood control is a constant at Harris County Commissioner’s Court. At the most recent meeting last week, the Flood Control District asked Judge Hidalgo to execute agreements or amendments that totaled over $4.5 million.

“Every court meeting, there’s approval to negotiate, approval to build or design some project or another. It’s 230 projects. Of those, over 100 are currently underway, so they’re constantly on there.”

One of the major topics of discussion ahead of the flood bond issue last year was transparency. It came up at Bayou City Initiative meetings with previous County Judge Ed Emmett. Community stakeholders said it was one of the most important elements of any flood bond. It goes beyond just transparency though; people have a basic desire to just know what’s happening and being done with that $2.5 billion that 85% of voters supported last summer. During Hidalgo’s transition into office, her team conducted a survey of residents. “One sticking point was that people really want to know what’s happening in terms of flood protection progress.”

In response to that, Harris County has created a website to keep residents informed. The site is harristhrives.org (which can be accessed from Ready Harris as well). As of this post, more than $38 million has been spent so far on home buyouts, funded entirely by the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. An interactive map shows all of the proposed flood control projects, complete with the budget for each project, how much of that budget is currently funded, and what has been spent to date. One of Hidalgo’s priorities is to streamline how county information flows. “We’ll keep adding to the website, but the idea is to have one place where people can really see where we’re headed,” she said.

Data from the Harris County Thrives web site.

Of course, it’s one thing to see that 100+ flood mitigation projects are underway. But it’s an entirely different thing to actually see results on the ground. And that will be the big test for the Harris County Flood Control District going forward. When asked where the region stands two years after Harvey, Hidalgo was positive but cautious.

“We’re always improving,” she said. “We have dozens of projects that weren’t underway or weren’t almost completed two years ago. We’ve done a lot of buyouts, so those are homes that are no longer there that aren’t going to flood. I don’t like to measure against a fixed point that’s going to make us look better. The point is ‘Are we where we need to be?’ No. For literally decades, this issue of flooding and flood infrastructure wasn’t addressed to the extent that it needed to be, in terms of the financial commitment by commissioner’s court and the county. We now have more investment. We’re going to need a lot more work. We’re trying to make up for lost time.”

Hidalgo did address the recent report that much of the flood infrastructure damaged during Harvey had yet to be repaired, and she said Harris County is close to getting things back on track. As many of us have learned, the timing of when federal funds arrives is important, as it can mean the difference between local jurisdictions being reimbursed by the federal government or receiving no funding at all.

Multi-jurisdictional partnerships & smart growth

If you’ve read any of the various profiles of Hidalgo since her election, you know that one of her priorities was to address problems as they relate to the broader needs of the community. In terms of flood control, that means taking a big picture view as well. She says that it’s one thing to make sure the county can move the 230 projects on the board quickly. “We still have to take a step back and really analyze the issue more broadly in terms of the multi-jurisdictional impacts of it, the climate change impacts, the development side of things, housing affordability and really tackle it,” she said.

The multi-jurisdictional aspect of flooding is one that has become a bigger topic in the wake of Harvey. Flooding doesn’t magically start and stop at political boundaries. In response to this, HidaIgo cited the work being done on the San Jacinto River to help Kingwood as one example where that’s moving along positively. “We’re undergoing an investigation right now with Montgomery County, the San Jacinto River Authority, FEMA, and the city of Houston to understand what we need to do to protect that area,” she said. “And the answer is probably going to be massive detention basins north of Kingwood.” Harris County has committed $20 million to whatever the results of that study show, but she says it will require the partnership of other jurisdictions.

Another example is the relationship between Harris County and the city of Houston. Hidalgo says that flood control officials at the county and city level frequently talk to one another to find ways to improve things. One item that came up at last week’s commissioner’s court meeting addressed strengths and weaknesses between the city and county. “The county will be taking over some open channels that the city is not as good at maintaining,” Hidalgo said. “And then the city is going to be taking over box culverts that the county isn’t as good at maintaining. In the Meyerland area, we’re purchasing some land so we can do a massive detention basin from the county side. That will allow the city to then go work on their drainage. If they work on the drainage now without the detention basin then too much water is going to flow into the bayou and it will overflow.”

It is a balancing act. This approach doesn’t always work perfectly though, something Hidalgo is aware of: “There is a little bit of pushback. Some counties north of us have incentive to continue growing, whereas for us, we really need detention. We need to grow, but grow smart.”

As we’ve pointed out here on the blog in the past, one of the big challenges in Houston is managing our growth in a way that balances economic strength with resiliency to things like flooding. This is something we have probably taken for granted until recently. Hidalgo sees her job as navigating this to try and continue building on that mindset.

“I do think that there’s a huge desire to grow smart,” she said. “It doesn’t mean don’t grow. It means nobody wants to grow in a way that increases flooding for everybody else or that puts you in the middle of the floodplain and at risk. We’re working on that. Those are tough conversations. It’s going to make development a little more challenging, but in the long term, from any kind of cost-benefit standpoint, it serves everybody well. We’re willing to have those tough conversations, and I’ve had great feedback from the community.”

Flood insurance

In the meantime, we know Houston will continue to contend with flooding. It’s why everyone, including Judge Hidalgo recommends you get flood insurance.

Hidalgo also reminds residents to confirm that you’ve got flood insurance. “If you think you have flood insurance, you may not. Check because it lapses. It takes 30 days. That’s a natural part of living in this area. That’s what you have to do.”

The recent flooding in Kingwood served as an unfortunate reminder of why anyone should have flood insurance if they live anywhere in Southeast Texas. “Folks who had never flooded before, who never thought they were going to flood. They flooded,” Hidalgo says. “The best way to make sure that if something were to happen to your home that you’re not left completely in the cold is flood insurance.”

This is another reason why we explicitly state on the Space City Weather flood scale that just because you did or didn’t flood during a certain event, including Harvey, it does not mean you will or won’t flood during a future event. People in Kingwood that survived Harvey ended up flooded in the May storms. It’s a point that Eric and I cannot emphasize enough. Every flooding event is unique. The Kingwood event last month represents one of the big challenges in dealing with some of our flooding. It was such a localized event that it failed to meet federal thresholds for disaster assistance. But it impacted dozens of families in disproportionately hard ways. Hidalgo says the county would like to try and prevent this problem from happening in the future. “We’re working with our congressional delegation to push for the federal thresholds for individual assistance to be lower,” she said. “We learned after Kingwood that these thresholds are too high. That’s going to take a lot of hard work because federal policy is not something that changes easily.”

Hidalgo’s ultimate goal is to get 100 percent participation in flood insurance across Harris County. There is a long way to go, as prior to Harvey only about 20 percent of county homeowners had this insurance. Ownership rates have slowly started to improve, much like dealing with flooding in our area. As I wrote after Harvey, the current iteration of Houston will require innovative solutions to handle our flooding problems. For her part, Hidalgo recognizes this. “We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re working really hard to get progress going and also figure out what else needs to be done. I know that what’s happening is not enough.”

18 thoughts on “Talking hurricanes and flooding with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo

  1. Bridgitt Dickey

    I’m still reading and hearing that home building permits are still being issued for homesites that are inside areas designed to take on water when floodgates are opened. What is being done to address this issue?

  2. Linda Martinez

    I’ve now lived in the Houston area for 8 years and continue to wonder at the lack of attention/ action to permanently resolve the flooding issue that is a part of everyday life here. This is a clip from an article on cbsnews.com dated 9/23/2019:

    “We heard that the Netherlands, one of the most flood-prone places in the world, almost never floods. Holland is about twice the size of New Jersey and is one of the world’s most densely populated countries. Much of it is below sea level, yet the Dutch don’t bother with flood insurance. They don’t need it. As the U.S. cleans up from Hurricane Florence, we were wondering, do the Dutch have a solution?”

    There are solutions. The fact that our government doesn’t pursue them is insane!

    1. Vincent

      I’m not convinced that the flood threats faced by the Netherlands and Houston are comparable. The Dutch have constructed fantastic barriers to keep out storm surge coming from the sea, but in their climate 2-5 inches of precipitation in a day constitutes an extreme rainfall event there. I seriously doubt that they would be prepared for the type of threat that we have from our skies.

    2. Vincent

      I really don’t believe the flood threats faced by the Netherlands are comparable to the ones we have. The Dutch barriers to storm surge from the sea are very impressive. However in their climate, a mere 2-4 inches of rain in a day would be considered an extreme event. I don’t think they would be able to handle the rainfall threat from the skies that we face here.

    3. Tom Norris

      and is one of the world’s most densely populated countries.

      Well there you go. More people per unit area to pay for the solution.

  3. Katy needs to evacuate

    Excellent article!!! You guys are no longer a little weather blog site but a go to source for accurate weather info from citizens all the way through the top city & county officials!!

    Well done amigos, well done!!!

  4. Vanessa

    I have been following Eric since his days at the Chronicle. He kept a us informed without hoopla. Keep up with the good work, guys

  5. R. Seydewitz

    Thank for a great article. I live in Kingwood. Our son’s house flooded from Street flooding. We were told that the street drainage was designed in the 70’s fro 1/2″ an hour. We just about fell over in our shock! Good grief! We need the main ditches that collect the street water to be deepened and regarded along with more storm drain openings in the the flood was like a full bathtub with a mostly blocked drain. Until this is addressed we are sitting ducks for any heavy rain.

  6. Topper Moore

    Above Barker and Addicks Dam there are thousands of homes that were built on land that the army corps of engineers in the 40s said never to build on. That is a major cause of homes that were flooded all along Buffalo Bayou when they let the water out of both dams to avoid flooding all those homes. Because of political graft and payoffs builders were able to build where they should never built.

  7. Chuck

    I live in The Woodlands in Montgomery County. Here, and even inside The Woodlands, street flooding has increased versus 10-15 years ago even with similar intensity storms. That has corresponded with increased pumping of drinking water from aquifers (subsidence) and upstream development that paved over former grassy areas / forests with concrete. Few of these “concrete developments” included what I would consider proper stormwater runoff mitigation. The problem is, it is the cities involved, not the County, that issues most of the building permits. The County can only require stormwater projects in unincorporated areas. A good number of these city officials concentrate on increased tax revenues from development with little concern for the stormwater runoff impacts.

    Certainly (I hope) Harvey was a big outlier. The “multijurisdictional” leadership here ought to call and visit some flood control officials in Tulsa / Tulsa County Oklahoma. They HAD serious, repeated and deadly flood problems prior to the 1970s. Then, regional govt officials and flood control experts all sat down around a table and hammered out a REGIONAL stormwater management program. An oversimplified description of what they agreed was: 1) Install improved drainage and stormwater management systems to deal with the current development in place. 2) Project future development and have the flood control experts determine future projects necessary basis that projection. 3) Future development would not receive a building permit until the flood control experts reviewed it and determined what stormwater management systems were needed for that development. The developer either could install the recommendations or pay the jurisdiction involved to install them.

    While living in Tulsa in the late eighties, we received over one year’s worth of rain over a 1-2 week period. There was neither massive building damage nor any loss of life during that massive storm, despite the fact that the Corps of Engineers Keystone Dam NW of Tulsa ultimately had to release over 300,000 cubic feet of water per minute to protect the dam’s integrity. The Corps advised governments and the public each time the rate increased with a projection of the increase and timing in the height increase of Arkansas River waters. People nearer to the river then had time to heighten the sandbag barriers around their buildings.

    This same approach is necessary here, and governments must require developers to install stormwater management systems consistent with the loss of grassland due to their projects.

    1. Katherine

      You are so right, Chuck! Borrowing knowledge and wisdom from others who have solved problems would be practical and HELPFUL.

      These websites that Ms. Hidalgo is excited about might be useful for communicating to the public or could just be a bit of hype and spin that makes it look like the city and counties are doing something when no substantive action is being taken at all. (Beyond the rec for folks to keep 7 days of food and water and batteries).

      Our family used to fish at Lake Keystone and I was a kid during those storms. I remember it. Like my kiddoes will remember Harvey. I just pray that we can all see real progress correcting and mitigating and preventing massive flood damage as those Oklahomans after the 80s did!

      1. Chuck

        Thanks Katherine. I just don’t understand why the cities of Houston, Conroe, Magnolia, etc. etc. etc. keep creating stormwater runoff problems because their planning people make bad permitting decisions.

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