west fork flood during Harvey

NY Times Covers Harris County Flood-Bond Spending, but Omits Spending Data

The New York Times ran a story on flood-bond spending, but forgot to look at where the budget to date has gone.

The story by Christopher Flavelle was titled, “A Climate Plan in Texas Focuses on Minorities. Not Everyone Likes It.” It outlined arguments on each side of the equity debate in flood-bond spending. From a balance point of view, it did a great job. However, it came up short in two areas.

Problems with Article

First, the headline misleads. This isn’t about climate. The story is about how to distribute flood-bond dollars equitably.

Second, it makes no mention of where flood-bond dollars to date have actually gone. Nor does it mention historical spending except in a generalized way. It implies poor people got none; rich people got it all. By avoiding research into actual current and historical spending, it perpetuated myths that do little to protect people from flooding.

Had the author checked, he would have found that those “underfunded,” disadvantaged neighborhoods have actually received 79% of the flood-bond projects to date.

Had he bothered to check historical or federal spending, he might have found an even more exaggerated pattern.

Trap Laid by Ellis

Mr. Clavelle fell into the trap that Commissioner Ellis laid. In effect, the argument goes like this. “Because homes in poor neighborhoods cost less than those in rich neighborhoods, it brings down the benefit/cost ratio for poor neighborhoods. FEMA considers that ratio in grant requests. That disadvantages grants for poor neighborhoods and perpetuates a downward cycle.”

That’s literally true – if you look only at FEMA grants. But it’s the exact opposite for HUD grants which heavily favor disadvantaged neighborhoods. Mr. Clavelle fails to mention that. As do Mr. Ellis and his surrogates whenever they talk on this subject.

Approximately 70% of those HUD grants MUST go to disadvantaged neighborhoods. The actual percentage varies by storm and type of grant. After Harvey, Harris County received a billion dollars. And the City of Houston received $1.1 billion. Together, that’s almost as much money as in the $2.5-billion flood bond. And there are still billions of additional dollars available from HUD through the General Land Office.

Preserve Your Community

If more of this money continues to go south, the Lake Houston Area is sunk in the next big storm.

But the County is considering a Community Resilience Task Force that would institutionalize this spending bias for the next 30 years.

The County Judge’s office is inviting the public to share their thoughts and ideas on the proposed draft bylaws of the Community Resilience Task Force. You can register your opinion from now until July 30th, 2020, via one of the following methods:

  • Email CRTF@cjo.hctx.net and submit comments digitally, beginning July 21
  • Join a virtual focus group via Zoom. After registering, participants will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.
  • Offer input during the July 28th Commissioner’s Court

Please express your opinions to the county judge. Nothing is more important to the future of the Lake Houston Area than achieving more balance in flood-bond spending.

Some Key Facts to Consider

Some key points I intend to make:

  • 79% of flood bond projects to date have gone to neighborhoods that rate high on the social vulnerability index leaving only 21% to everyone else. We need to tweak the formula to achieve greater balance.
  • The argument that FEMA’s emphasis on Benefit/Cost Ratios disadvantages minority neighborhoods ignores the fact that billions of dollars in HUD grants advantage minority neighborhoods. Focusing only on one without acknowledging the other is intellectually dishonest.
  • HCFCD and USACE have historically underfunded flood mitigation projects in the Lake Houston Area. In the history of HCFCD, the District has not developed ONE USACE-funded project in this area.

For More Information

For more information on the “equity bias,” see this series on “Where Flood Mitigation Dollars Have Really Gone.” It was developed a year ago so the focus is on historical spending.

Or this series on “Equity”:

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/25/2020

1061 Days after Hurricane Harvey