Racial Rhetoric Distracts from Focus on Real Solutions to Flooding Problems. Here is Why.

Fifth in a series of eight articles on flood-mitigation funding in Harris County

On June 11, Russ Poppe, executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District, resigned after two years of hounding by Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia over the distribution of flood-bond money. Ellis and Garcia kept pushing Poppe to accelerate flood-mitigation projects in minority/low-income neighborhoods, using racial “equity” as the justification. But the discussion should be about damage, not race.

Alleged “Back-of-the-Bus” Treatment

Ellis was particularly vocal. He described Halls and Greens Bayous as getting “back-of-the-bus” treatment. With Shakespearean flare, he would rub his bald head and perfectly frame himself in front of aggressive artwork that says “Pay,” “We are fed up,” and “No Way.”  Then he would lean into his camera and pronounce, “They flood every time.” If we don’t fix that, “We’ll have blood on our hands.”

Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis during the Feb. 9, 2021, Commissioners Court Meeting.

But there was also a Shakespearean irony to Ellis’ monthly melodrama. As the posts in this series have shown…

Those minority, low-income neighborhoods have received the vast majority of flood-control district funding since 2000.

Narrow Questions Lead Viewers to Wrong Conclusion

This is a manufactured melodrama, born from a lie, and then exploited for political gain. Ellis even sweeps up community groups and flood survivors into his monthly melodrama. He would trot them out in meeting after meeting to anecdotally embellish his narrative, as he grilled Poppe like a prosecutor.

“Russ Poppe, is it not true? Did you not tell me that FEMA evaluates flood control projects with a benefit/cost ratio?”

Poppe would respond, “Yes, Commissioner.”

Ellis continued to ask pointed questions that demanded yes or no answers and could only lead to the conclusion he wanted. “Are the home values in Kingwood higher than around Halls Bayou?”

“Yes, Commissioner.” 

“Would that not raise Kingwood’s benefit/cost ratio?”

“Yes, Commissioner.”

You get the idea. Ellis would focus on a narrow sliver of truth that bolstered his narrative of discrimination. Basically, it was a story of systemic racism – that the white man built the system to favor white men. He led listeners to conclude that areas like Kingwood got all the flood mitigation money, and that poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods got none. 

However, Ellis had viewers looking through the wrong end of the telescope. He focused them on process, not outcomes. Had he bothered to check the facts, he would have found two problems:

Halls’/Greens’ Funding vs. Kingwood’s as of March 31, 2021.

Benefit/Cost Ratios Factor in Far More than Home Value

The federal grant-funding process includes dozens of other factors besides home values. And when you combine them all, watersheds such as Greens, Brays, and Sims came away with benefit cost ratios as high as 6 or 7, while areas like Kingwood struggled to get above 1.  The Flood Control District’s Federal Briefing document shows the benefit-cost ratios for all Federal Projects. See for yourself. 

Benefit/Cost Ratios (BCRs) also factor in such things as:

  • The number of structures damaged
  • Threats to infrastructure
  • Proximity to employment centers
  • Need for economic revitalization
  • Percentage of low-to-moderate income residents in an area
  • Number of structures that can be removed from the floodplain by a project.

When you look at outcomes, instead of one small part of the process, you see that poorer, inner-city watersheds get the vast majority of funding in Harris County.

Dollars Flow to Damage

The two tables below compare actual flood-mitigation funding since 2000 in high and low quartiles when ranked by “damaged structures” in four major storms: Allison, Tax Day, Memorial Day, and Harvey. The last column ranks watersheds by LMI%. That’s the percentage of low-to-moderate-income residents with less-than-average income for the region. Halls has the highest LMI rank of any watershed – 71%, making it the lowest income watershed.

Capital improvement funds; includes no maintenance dollars. Listing omits Vince. It lies almost wholly within Pasadena and is the City’s responsibility.
Omits Little Cypress Creek, which includes the Flood Control District’s experimental “frontier program.”

In comparing these two groups, several things become clear:

  • Dollars flow to damage.
  • Damage happens primarily in low-income watersheds.
  • Low-income watersheds received a billion more than the high-income (low LMI%) watersheds
  • Low-income watersheds averaged 3X more dollars
  • The median for low-income watersheds was 4X higher.

Stats Show No Racial Bias in Distribution of Flood-Mitigation Funding

Harris County does not discriminate against minority, low-income groups in the allocation of flood-mitigation funds. Dollars flow to damage. Of all the factors I examined, flood-mitigation funding most closely tracked damage. That’s a logical, valid basis for distribution of funding.

The most money went to the watersheds with the highest damage. They just also happened to be watersheds with high percentages of minority and low-income residents. 

The discussion should be about flood damage, not race.

The real factors that contribute to flooding have become lost in the racially charged rhetoric. The sooner we lose the racial rhetoric, the easier it will be to address flooding. 

The real factors that contribute to flooding become apparent when you look at the maps below. They correspond to the tables above.

  • Watersheds with the most damage lie mostly inside Beltway 8.
  • Watersheds with the least damage all lie outside Beltway 8.

Low Income Watersheds

All mostly inside Beltway. Part of Greens skirts north side of Beltway

Higher Income Watersheds

All outside Beltway

Neighborhoods inside the Beltway:

  • Are older
  • Were developed decades ago, with lower drainage standards
  • Have more structures built in floodplains and closer (lower) to street level
  • Have structures built right up to the edges of ditches and streams
  • Are downstream from newer areas, often in other counties that don’t mandate detention ponds
  • Are more densely populated, and thus have higher percentages of impervious cover

As a consequence, it also becomes harder to implement flood mitigation projects. For instance, HCFCD had to buy out whole subdivisions to make room for giant detention ponds in the Halls Bayou Watershed. This is just one reason why these projects cost so much money and take so much time.

Two giant detention ponds straddle I-69 along Halls Bayou. Before HCFCD could build these ponds, they had to buy out the areas circled in red.

The sooner we can focus this discussion on issues such as these, the sooner we will solve our flooding problems. Polluting the discussion with antagonizing, racial rhetoric will only delay solutions and drive off more good people like Russ Poppe. Poppe’s only “sin” was that he was appointed in 2016, a year when Republicans controlled Commissioner’s Court. So, he became an easy target, like so many other department heads before him. 

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Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/24/2021

1396 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.