Flood-Mitigation Funding Flows to Damage, Not High-Income Neighborhoods

Last in an eight part series on flood-mitigation funding in Harris County

For two years, Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis and Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia have alleged that rich watersheds get all the flood-mitigation funding, while poor and minority watersheds get none. But data suggests that is far from the truth.

Three months ago, the din from Ellis and Garcia reached a crescendo. I became so alarmed about the allegations of racism in flood-mitigation funding, that I submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request to Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) for historical funding data by watershed. I also requested related data such as watershed size, damaged structures, the number of low-to-moderate-income (LMI) residents, and more.

Data Contradicts Ellis/Garcia Narrative

My analysis contradicted the carefully crafted Ellis/Garcia narrative. I found the exact opposite of what they claimed.

The most dollars flow to low-income watersheds which, coincidentally, have the most flood damage.

The strongest correlation I found with flood-mitigation “funding” since 2000 was “damaged structures.” And the percentage of low-to-moderate income residents in a neighborhood correlates very strongly to damage per square mile.

When you think about this, it makes sense. We put the most flood-control dollars in areas that flood the most.

Damage Per-Square Mile Correlates Highly with LMI %

To understand patterns in the data, one must start by evaluating damage “per square mile.” That’s because high- and low-income watersheds differ radically in size and number.

  • Harris County has only eight low-to-moderate income watersheds, but 15-high income watersheds.
  • The low-income watersheds are half the total size – 600 square miles vs. 1176 square miles.

When looking at damage on a per square mile basis, the highest concentrations occur in low-income neighborhoods.

LMI percentage and damaged structures per square mile have a 0.82 coefficient of correlation. Mathematicians consider that very strong. 1.0 is the highest you can get, a perfect correlation.

Damage includes structures flooded in four major storms since 2000 (Allison, Tax Day, Memorial Day and Harvey).

Low-income watersheds cluster on the left and high-income watersheds on the right because of “Damage,” not racial discrimination in mitigation funding. Mitigation dollars already overwhelming flow to minority and low-income neighborhoods as they have for decades.

Flood-Control Dollars Flow to Damage

There’s also a strong relationship between total funding and total damage. Notice how the shape of the curves align closely with a few exceptions.

Total funding since 2000 and the number of damaged structures show a 0.84 coefficient of correlation. Mathematicians consider that very strong.

You can see a general downward trend in both blue and orange, indicating a strong correlation. This relationship supports other statistical analyses in this series. (See links to previous articles listed below.)

At the highest level, when you look at the data from multiple perspectives, one thing stands out: 

Dollars flow to damage, not affluent watersheds.

Possible Causal Links Between LMI Percentage, Damage and Funding

Touring lower income watersheds by car or helicopter helps explain why those watersheds have so much more damage and consequently receive so much more funding. In general, they:

  • Are much more densely packed with buildings, a consequence of more than twice the population density (3,900 residents/square mile compared to 1,600).
  • Have more impervious cover, so water can’t soak in as quickly or as much
  • Tend to crowd floodways and floodplains, which have expanded over time with upstream development
  • Are downstream from rapidly growing areas.
  • Are 70 to 80 years old and therefore built to lower development standards
  • Have many homes that sit almost at street level instead of being elevated above it.
  • Have many clogged roadside ditches and storm drains, due to poor maintenance by county precinct crews and the City of Houston’s Public Works Department. (Water has a hard time getting out of neighborhoods.)
  • Have more structures per acre.

Re: the last point, in Kashmere Gardens (an LMI neighborhood), I found six homes on a third of an acre worth more than my house on a full acre in Kingwood. The density can offset higher home values in suburban neighborhoods when calculating Benefit/Cost Ratios for FEMA or HUD.

Flood-Mitigation Funding by Watershed Since 2000

Here’s how much money each watershed received for capital improvement projects since 2000. No maintenance dollars or dollars committed to complete projects are included – only dollars “out the door” as of the end of March 2021.

The graph above dramatizes two things: 

  • The wide variation from high to low. Luce Bayou received only $4.5 million while Brays received $510 million. That’s 113 to 1.
  • few watersheds received multiples of the average and median, while far more received a small fraction.

Funding Data Disproves Racist Allegations

Remember that the next time you hear the allegations of racial discrimination from Ellis and Garcia. This discussion shouldn’t be about race. It should be about fixing flooding problems.

The government is not funding flood-control projects in rich areas that didn’t experience flood damage. It funds them in areas that had the MOST damage. Those just happen to be in minority and low-income neighborhoods. And it is critical that people focus on WHY those structures flooded if we are to find solutions. 

Implying that they flooded because of racial bias is misdirection. The racial allegations divide and distract people. They also keep HCFCD, from focusing on real solutions to our flooding problems. That harms all voters in Harris County.

If commissioners continue to focus on race, it will prove they care more about political gamesmanship than fixing drainage.

While that may win them re-election, we all lose.

For More Information

For more information, see: 

Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/28/2021

1399 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.