United by Disaster, Divided by Recovery

Ironically, Hurricane Harvey united us in disaster and divided us during recovery. Perhaps that is the storm’s most lasting insult.

United by Disaster

1,714 days ago, Hurricane Harvey ravaged Harris and surrounding counties. The storm dropped the greatest rainfall in the history of the North American continent. It flooded 154,000 homes in Harris County and destroyed 300,000 vehicles.

In the months that followed, HCFCD organized meetings in each watershed to gather input from residents on what it would take to reduce flood risk in their neighborhoods. At the meetings, HCFCD also discussed what professionals thought it would take. Out of that dialog came a project list with a hefty $5 billion price tag.

Despite the price, exactly one year after Harvey, voters approved a historic flood bond by 86%! People came together and recognized the need to address flooding to ensure the future of their homes, businesses, and communities.

I contacted Matt Zeve, then the Deputy Executive Director of the Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD), immediately after the vote tally to congratulate him on the outcome. He was already hard at work on projects. Within seconds, I received this response.

“We are ready to deliver for everyone in Harris County.”

Matt Zeve, Former Deputy Executive Director of HCFCD after passage of bond, 8/25/2018

It was a rare moment of unity. Then the backbiting started as factions jockeying for a greater share of funding.

Soon, Russ Poppe, HCFCD’s executive director, and Zeve would be hounded from office, despite their contributions in architecting the bond.

Divided by Recovery

Since passage of the bond, a contentious recovery process – driven by partisan politics – has divided us.

Initially, questions centered around which projects HCFCD would implement first. After promising to fix the “worst first” (but never defining what “worst” meant). The three Democratic members of Commissioners Court pushed through an “Equity Prioritization Framework.”

The framework prioritized projects in watersheds with a high Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) and high percentage of Low-to-Moderate Income (LMI) residents. Said another way, they defined the “worst” flooding as flooding that affected LMI neighborhoods. This is not necessarily where the deepest flooding, the most frequent flooding or the most damaged homes are.

Since then, the three Democrats recommended changing the framework several times. For example:

Population and SVI now account for almost half of a project’s score regardless of other merits such as damage reduction.

Despite promises that all projects in the flood bond would eventually be completed, Commissioners Ellis and Garcia have also voted to cancel projects that voters approved. For instance, they tried to defund $191 million of flood-mitigation projects in Cedar Bayou and transfer the money to Garcia’s new Precinct 2.

Garcia has also suggested fixing 500-year flooding in LMI neighborhoods before more frequent flooding elsewhere. Together with other changes to the equity formula, that could mean certain projects in outlying neighborhoods never get built for lack of enough money.

Now the mostly Democrat-appointed Community Flood Resilience Task Force has recommended more changes to the formula. They include cherry-picking certain flood-risk reduction investments for a proposed Flood Mitigation Benefit Index. The apples-to-oranges comparison would make it look as though some watersheds were underfunded compared to others.

Who Would Favor Another Bond at this Point?

The new changes would apply to the flood resilience trust as well as any future flood bonds which do NOT have defined project lists approved by voters. Thus, a majority of commissioners could move dollars freely to the projects of their choice.

Throughout the constant changing of priorities, Commissioners Ellis and Garcia have sent signals that the amount of money in the bond isn’t enough to fix our flooding problems. Without mentioning any specific projects, defining costs, estimating benefits, or promising how the money would be spent, they have suggested they want another $50 to $60 billion from voters.

That’s a pretty big ask before we know what the first $5 billion has achieved – or even where the most frequent flooding occurs.

Democratic commissions say all the money to date has gone to affluent watersheds and LMI watersheds have received none. But people in neighborhoods like Kingwood can see the money going to LMI watersheds. This has created a “confusion” disaster that undermines trust in government – perhaps the biggest disaster of all.

Funding since 2000 in all 23 Harris County watersheds through end of 2021.

Net: everyone believes they are getting nothing from the first flood bond. So, why would they vote for a second?

Ultimately, the partisan dialog now dividing us could make everyone in the county more vulnerable to the next big flood. This is part of the reason why disasters repeat themselves.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/9/22

1714 Days since Hurricane Harvey