HCFCD Flood-Mitigation Spending Down for Third Straight Year

Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) flood-mitigation spending finished down for the third year in a row last year. Spending for all four quarters totaled $243.1 million, a little more than half of its peak in 2020.

Spending for 2023 was 56% of its 20-year peak in 2020 at $433 million. Here are the exact amounts spent by HCFCD year by year since 2000.

Possible Reasons for Slowdown

HCFCD flood-mitigation spending increased each quarter last year, but the total wasn’t enough to prevent another annual decline.

HCFCD watchers have conjectured about possible reasons for the slowdown. They include:

Bond Fully Funded, But Inflation Taking Toll

Despite the slowdown, there was some very good news last year. During 2023, thanks to those HUD funds, the 2018 flood bond became fully funded.

The original bond contained approximately $5 billion in projects. But voters approved only $2.5 billion. The ambitious project list associated with the bond contained a bet that HCFCD could raise as much money from partners as it did from voters. And last year, the District did just that. Partner commitments now exceed another $2.5 billion.

Now, HCFCD must spend the money before inflation steals it away. Inflation has already reduced the purchasing power of bond funds by 15-20% in the last four years. Twenty percent of a $5 billion, is another billion that the grant writers must raise just to stay even.

Where is Money Going? Will There Be Enough to Finish All Projects?

That raises two questions, “Where is the money going?” It certainly isn’t going proportionally to all watersheds or precincts.

The four graphs and tables below show where the flood-bond money and partner money has gone since Harvey and during the last quarter.

County-wide projects include such things as planning, MAAPnext, subdivision drainage projects and preliminary planning for flood tunnels (see Z-level projects at end of list).

Q3 2017 through end of 2023.

Note that “Since Harvey” includes a year’s worth of spending not in the flood bond. Voters passed the bond on the first anniversary of Harvey. The District spent $172 million during that year. So the actual amount of bond/partner funds spent to date should total a bit over $1.8 billion.

Q4 2023 Spending Shows Shifts in Some Spending Priorities

Compare those figures with the last quarter of 2023 to see how priorities have or haven’t changed.

By comparing this bar chart with the one immediately above, we can see that relative spending in the San Jacinto watershed has remained consistent if dismal. The county’s largest watershed ranked 14th since Harvey and 13th last quarter.

Other noteworthy observations:

Brays Bayou spending dropped to fourth place from its perennial spot atop the pyramid. Most projects in Project Brays are now completed.

Willow Creek dropped from eighth place to last.

Sims Bayou jumped from 12th place to 6th.

Spending in the Little Cypress Creek watershed jumped to first place from fifth…even outpacing county-wide spending. That may be related to engineering for several large land purchases made earlier in the bond for the Harris County Frontier Program. The Frontier Program buys land in optimal locations in developing watersheds for flood-mitigation projects, such as detention basins. Then it leases capacity back to developers.

Fourteen watersheds received less than a million dollars in spending last quarter.

Based on data obtained via FOIA Request

And four watersheds of Harris County’s 23 watersheds received less than $100,000 last quarter.

The difference in spending between the high and low watersheds last quarter was more than 500 to 1!

I need more time to dig into these numbers. Look for additional analysis in the days to come.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/22/2024

2337 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.

GLO Announces Bolivar Beach Restoration Project to Protect Highway

On 12/13/23, Texas General Land Office (GLO) Commissioner Dawn Buckingham, M.D. announced the approval of Coastal Erosion Planning & Response Act (CEPRA) funding for a Bolivar Peninsula Beach and Dune Restoration project.

The beach-restoration project seeks to:

  • Restore additional essential beach and dune systems
  • Provide crucial protection for Highway 87, Bolivar Peninsula’s only hurricane evacuation route

According to the GLO, the CEPRA funds – initially aimed at an engineering study – will provide both economic and coastal resilience benefits.

Part of SH 87 Already Washed Away

Highway 87 once had a stretch between Sea Rim State Park and High Island that washed out repeatedly over the decades. TXDoT closed it permanently in 1990. Today, eastbound SH 87 stops at High Island. Evacuees must then turn north on SH 124 toward I-10.

The stretch being protected provides the only remaining land-based evacuation route for the 2,800 residents of the Bolivar Peninsula. Seventeen people died there on September 13, 2008, during Hurricane Ike.

The scope of this project: to develop focused beach nourishment engineering design specifications for a U.S. Army Corps permit. Beach nourishment will alleviate tidal impacts threatening SH 87’s eastern terminus on Bolivar Peninsula near High Island.

Satellite Image Sequence Shows Severity of Shoreline Erosion

This series of Google Earth images shows how shoreline erosion now has waves lapping at the shoulder of the highway in this area.

State Highway 87 near High Island in 1974. Note dunes between highway and broad beach.
Same area immediately after Ike. Note erosion of beach and deposition inland from SH87.
Same area in 2023. Note continued erosion of beach toward highway.
Enlargement of nearby stretch shows high tide lapping at riprap which maintenance crews are replenishing (2023).

The beach nourishment engineering design specifications under this project are focused on an approximately four miles of the Bolivar Gulf-facing shoreline beginning at the Galveston-Chambers County line and extending west toward Gilchrist. This is where tides come closest to Hwy. 87 on a recurring basis.

Improving Resilience

“Ultimate benefits from this beach nourishment design work would include protection of the peninsula’s only hurricane evacuation route,” said a GLO spokesperson.

The CEPRA Program helps communities across the Texas coast implement erosion response projects and related studies to understand and reduce coastal erosion as it threatens public beaches, natural resources, coastal development, public infrastructure, and public and private property. 

The Bolivar Peninsula Special Utility District, Bolivar Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, Galveston County Road Administrator Lee Crowder, Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, and Galveston County Precinct 2 Commissioner Joe Giusti played pivotal roles in securing this funding.

Nature-Based Solutions Help Protect People and Wildlife

Commissioner Buckingham said, “As a Texan who grew up near the coast and lived on Galveston Island for more than a decade, preserving our state’s precious shorelines and their communities is a top priority.”

FEMA has found that such nature-based solutions increase quality of life for both humans and wildlife. And make no mistake. This is an important wintering and nesting area for many species of wildfowl that depend on the wetlands in this area.

Snow geese flocking near High Island in December 2008, shortly after Ike.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/1/24

2316 Days since Hurricane Harvey

HCFCD Grappling with Inflation’s Impact on Flood-Bond Purchasing Power

Inflation has reduced the 2018 Flood Bond’s purchasing power. The general rate of inflation during the last five years adds up to 20%. That could potentially eliminate one fifth of the projects in the flood bond.

It’s a serious concern for the people whose mitigation projects have been put at the end of the line by the County’s Equity Prioritization Framework. Some residents may never see any benefit from their tax dollars, which are going to other areas.

Here’s how Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) will look at projects that now have an uncertain future.

Local Costs Consistent with General Rate of Inflation

In a presentation to the Harris County Community Flood Resilience Task Force, Jesal Shah PE, the new Chief Project Delivery Officer for HCFCD, discussed the issue of inflation. Shah, a Houston native, has been in his job since May, 2023. He previously led flood-risk reduction planning, design, engineering, and construction efforts for the government of British Columbia.

Shah cited 15-20% increases in construction, material, and right-of-way acquisition costs for Harris County flood-mitigation projects.

This and other screen captures below are from Shah’s presentation to Flood Task Force on 12/14/23.

Summary of 2018 Flood-Bond Funding To Date

The 2018 flood bond contained $2.5 billion in funding for approximately $5 billion worth of projects. Partnership funding, i.e., grants, were supposed to make up the difference.

And at this point, all of the partnership funding has been secured thanks to an infusion of $825 million in Community Development Block Grant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Texas General Land Office (GLO).

“Anticipated” should now be removed from this slide.

That’s very good news.

63% of Bonds Sold Already

Shah says that the County has sold $1.575 billion worth of bonds to date, almost two thirds of the original $2.5 billion.

Of the two thirds, about half the money has been spent or “encumbered.” Encumbered means the money is committed to projects and difficult to move. For instance, a project may be in construction, but not yet completed.

The other half has been committed to projects, but not yet encumbered. For instance, bonds may have been sold, but the construction job may not have been awarded yet.

See below.

Securing the partner funding is huge good news. But the impact of inflation is worrisome. To help deal with that, the County is re-evaluating all projects associated with the flood bond.

How Projects are Being Re-evaluated

Shah cited three types of projects listed in the original bond. Those with:

  • Well defined scope and accurate estimates.
  • Clear scope but inaccurate estimates. For instance, the Lauder basin has almost tripled its original cost estimate.
  • Vague scope and unreliable estimates.

See examples below.

To complicate matters, some backstop funding from the Flood Resilience Trust is no longer available because of new “guidance” from Commissioners Court. That will eliminate $343 million in funding flexibility.

And keep this in mind. The bond program is far from complete. We could easily see another 15-20% of inflation before its over. So what to do?

Sharpening the Pencil

Shah’s team is dividing the remaining bond projects into two piles.

  • Those with clear scope and funding will be completed.
  • Those without clear scope or funding will be re-evaluated.

Shah hopes to present an updated project list to Commissioners Court sometime during the second quarter of 2024.

Shah has already taken a first pass at re-evaluating the bond’s project list. Of the 181 projects identified in the bond:

  • 30 have already been completed or eliminated.
  • 63 will continue moving forward.
  • 88 (almost half) will need more funding or more clarity (i.e., more engineering studies/tighter estimates) to move forward.

The slide below shows the guiding principles for evaluating the 88 projects that need more funding or clarity.

Lack of Balance Could Jeopardize Future Bond Offerings

One possible way to mitigate the toll of inflation involves phasing projects in areas that have already received large amounts of funding so that projects in areas that received little funding could move forward.

For instance, in a project that involves multiple stormwater detention basins, one or more of the basins could be delayed until the next bond. Meanwhile, delaying that basin could free up money for a basin in a different watershed.

However, during Q&A, Shah said he has no plans to phase projects.

A lack of equitable distribution could jeopardize future bond offerings.

And many areas have received little funding from this bond.

More than a 100 to 1 difference exists between projects on the left and right.

In the future, voters who saw no benefit from the 2018 flood bond might, once again, feel victimized by bait-and-switch tactics.

Selling future bonds will require restoring faith in the fairness of government. And that will require spreading bond funds around so that everyone – in all parts of the county – sees some benefit from them. That’s my humble opinion.

When HCFCD presents its updated project list to Commissioners Court in the second quarter of 2024, it will be interesting to see whether Commissioners and the County Judge agree with it.

John Whitmire’s landslide election in the Houston Mayor’s race may send a message to them. Whitmire is a Democrat who campaigned across the aisle and received heavy Republican support.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/16/2023

2300 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Remember Flooding? Vote for Whitmire.

This is a week for good news and bad. Yesterday, we locked in another $50 million for the Lake Houston Gates Project. But one of the key people who helped us secure that funding is himself locked in a runoff election for City of Houston Mayor. And turnout so far has been abysmally low.

Whitmire Helped Secure $50 Million for Gates from State

More about the good news first. Yesterday, the Texas Water Development Board officially confirmed a $50 million grant to help build additional floodgates on the Lake Houston Dam. That will clear the way for final design, approvals and construction.

State Senator John Whitmire, candidate for City of Houston Mayor, helped secure that money. According to Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin, who has shepherded the gates project since Hurricane Harvey, Whitmire reportedly talked several reluctant senators into supporting the grant. Whitmire has been in the Texas Senate for 40 years and sits on the Finance Committee.

So Whitmire already has some skin invested in the gates project. If elected Mayor, he could provide necessary consistency for the project as it moves forward during the next four years.

Martin also reminded me that future FEMA grants for Lake Houston will depend on a maintenance dredging program. So, we need a mayor who can work with the state legislature to help secure future dredging grants. And Whitmire has relationships with all the key players in Austin.

Turnout Abysmally Low

Now, for more on the bad news. Turnout in the Houston runoff election so far has been “sluggish” according to the Houston Chronicle.

I personally would call it “somewhere south of abysmal.” Only 131,887 people in a City with roughly 1.75 million adults voted early. So, less than 10% of Houston adults have voted so far in what could be the most consequential election of this generation!

Why Mayor is Crucial

After Harvey, the Lake Houston Area Task Force identified more gates for Lake Houston as one of the three most crucial projects to reduce flooding in the area. In case you’re new here, this is what the San Jacinto West Fork looked like during Harvey.

Looking south toward Humble along US59. Water here was more than 20 feet above flood stage, the highest in Harris County and knocked out the southbound bridge for almost a year.

The flood affected 16,000 homes and 3,300 businesses in the Lake Houston area. That included 44% of all the businesses in the Lake Houston Chamber and 100% of all the businesses in Kingwood Town Center, which still hasn’t fully recovered. At the time, many people said, “If it happens again, I’m leaving.” That said…

It will likely take four years to complete the gates – the entire term of the next mayor. We need a mayor who will remain committed to the project.

The Mayor has the power to prioritize the project…or not.

Only Whitmire Has Made Flooding an Issue

In that regard, Whitmire is the only candidate who made flooding a central element of his campaign.

This election could determine the future direction of our community and the City for decades to come.

Four 500-Year Storms in Eight Years

And lest you think a 500-year flood only happens once every 500 years, I would remind you that four hit this area in the last eight years: Tax Day, Memorial Day, Harvey, and Imelda.

We Have Power to Swing This Election

Now for the final piece of good news. So few people are voting throughout the City that Kingwood has the power to swing this election on Saturday.

Only 8,381 people have voted so far at the Kingwood Community Center – in a community of more than 70,000 people. While that’s one of the highest totals in the county, it still leaves the citywide outcome in doubt.

So please vote. Get your neighbors to vote. And get your neighbors to get their neighbors to vote. Etc.

When I voted early, I got to the polling place and back before my screen saver kicked in. It took less than 20 minutes round trip. With so much at stake, there’s just no excuse not to vote.

Voting Times, Places, Ballots, Etc.

Remember, races for several council positions and city controller remain open. View your sample ballot here.

Polls will open at 7AM and close at 7PM.

Vote at any of these locations.

For more voting information, visit HarrisVotes.com.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/8/2023

2292 Days since Hurricane Harvey

TWDB to Consider $50 Million Grant for Lake Houston Gates

Save the date. On December 7, 2023, the Texas Water Development Board will consider a $50 million grant to the City of Houston for structural improvements to the Lake Houston Dam. The improvements will extend the life of the dam and enable rapid lowering of lake levels in advance of a flood.

The project, led by outgoing Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin and Chief Recovery Officer Stephen Costello, will benefit thousands of residential properties in the surrounding area.

Make sure the next mayor supports it. Get out and vote. Better yet, take your neighbors with you!

Background

The $50 million grant will complement funds from other sources including FEMA. The addition of new tainter gates will enable Lake Houston to shed water faster before and during storms, reducing the risk of flooding.

Until now, pre-releasing water has been risky. The old gates on the Lake Houston dam can release only 10,000 cubic feet per second. As a result, to significantly lower the lake, releases must start far in advance of a storm. But storms can veer away during that extended time. That increases the chances that the City could waste water.

After several years of study, the City has found that the optimal option would be to add tainter gates to the eastern, earthen portion of the dam. But the cost increased significantly compared to the crest gates initially favored.

Proposed location for new tainter gates
Proposed location for new tainter gates.

Earlier this year, the Legislature set aside more funds for the new tainter gates and specifically directed the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) to provide those funds. The TWDB’s executive administrator has recommended authorizing the funds. The Board just needs to approve them.

TWDB Board Meeting In Houston

The TWDB board will consider the approval at a rare Houston meeting at the Harris County Flood Control District in early December.

Date/Time:
Thursday, December 07, 2023; 9:30 AM
Location:
In person at 7522 Prairie Oak Drive
Michael Talbott Pavilion, Harris County Flood Control District Service Center
Houston, TX 77086

To view the webinar online, you must register for details.

Visitors who wish to address the Board should complete a visitor registration card and attend the meeting in person. The Texas Open Meetings Act prohibits visitor participation by telephone only. The visitor registration card is available and should be completed and submitted by e-mail to Customer Service no later than 8:00 a.m. on December 7, 2023, or in person at the registration desk.

Here is the full agenda. The $50 million grant for more gates is #14. Here is the backup information.

New, higher capacity gates were one of the three primary recommendations made by the Lake Houston Area Task Force after Harvey to mitigate flooding in the area. If all goes according to plan, construction could start in mid-2026, according to Costello.

Will Next Houston Mayor Support the Project?

Large infrastructure projects like this depend on unwavering political support. Completion of this project could take until the NEXT mayoral election. In the meantime, make sure we elect a mayor who will support the Gates Project until then. Keep it moving forward.

In that regard, John Whitmire has already demonstrated his support. If you haven’t yet voted, make sure you do. Take your neighbors, too. And then walk around your block and knock on some doors. Keeping this project will depend on turnout in the current runoff election.

So far, Acres Homes has had eight times more early voters than Huffman. And fewer than 4,000 people have voted in Kingwood.

As of 12/1/2023 according to Harris Votes.

The last day for early voting is December 5th. Polls are open from 7 am to 7 pm except for Sunday when they open at noon. Your last chance to vote is on Election Day, December 9th. For complete election information, visit Harris Votes.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/1/2023

2285 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Four Dems Take No Action to Honor Pre-Election Bond Promise

On Tuesday, 10/31/23, Harris County Commissioner’s court took no action on a request from Commissioner Tom Ramsey PE to abide by a pre-election promise to voters re: the 2022 Road and Parks Bonds. Ramsey could not even find a second for his motion on Agenda Item #418, which would guarantee the promised minimum of $220 million for Precinct 3.

During debate on the topic:

  • Only one of the four Democrats on Commissioners Court agreed with the idea that “we need to deliver on what we say.”
  • One confused the 2022 road and parks bond for the 2018 flood bond.
  • Two claimed they had already spent their allocation; so they couldn’t re-allocate the money even if they wanted to (which they didn’t).
  • One claimed “everybody” lost track of $110 million.
  • Two claimed that allocating the money to poor areas was more important than an equal split or honoring promises.
Screen capture from 10/31/2023 Commissioners Court Meeting at start of debate on Item #418.

When they talked about allocations to poor areas, they did not mention the percentage of county-maintained parks or roads in their precincts. Nor did they take into account the percentage of their precincts inside incorporated areas, such as the City of Houston. Municipalities are already responsible for maintaining roads and parks within their boundaries.

Bait-and-Switch Tactics

BEFORE the 2022 election, commissioners voted to allocate a minimum $220 million from the 2022 Road and Parks Bonds to each precinct. The county then trumpeted that promise in:

  • Pre-election publicity
  • Postings on county websites
  • Speeches and handouts at community meetings.

Voters approved the bonds on the basis of that promise.

Then, in January 2023. shortly AFTER the election, the Democrats on commissioners court broke that promise. They voted to adopt a different formula that resulted in drastically less money than promised for Precinct 3, the only Republican-led precinct remaining in Harris County.

Precinct 3 received $187.5 million – $32.5 million less than promised.

Meanwhile, the Democrats voted to award themselves far more than Ramsey’s Precinct 3 which contains the highest percentage of unincorporated areas in the county.

PrecinctMinimum Promised 
Before Election
Allocated 
After Election
Difference% of Allocated $
One$220 million$269 million$49 million MORE27%
Two$220 million$293 million$73 million MORE30%
Three$220 million$188 million$32 million LESS19%
Four$220 million$239 million$19 million MORE24%
Promised vs. Actual funding from 2022 Road & Parks Bonds

The FTC calls this “bait-and-switch” advertising. It’s illegal. In a commercial context, intentionally advertising a product or service with the intent to lure customers in, only to then provide a different, less desirable offering is considered a deceptive trade practice and fraudulent. The FTC often forces companies caught in bait-and-switch schemes to refund money.

Ironically, had Precinct 3 voters realized the bait and switch, they could have defeated the bonds.

Was There Intent to Break the Promise?

In my opinion, it would be easy to prove intent in this case. Before the election, Commissioners Ellis and Garcia talked for months about how they wanted to apply so-called “equity” and “social vulnerability” factors to the distribution of proposed bond funds…without identifying projects or nailing down a formula.

Then on August 2, 2022, they relented and consented to a $220 million per precinct minimum. After voters approved the bonds and Lina Hidalgo won re-election, the Democrats changed the deal back. We got exactly what Ellis and Garcia argued for all along – an SVI-based formula that radically skewed the distribution of bond funds.

So, in the end, after redistricting (which packed more roads and parks into Precinct 3 than any other precinct), and after an election in which voters were deceived…

Precinct 3 gets 19% of the funding, yet has 47% of the County’s roads and 35% of its parks to maintain.

Some would say Democrats planned that all along.

What Democrats Said During Debate on Ramsey Motion

Precinct 4 Commissioner Leslie Briones

The newly elected Briones, a lawyer by trade, was not part of the pre-election promises. She said, “I agree fundamentally that we need to deliver on what we say and need to be transparent in doing so.” However, she later added that rectifying such situations is important … on a ‘go forward’ basis.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia

Garcia said, “In terms of Precinct 2, I’ll say that our projects have already been lit. So we’re already, you know, our funding is already committed. We got our project partnership commitments already out. And so the funding is already allocated and you know … I absolutely love leveraging equity. Otherwise I wouldn’t have the 30%, uh, the precinct to, uh, needs it because we’re down to the downstream side of five counties, not just Harris County. Um, and but I am open to seeing if there’s another way of, of getting there, because flooding is flooding regardless of its downstream side or wherever. But right now, of the allocation that I’ve got, my guys have already let that out the door. Yeah.”

Commissioner Garcia evidently confused the 2022 Road and Parks Bonds being discussed with the 2018 Flood Bond.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Ellis said, “Yeah, we’ve already committed our funds as well. And I would say that I’m strongly committed to SVI.” SVI means the CDC’s race-based Social Vulnerability Index as a means of allocating dollars.

County Judge Hidalgo

Judge Lina Hidalgo argued that the $220 million promise was based on faulty math. She said, “We hadn’t thought about … there’s overhead costs of $110 million. And I think that just literally nobody thought about it.”

Hidalgo narrowly won a hotly contested re-election bid on the same ballot as the bond, based in part on her assertion that she represented ALL the people of the county.

Could You Really Spend $562 Million in 10 Months?

With all of the County’s purchasing procedures, could you really spend (or at least commit) $562 million in ten months? That’s the total of Ellis’ and Garcia’s split.

Democrats didn’t approve the SVI-based allocation formula until earlier this year. Then you would have to study projects, rank them, advertise the projects, review qualifications of potential bidders, bid the projects, pick a winner, acquire right of way, sell bonds, and mobilize the projects.

That can take years. For instance, the Northpark Drive expansion project in Kingwood began in 2015 and won’t finish for another 2 or 3 years. And two miles of Loop 494 renovations have taken 4.5 years.

And, perhaps more important, how do you just forget about $110 million in overhead costs? I couldn’t follow the Budget Director’s attempted explanation on that one! Forgetting about $110 million in the private sector would get most people fired.

Think about these issues as you go to the polls and vote on new bond projects next Tuesday.

To see the entire Commissioners Court debate on Item #418, start at 2:30:21 into the video of Departments Part II of IV. The discussion lasts 20 minutes.

In the end, Ramsey, the only Republican, couldn’t even get a second for his motion, so the court took no action.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/4/2023

2258 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Right a Wrong – Fix Bait-and-Switch Bond Allocation

Item 418 on today’s Commissioners Court Agenda reads, “Request by the Commissioner of Precinct 3 [Tom Ramsey, PE] for discussion and possible action on the allocation of the Harris County 2022 Road and Park Bonds.” What’s that about?

Before the election, Commissioners court voted to allocate a minimum of $220 million to each precinct. The County then trumpeted that on its website AND at community meetings. But shortly after the election, that all changed. (See photos, screen captures below.)

Now, according to the formula adopted by Commissioners, Precinct 3 gets $32 million less than the minimum – while other precincts get up to $70 million more.

Yet Precinct 3 has 47% of the county’s roads and 35% of its parks to maintain. 

But forget about fairness; the FTC calls this “bait and switch.” 

In a commercial context, promising something you don’t deliver is fraudulent.

I expected better of the county’s highest elected officials.

Please Commissioners, deliver what you promised. Vote to right this wrong today.

$220 million minimum guarantee
Handout at pre-election Bond Meeting at Humble Civic Center
The $222 million promise
The County’s $222 million promise, still evident on 2/2/23 before the vote to change the promise.
Minium $220 million
Screen capture from County’s bond website, before the switcheroo.
Allocation today.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/31/2023

2254 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.

FEMA Adopts New Formula for Disaster Funding

Below I’m reprinting verbatim a press release from FEMA dated 98/6/23. It’s about a new formula for disaster funding. And it creates “Disaster Resilience Zones” that will receive increased federal support. Caution: government euphemisms ahead, including:

  • “Underserved communities most at risk”
  • “Socioeconomic status”
  • “Social vulnerability”  
  • “Social justice”
  • “Economic justice”
  • “Disadvantaged communities”

The press release does not mention “damage” or “threats to life” at all. See my editorial comment at the end of this post.


FEMA Press Release

WASHINGTON – Today, FEMA is announcing the initial designation of 483 census tracts that will be eligible for increased federal support to become more resilient to natural hazards and extreme weather worsened by the climate crisis. Congress directed FEMA to make these designations in the Community Disaster Resilience Zones Act of 2022 and implement this bipartisan legislation to help build resilience to natural hazards in communities most at-risk due to climate change. 

Designated Disaster Resilience Zones in Houston Area

FEMA will use Community Disaster Resilience Zones designations to direct and manage financial and technical assistance for resilience projects. For example, for federal agencies, the legislation provides additional federal cost-share for projects in designated zones. The zone designations can also help the private sector, nonprofits, philanthropies, and other non-federal partners target investments in community resilience. 

The act aims to increase resilience efforts and preventative measures designed to address underserved communities most at risk to natural hazards. Consistent with legislative direction, FEMA considered natural hazard risk from a national and state level while accounting for factors that reflect disaster impacts felt by coastal, inland, urban, suburban and rural communities. FEMA also ensured that each state has at least one Community Disaster Resilience Zone in these initial designations.

“These designations will help ensure that the most at-risk communities are able to build resilience against natural hazards and extreme weather events, which are becoming increasingly intense and frequent due to climate change,” said FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell. “This aligns with Congress’ direction and other FEMA initiatives to get federal support and resources to the communities that need them most.”

This initial set of designations covers all 50 states and the District of Columbia. These designations can be explored on an interactive map on FEMA’s website. Additional information on the designation methodology and criteria is available. More Community Disaster Resilience Zone designations, including tribal lands and territories, are expected to be announced in the fall of 2023.

An additional designation of zones will occur in 12-18 months based on updates to the National Risk Index, lessons learned from these initial designations, and stakeholder input. Examples of planned updates to the National Risk Index include additional data on tsunami and riverine flood risk.

This new law amends the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Recovery and Emergency Act to direct use of a natural hazard risk assessment index, like FEMA’s National Risk Index, to identify communities which are most at risk of the effects of natural hazards and climate change. For these designations, this methodology uses a tailored version of the National Risk Index that includes socioeconomic status, household characteristics, house type and transportation themes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index

The designation methodology also advances the Biden-Harris Administration’s whole-of-government commitment to environmental justice by incorporating the White House Council on Environmental Quality’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, which identifies disadvantaged communities that are underserved and overburdened by pollution and climate risk.

Designated zones will have prioritized access to federal funding for resilience and mitigation projects. For example, this fall, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will make awards for the Climate-Smart Communities Initiative program funded by the Inflation Reduction Act to accelerate the pace and reduce the cost of climate resilience-building for communities across the United States. NOAA will work with communities to co-develop equitable climate resilience plans that can be readied for funding and implementation. The priority is to assist communities that are at the highest risk to climate impacts and have the most need for assistance, such as the FEMA-identified Community Disaster Resilience Zones.

The vision for the Community Disaster Resilience Zone Act, passed with bipartisan support in December 2022, is to leverage collaboration and cross-sector coordination across all levels of government, philanthropic foundations, private non-profits, universities, the insurance industry and private businesses. 

FEMA will continue to engage the public as it refines the natural hazard risk assessment methodology to designate the zones, consults with local jurisdictions and implements post-designation support from a range of public and private resources.


Editorial Comment

Notice that the press release doesn’t mention damage at all. This appears to be much like Harris County’s Equity Prioritization Framework. We saw last weekend how that distorted the distribution of flood-mitigation funds. Let’s hope that by creating “resilience zones,” we don’t also deprive other areas of the help they desperately need.

At US59, Harvey reached more than 20 feet above flood stage, the deepest in Harris County. Almost a quarter of all the flood fatalities in the county happened near here.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/17/23

2240 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Third-Quarter Flood-Mitigation Spending Trends, Surprises

Third quarter flood-mitigation spending data is now available for Harris County Flood Control District and its partners. In some ways, the data shows a continuation of previous trends. But the data also contained some surprises. The major findings:

  • Spending continued to dip. Slower project delivery means inflation will claim an increasingly large percentage of taxpayer dollars and may force cancellation of some bond projects.
  • If the last quarter of this year is anything like the first three, we could see less than half the activity in 2023 than we saw in 2020.
  • The trend toward investing more heavily in minority areas continued and even accelerated. But there was one notable exception – Cypress Creek and its tributaries.
  • An unusual $9.7 million real-estate transaction for a stormwater detention basin near the Mercer Arboretum skewed the Cypress Creek total. That was 16.5% of all HCFCD spending for the quarter.
  • Without it, many of the numbers below would also have been skewed. For instance, total spending and average spending per watershed would vary dramatically.
  • The focus on so-called “equity” spending and the Cypress Creek watershed meant 15 watersheds saw less than a million dollars in activity during the quarter. And five of those received less than $100,000.

Let’s look at each and the implications. Everything below INCLUDES the unusual real estate transaction near Mercer. In several places, I note how things would have changed without Mercer.

Overall, Slowdown Magnifies Inflation Concerns

Overall, flood-mitigation spending dipped about 5% in the third quarter compared to the previous quarter. It declined by a little more than $3 million to $58.8 million. That may not sound like much, but it continues a 3-year downward trend and creates delays that expose residents to more flood risk.

As projects are delayed, their costs also escalate due to inflation, raising concerns about whether there will be enough money in the bond to finish all the projects promised to voters.

Spending this year will likely be a hundred million dollars less than the first full year of the 2018 flood bond – when projects were ramping up. See chart below.

Annualized estimate for 2023. 23Q4 data estimated based on average of first 3 quarters. Without Mercer, the 2023 estimate would be below $200 million.

Moreover, spending will be $200 million less than the peak year of 2020 – about half of what it was then.

Halfway through the 2018 10-year flood bond, HCFCD has spent only about a third of the funds approved by voters – $1.65 billion. However, if the present slowdown continues, this will be the third straight year of decline.

The slowdown in project delivery means inflation will increasingly raise costs and undermine the purchasing power of the dollars authorized by voters.

HCFCD acknowledges the serious impact of inflation in its latest bond update to Commissioners Court, and hopes toll-road money remaining in the Flood Resilience Trust will cover any shortfall.

Average Spending in LMI Areas Growing

Data also reveals that with one exception (Cypress Creek and its tributaries), the trend of preferentially allocating funds to Low-to-Moderate-Income (LMI) areas continued and even accelerated when measured by average spending per watershed.

On average during Q3, watersheds with a majority of LMI residents (hereinafter called “LMI watersheds”) received 2.5X more funding than more affluent watersheds – $3.1 million each vs. $1.2 million. That’s up from 1.7X over the longer period since Harvey. So, the gap is widening.

Without the Mercer real-estate transaction, the average for more affluent watersheds would have been cut in half to $600,000. That would have almost doubled the ratio. The recomputed average would created a 4.7X ratio between LMI and all other watersheds for the third quarter.

That trend will likely continue for some time as projects funded by HUD through the Texas General Land Office get approved and start construction. That pot of money will spread across the income spectrum, but projects in lower income areas will likely start first.

Cypress Creek Spending Explodes

In fifteen Harris County watersheds, more than 50% of residents make above the average income for the region.

As a group, those 15 received $18.6 million last quarter – $2 million more than the $16.6 million received by the eight LMI watersheds.

However, the first group is twice the size of the second. And looking deeper within the more affluent watersheds, we can see that Cypress Creek and its tributaries (Willow and Little Cypress) received 79% of that $18.6 million last quarter.

The three Cypress watersheds received almost 4X more funding than the 12 other watersheds in the more affluent category put together.

Cypress Creek and its tributaries consumed 79% of all HCFCD/Partner spending last quarter among watersheds without a majority of LMI residents.

Here’s how that same spending looks in a bar graph.

Only the first three watersheds on the left received more than a million dollars in Q3. The twelve on right received less than $1 million each.

The 12 other watersheds divvied up $3.8 million; they averaged just $348 thousand each.

FOIA request. Data supplied by HCFCD.

$348,000 is one ninth of the $3.1 million average for LMI watersheds. And we know that some of those, such as the San Jacinto, have huge, unmet needs.

Cypress Knocks Brays Out of First Place

Now, let’s look at ALL watersheds in both categories. When looking only at the third quarter, Cypress Creek surged into first place. It nudged out Greens, White Oak, Brays and Sims, all of which have LMI populations greater than 50%.

HCFCD and Partner spending by watershed
Includes all 23 watersheds during 23Q3.

HCFCD finished Project Brays 15 months ago, but still managed to spend $3.8 million there last quarter. That was almost 10X more than it spent during the third quarter in the San Jacinto watershed, the county’s largest, and where the flooding was deepest. HCFCD spent only $400 thousand in the entire San Jacinto watershed last quarter.

worst first
Comparison of 33 gages in Harris County during Harvey showed San Jacinto had worst flooding.

Brays Still Ranks #1 in Total Spending Since Harvey

Since Hurricane Harvey (not just last quarter), Brays still ranks #1. But Cypress now ranks second. If you added its Little Cypress and Willow Creek tributaries in the graph below to the Cypress Creek total, they would rank #1 by more than a $100 million.

Includes all 23 watersheds since Harvey

Brays even managed to increase in the last quarter by $1.5 million while the San Jacinto decreased by $55,000.

Granted, some watersheds have smaller needs than others, but the ratio between the highest and lowest spending exceeds 300X.

Impact of Equity Formula

The spending priorities shown in this post reflect the Equity formula adopted and periodically revised by Harris County Commissioners Court.

Ironically, the language approved by voters in the flood bond never mentions the word “equity.” Paragraph 14G does say that Commissioners Court shall provide for an “equitable expenditure of funds.”

However, most dictionaries define “equitable” as “nondiscriminatory.” Yet the current formula prioritizes projects largely on the racial composition of neighborhoods as described in the CDC’s social vulnerability index.

The theory is that poor people are financially less able to fix their homes after a flood. I accept that.

But some commissioners are using that to push the idea of fixing 500-year flooding in poor neighborhoods before fixing 2-year flooding in more affluent communities.

Therefore, I ask:

  • At what point do we do we say enough money has gone into an LMI watershed and start spending elsewhere to reduce greater flood risk?
  • Why isn’t HCFCD publishing updated flood risk maps as it completes mitigation projects so we can make objective comparisons and see what our tax dollars bought?
  • Why does Harris County’s formula for allocating flood-mitigation funds NOT consider:
    • Flood damage to homes, businesses and retirement communities?
    • Damage to infrastructure, such as bridges, schools, hospitals, grocery stores, traffic arteries, water and sewage treatment plants, etc.?
    • Height of floodwaters, i.e., the severity of flooding?
    • Deaths caused by floods?
  • Is a poor person’s carpet worth more than a rich person’s life?
  • Will there be enough money in the flood bond and flood resilience trust to finish all projects in the bond given inflation?

So many questions. So few answers. Perhaps this explains why trust in government has reached a 70-year low.

Only 20% of Americans now say they trust government “just about always or most of the time.” That’s something to think about as we near the next election.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/15/23 and updated 10/16/23 with additional info on Cypress Creek

2238 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.

For Better Flood Mitigation, Let’s Dig a Little Deeper

When I say “dig a little deeper” to improve flood mitigation, I’m speaking metaphorically, of course.

On September 17, 2023, Jim Blackburn, a lawyer and professor of environmental law in the Rice University engineering department, published an article in the Houston Chronicle. He titled it, “What Houston’s next mayor needs to do about flooding.”

Both Prof. Blackburn and the Chronicle labeled the article “opinion.” That’s fortunate because in some areas, Blackburn made assertions contradicted by facts. In most other areas, he made high-level recommendations without any specifics.

For example, among other things, Prof. Blackburn argues that Houston’s next mayor should:

  1. Build more mitigation projects for Halls and Greens Bayou Watersheds, which he says haven’t received their fair share.
  2. Address climate change with better planning and engineering tools.
  3. Speed up buyouts.

Let’s examine each and why we all need to dig a little deeper if we want to improve flood mitigation.

Halls and Greens Bayou Watersheds

Both Halls and Greens watersheds HAVE received mitigation projects. Many. And more than their fair share. You can see it in spending data and on the ground. However, Harris County Flood Control District has delivered the projects, not the City of Houston. 

HCFCD and its partners have spent more than $390 million on Greens and Halls mitigation improvements since 2000. Greens has received more dollars than any other watershed except Brays (where Rice is). And tiny Halls ranks third in dollars per capita among all watersheds.

Professor Blackburn and his graduate students need to dig a little deeper. They should get out more and smell the construction dust. For example, here is a new Halls Bayou detention basin, one of many built in the watershed during the last 10 years

New Halls bayou detention pond
New Halls Bayou Detention Basin west of Keith Weiss Park, photographed in March 2022.

Then, there’s this new detention basin along Greens Bayou at Cutten Road under construction in 2021. Again, it’s one of at least a half dozen built in the last ten years along Greens.

Cutten basin
One portion of the massive Cutten Road stormwater detention basin on Greens Bayou

I compile flood-mitigation funding by watershed through quarterly FOIA requests. I also cross-check the data by photographing construction from the air.

Photos such as those above support the spending reported below. However, neither the photos nor the spending data fit the current, popular political narrative about “historical disinvestment” in low-income minority neighborhoods.

Includes both Harris County and partner dollars

Of the top five watersheds above, four have a majority of low-to-moderate income residents; only Cypress Creek does not. Those five watersheds have received 60% of all funding going back to 2000, compared to 40% for the other 18 watersheds put together.

From high to low in the graph above, spending varies by 130X. Such data shows that many watersheds have been historically deprived – in the name of “equity.” But those deprived tend to be on the more affluent end of the spectrum.

Address Climate Change with Better Planning and Engineering Tools

Next, Professor Blackburn wants to address climate change with better planning and engineering tools. It’s hard to see what more the next Mayor of Houston could do in this regard. 

Professor Blackburn asserts that we need to “understand our changed rainfall patterns and integrate that knowledge into every aspect of the City’s thinking.” 

Since Harvey, the City has already adopted NOAA’s new Atlas-14 rainfall-probability statistics and incorporated them into its regulations. So, design professionals are already working on new, updated assumptions.

Plus, NOAA is currently working on Atlas 15 which predicts future impacts of climate change. But NOAA won’t release those stats until 2027 at the earliest – after the next mayoral election.

Professor Blackburn, a reputed expert, doesn’t define how climate is changing, but asserts that professionals should consider the changing patterns. He believes they should engineer “streets, sewage treatment plants, underground and above-ground stormwater systems, floodplains and general drainage flow patterns” with the unspecified climate patterns in mind.

It’s hard to argue against progress. But the real issue, in my opinion, is that leaders in many surrounding cities and counties have not yet uniformly adopted NOAA’s Atlas 14 standards. Perhaps the next Mayor could jawbone them into sending less water downstream

The Mayor could also discourage large increases in impervious cover under proposed programs such as the Houston Planning Commission’s so-called Livable Places. Livable Places would disproportionately increase flood risk for low-income and minority neighborhoods because of the program’s linkage to mass transit.

Speed Up Buyouts

Blackburn believes that buyouts should happen faster after a flood – before people rebuild. Most people agree that the process needs streamlining. But how?  

Experts have proposed multiple improvements. However, none has gained traction across the board with local, State, and Federal lawmakers. 

For instance, after Harvey, Harris County Flood Control executives pitched plans in Austin for a QBF (Quick Buyout Force). Instead of waiting for:

  • The President to declare a disaster
  • Congress to vote funds
  • FEMA to design rules for disaster relief
  • The State to adopt them
  • Local agencies to identify eligible recipients and solicit applications
  • Local, State and Federal authorities to review and approve the applications, and 
  • Money to flow through the pipeline…

…HCFCD argued for pre-approval of guidelines and to have a pot of funds available before disaster strikes, kind of like a savings account for a rainy day. Money could then be used immediately. Local agencies would later reimburse the Federal government for money they didn’t use.

Houston’s next Mayor could throw his/her influence behind such a plan or a suitable alternative.

Unfortunately, Prof. Blackburn doesn’t recommend a plan. Nor does he dissect each issue and give us the benefit of his wisdom. With all the brainpower and resources at his disposal, he could make a genuine contribution to the community. Perhaps his future opinion pieces will elucidate how we should improve beyond simply preparing for the future. 

Collectively, we all need to dig a little deeper to improve flood mitigation. We need to start with facts and get down to specifics.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 9/27/2023

2220 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.