Harris County Community Services Department (CSD) has finally shared a high-level summary of how it would spend $750 million in Hurricane Harvey Flood Mitigation Funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The plan, called a Method of Delivery (MOD), was submitted to the Texas General Land Office (GLO) in December for preliminary approval, but returned to the county in January for tweaks to make it HUD-compliant.
CSD’s presentation is informational; the Department is not yet seeking approval from Commissioner’s Court. But this will be the public’s first peak at CSD’s direction.
While the presentation predictably emphasizes support for low-to-moderate income and socially vulnerable groups, it also contains some surprises. For instance, it mentions supporting activist groups, but fails to mention protecting bridges, hospitals and schools.
George P. Bush, former GLO Commissioner, requested a $750 million allocation for Harris County from HUD in May of 2021. HUD formally approved that amount in March of 2022. But Harris County Commissioner’s Court didn’t approve the grant agreement until August 31, 2022. And CSD didn’t submit its plan to the GLO for review until late December 2022.
The CSD plan reflects both HUD’s mission and the requirements spelled out in the State’s Action Plan. However, the GLO required CSD to make some tweaks to the initial plan to make it HUD compliant. During the tweaking process, Commissioners replaced CSD Director Dr. Adrienne Holloway with a new Interim Director, Thao Costis, the department’s SIXTH leader under County Judge Lina Hidalgo in four years. Costis previously led a non-profit group in Houston that provided services to homeless people.
The Department claims it conducted ample data analysis and public input on the MOD. It says constituents lobbied for prioritizing “(1) low- and moderate-income population, (2) social vulnerability, (3) total population, and (4) National Flood Insurance Program repetitive loss properties.”
However, the presentation does not specify whether:
- Repetitive losses will be weighed against previous mitigation investments. Will an area that once had high repetitive losses, but which already received hundreds of millions of mitigation dollars, still be prioritized over other areas that have received no flood-mitigation money?
- Severity of flooding will be considered. Will one inch of flooding in a low-income home count for more than ten feet of flooding in a middle-income home?
- Threats to infrastructure will be addressed. For instance, the loss of interstate highway bridges, hospitals and schools.
There’s no measure of “current risk,” nothing that addresses “threats to life,” and nothing that balances impacts to the community vs. impacts to individuals…at least in the summary that CSD is now sharing.
Plagued by “Vague”
CSD claims it prioritizes flood control and drainage improvements, natural or green infrastructure, water and sewer facilities, provision of generators, buyouts, and planning activities. I say “claims” because CSD did not provide a list of projects with the presentation. Nor did it provide a matrix for scoring projects.
However, CSD did allude to the April 2020 Harris County Multi-Hazard Mitigation Action Plan which contained 834 action items. As of August 13, 2022, the County reported 9% of those completed.
The CSD presentation also referenced 2018-Flood-Bond Projects. But it’s not clear at this time if a potential project list goes beyond Hazard-Mitigation-Action-Plan Projects and Flood-Bond Projects … or even if there is a list. Nor does the presentation hint at which Haz Mit and Bond Projects would be included.
Finally, the summary makes no mention of any effort to ensure transparency and accountability. The public deserves to know where its money goes!
CSD says it would administer the $750 million grant and work with Harris County Flood Control District to “reduce flood risk and increase resiliency to future natural disasters for Harris County’s nearly 5 million residents.”
But we still don’t know who will get how much for what. Nor do we know what the expected benefits will be.
Though only Harris County and the Flood Control District are eligible to receive HUD’s $750 million, CSD states it will partner with other entities, including cities, within Harris County, that have “shovel-ready” flood mitigation projects. “Additionally, Harris County could sign [emphasis added] a Memorandum of Understanding with the Flood Control District to increase the amount of funding devoted to the 2018 Flood Control Bond,” says CSD. In other words, the County might send some of its share to HCFCD. But there’s no guarantee.
CSD’s current agreement with GLO requires expending all grant funds by August 2027. But CSD says it will request a 3-year extension.
Splitting $750 Million
The CSD presentation shows that Harris County Flood Control will get only $326.25 million from the $750 million. The rest will go to Harris County. Out of the other $423.75 million, the county plans to spend $97.5 million on administration and planning. That would leave both Flood Control and Harris County with $326.25 million for actual mitigation work.
Word on the street in the engineering community is that the Harris County Engineer’s Office will handle the County’s portion of the money. Adrian Garcia appointees lead the Engineering Department and that would help Garcia influence where the money goes.
Inconsistencies, Typos Raise Questions
CSD’s presentation boils over with contradictions and typos that don’t speak well for “attention to detail” in a grant where $750 million is at stake. For instance, the plan says:
- Projects will help the county’s entire population, but it prioritizes projects in low- and moderate-income, socially vulnerable areas.
- CSD needs a 3-year extension … for shovel-ready projects.
- The County will partner with other entities within Harris County, but cities and towns get $0.
I can’t wait to hear the explanations…especially how the money will help neighborhoods outside the Beltway given inside-the-Beltway priorities.
Nor can I wait to hear whether the cities in Harris County rebel against a plan that seemingly guarantees them nothing.
The presentation literally underscores CSD’s priorities:
“Once the MOD is approved by GLO, Harris County MOD entities reserve the right to partner with local governmental entities and special districts in the county to perform eligible projects, including but not limited to cities and Flood Control District. Harris County may also partner with local non-profit agency [sic] regarding public service activities that support mitigation and resiliency, particularly in areas were [sic] drainage or other mitigation activities are affecting low-to-moderate income households [sic] stability.”
Yikes! Three typos in one sentence!
This presentation only informs Commissioner’s Court and the Public about the grant’s status. CSD will not ask for approval of any projects on Tuesday. That will come later. The next steps include:
- Public comments
- Determining how to partner with other entities (Still, after almost 2 years)
- Preparation of final MOD that incorporates public comments and responses
- Approval of final MOD by County Commissioners (2/21/23)
- GLO review and approval (March/April)
- After GLO approval:
- “Call for information of projects” (whatever that is)
- Submit project packets to Commissioners Court
- Submit project packets to GLO
- Start projects (Fall 2023) six years after Hurricane Harvey!
It’s item 381 on the agenda.
Commissioner’s Court begins at 10AM on Tuesday. If you wish to make a public comment, here’s how to sign up to speak.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/28/2023
1978 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.