Tag Archive for: Dollars flow to damage

Six Low-Income Watersheds Receive More Funding than 15 Higher Income Watersheds Combined

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

Some people and their representatives in low-to-moderate-income (LMI) watersheds have complained that they get “no” flood-mitigation funding and that the money is all going to richer watersheds. Allegedly, that’s because home values are higher there and thus favor higher benefit/cost ratios (a sort of systemic racial discrimination). But is that true? Do higher home values in a neighborhood really translate into “projects funded”? No. The allegation ignores many other factors that enter into funding, such as damage and population density. Density is two to three times higher in low-income neighborhoods and that influences damage totals. When you look at funding outcomes as opposed to a sliver of the mitigation process, low-income neighborhoods get far more money. Here’s how it breaks down.

Where Money is Really Going

Recently, I obtained flood-mitigation funding data for every watershed in Harris County via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. It sheds new light on this subject.

In addition to the quartile comparisons I did in earlier posts, I also compared the top quartile (six watersheds) to the rest with one exception in each group noted in previous posts and the footnote below.* The data showed that six watersheds with the highest percentages of LMI residents (meaning low income) have received 56.8% of HCFCD spending out of the 21 remaining watersheds since 2000.

Harris County Flood Control District data obtained via FOIA request.

A second pattern also clearly emerged from the data. Long before “equity” guidelines were put in place, HCFCD spending closely tracked flood damage. It still does. And the most damage occurred in lower-income watersheds.

In this post, I will examine both trends by looking at six watersheds with the highest percentages of LMI residents. They include Brays, Greens, Sims, Halls, Hunting and White Oak Bayous. 

As a group, they:

  • Comprise 30.9% of the square miles in the county
  • Received 56.8% of total spending – $1.52 billion of the $2.6 billion spent by HCFCD since 2000.

That’s more than 15 higher income watersheds combined.

Dollars Flow to Damage

But if you stopped there, you could conclude that these six watersheds were getting more than 2-3X their fair share of funding. However, also consider that they had 144,754 out of the 222,739 structures damaged in Harris County during Allison, Tax Day, Memorial Day and Harvey floods.

One thing is certain: these six watersheds have not been at the “back of the bus.” They received more than $1.5 billion out of $2.6 billion invested by HCFCD since 2000. 

The data DISPROVES discrimination on an income or racial basis. Money is not going disproportionately to rich neighborhoods. Far from it. It’s going disproportionately to poor and minority neighborhoods. However, that is also where the most flood damage occurred. Let’s take a closer look at each of the six low-income watersheds.

Brays Bayou:
  • Received 19% of total spending since 2000, but represents just 6% of the county’s area.
  • Received more than half a billion dollars since 2000, the most of any watershed, and about one-fifth of all flood-mitigation spending in 23 watersheds in 21 years.
  • Received the second most funding since Harvey ($130,685,844.43).
  • Got 4 times the average and 7 times the median of flood-mitigation funding for all watersheds.

It certainly seems like an outsized injection of flood-mitigation funds. But the improvements also protect some major infrastructure and employment centers including the Texas Medical Center. See this photo essay taken from the air.

Also consider that Brays had the most damage in four major storms (Allison, Tax Day, Memorial Day, Harvey) – 32,194 structures flooded. 

Brays has the fifth highest percentage of low-to-moderate income residents (58%).

HCFCD construction is on-going in this watershed.

Greens Bayou:

Commissioners Ellis and Garcia often cite Greens Bayou as a “back-of-the-bus” watershed. They also say, that if the County doesn’t fix it, “we’ll have blood on our hands.” 

Greens received the 3rd most dollars since 2000 and the 2nd most since Harvey. That’s 11% and 14% of all HCFCD spending respectively during those two time periods. Only in Harris County politics can you call second place out of 23 “back of the bus.” 

But Greens also had the second most damage in four major storms (28,815 structures). 

Greens Bayou has the sixth highest percentage of LMI residents in the county (57%).

HCFCD construction is also on-going in this watershed.

Halls Bayou:

Mr. Ellis and Mr. Garcia also consider Halls Bayou funding to be “back of the bus.” It comprises only about 2.4% of the county but received almost 5% of total spending since 2000. It also received:

  • The fourth most funding per capita ($841.77)
  • The third most funding per square mile ($3,031,912)
  • The eighth most funding since 2000 ($128 million).

Residents still believe they received “nothing,” but I photographed eight large detention ponds recently completed or under construction. Four are right next to US 59.

Halls has the highest percentage of LMI residents (71%) in Harris County.

HCFCD construction is on-going in this watershed.

Sims Bayou:

Sims Bayou runs through the southern part of the county. It:

  • Ranks as the 8th largest watershed.
  • Received the 6th most funding since 2000 ($165,013,368)
  • Has the 7th largest population (310,537)
  • Has the 5th highest population density (3755 per sq. mi.)
  • Had the 6th most damage (18,122 structures)

Sounds proportional and it is. 

However, these calculations do not include $254 million, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent on Sims between 1990 and 2015 (by itself) for a major flood-reduction project. The Corps’ contribution to Sims Bayou alone was almost 10% of all HCFCD spending since 2000 ($2.68 billion).

If you add the Federal contribution to HCFCD’s funding, Sims would have ranked second on the list of flood-mitigation dollars received since 2000. Only Brays received more.

Sims has the third highest percentage of LMI residents (65%).

Hunting Bayou

Hunting Bayou is one of the county’s smaller watersheds. It comprises 31 square miles or 1.7% of the county’s land mass. That ranks it as the 19th largest bayou out of 23. And it has the 14th largest population (78,213). Yet, since 2000, it has:

  • Had the seventh most damage (15,728 structures)
  • Received the third most dollars per capita since 2000 ($952.18)
  • Received the fourth most dollars per square mile ($2,402,908)

Hunting Bayou has the second highest percentage of LMI residents (69%).

HCFCD construction is on-going in this watershed.

White Oak

White Oak Bayou is the sixth largest watershed in Harris County. Yet it received 13% of the flood-mitigation funding since 2000 – $349 million, the second highest total of any watershed. It also ranked second in dollars received per square mile – $3.14 million.

But also consider that it had the third highest number of damaged structures – 24,989 in Allison, Tax Day, Memorial Day and Harvey floods combined.

51% of the residents in White Oak qualify as low-to-moderate income. 

HCFCD construction is on-going in this watershed.

Damage-to-Dollar Rankings

“Damaged structures” and funding received had the highest correlation of any relationship I tested. For math majors, the coefficient was .86. That’s high. A perfect correlation would be 1.0. For the less technically inclined, see the table below.

Contrary to the “rich-watersheds-get-all-the-money” narrative, flood-mitigation funding, data shows that HCFCD is putting the most money in the hardest hit watersheds.Dollars flow to damage.

Many projects in these lower income watersheds are still under construction or preparing for it. And major storms have not yet tested many recently constructed improvements. Regardless, their residents are safer than they otherwise would be. And they can take some comfort in knowing that the system is working for them, not against them. 

For more information, see: 

Posted by Bob Rehak, based on information compiled from a FOIA request and Federal Briefings

1394 days since Harvey 

*Omits Vince Bayou in low-income group because it is entirely within the City of Pasadena, which has responsibility for it. Includes White Oak Bayou instead. Also omits Little Cypress, which has a very small population and is an experiment by HCFCD in preventing future flooding.

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.