Tag Archive for: FEMA

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!


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.

Thursday, December 07, 2023; 9:30 AM
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

FEMA’s Swift Current Program Attempts to Speed Up Disaster Recovery Assistance

FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance Division is attempting to speed up disaster relief with its Swift Current program. The goal is to shorten the disaster/repair cycle for repetitively flooded or substantially damaged properties.

According to a FEMA press release, “Swift Current strives to better align the delivery of flood mitigation funding with the disaster survivor experience. Swift Current seeks to speed up the availability of flood mitigation funding to disaster survivors.”

Rather than rely on annual grant cycles, Swift Current makes money available immediately from a pool of $3.5 billion under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. This is the second of several rounds of assistance.

The application period for this round opened on Nov. 15, 2023 and will close on Jan. 15, 2025. The funding opportunity is available on Grants.gov.

Eligibility Criteria

For Fiscal Year 2023, Swift Current Flood Mitigation Assistance will offer $300 million after flood disasters for eligible individual flood mitigation projects. Eligible projects include:

  • Repetitively flooded or substantially damaged properties…
  • Insured by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)…
  • Following a flood-related disaster event.

Local government agencies must apply for grants first; individuals will be considered sub-applicants and must apply through the local government agency.

You or your local government relief agency can use grants to:

  • Acquire property, demolish structures and relocate residents
  • Elevate structures
  • Dry flood-proof historic residential structures or non-residential structures
  • Retrofit existing structures and facilities
  • Mitigate reconstruction

Applicants will meet eligibility criteria if they have received a major disaster declaration for a flood-related disaster event between June 1, 2023 – May 31, 2024. Flood-related disaster events include coastal storms, hurricanes, remnants of hurricanes, and floods. Additionally, one of the following criteria must be met:

  • The state has at least $1 million in prior National Flood Insurance Program claims from June 1, 2022 to disasters declared before May 31, 2024.
  • The state has 500 or more National Flood Insurance Program claims in a declared flood-related disaster event from June 1, 2022 to May 31, 2024.

75% – 100% Federal Cost Share

Swift Current funds for individual flood-mitigation projects fall into several different categories:

  • Repetitive Loss
  • Severe Repetitive Loss
  • Substantially Damaged
  • Socially Vulnerable

See below. The federal match varies depending on the category.

For a higher resolution PDF, see FEMA PDF here.

Application Information

All eligible applicants must submit their FY 2023 Swift Current grant applications to FEMA via Mitigation eGrants. Upon Swift Current activation, the application deadline date will be provided to the applicant. All applications must be received by the deadline.

Local governments should consult with their state, tribal, or territorial agency to confirm deadline to submit subapplications for consideration.

For more information about the program and how to apply, visit FEMA’s Swift Current Page.

This program is sorely needed and highly welcome. I know people whose homes have not yet been repaired from Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/24/23 with thanks to Congressman Dan Crenshaw

2278 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Northpark South Starts Clearing Wetlands, Floodplain

Colorado-based Century Land Holdings of Texas, LLC has started clearing land for Northpark South in Porter along the West Fork of the San Jacinto River at the west end of Northpark Drive.

Documents from the Houston Planning Commission, USGS, and FEMA; eyewitness accounts from nearby residents and flood professionals; and aerial photos indicate:

  • Most of the area is in floodplains defined decades ago and not updated since.
  • The entire area – and then some – went underwater during Harvey.
  • The entrance to the property near Northpark Drive and Sorters-McClellan Road sits in a bowl that rescue trucks could not get through during Harvey. That would make evacuation difficult in the event of another large flood.
  • Wetlands dot the property.
  • Abandoned sand mines may pose safety threats.

The same developer just completed a sister development called Northpark Woods across a drainage channel from this one. But so far, the gutsy developer has avoided any consequences for its risky gamble thanks in large part to a multi-year drought and interminable delays at FEMA releasing the new post-Harvey flood maps.

All Underwater During Harvey

Eyewitness accounts and damage reports indicate that Harvey floodwaters stretched about a third of a mile east of Sorters-McClellan to Northpark and Kingwood Place Drive. That’s on the high side of Sorters-McClellan; the new development will be on the low side.

Floodwaters in this area stopped at about 83 feet above sea level. However, the entrance to the new subdivision is at 75 feet, according to the USGS National Map. That means the water was an estimated 8 feet deep at the entrance.

One long-time resident in the area said, “The intersection of Sorters and Northpark sits in a bowl. It was not passable by Montgomery County Precinct 4 constables in an Army deuce and a half [used for high-water rescue]. Water from the river came right up past that intersection and continued up Northpark to just past the intersection of Kingwood Place Dr.”

Also on the high side of Sorters-McClellan, six of nine buildings at nearby Kingwood College flooded during Harvey. Restoration cost: $60 million!

And then there’s Tammy Gunnels‘ former home a quarter mile south of the new development. It flooded 13 times in 11 years and had to be bought out by Montgomery County and FEMA.

Documents obtained from the Houston Planning Commission indicate that RG Miller is the engineer of record for Northpark South.

Bordering River and Sand Mines

During Harvey, 160,000 cubic feet per second rampaged down the West Fork behind this property.

Looking west past Sorters-McClellan Road toward what will become Northpark South. Note clearing starting in the middle in what used to be wetlands (see below).
From the National Wetlands Inventory. Dark green area on right corresponds to cleared area above.
Looking NW. Intersection of Northpark and Sorters-McClellan in lower left. Another subdivision called Northpark Woods by the same developer is in the upper right. West Fork San Jacinto and sand mines at top of frame.

Here’s what they hope to build on this property.

General plan submitted to Houston Planning Commission in 2021.

Current Floodplains Will Soon Expand

Most of the property already sits in floodway or floodplains. But the FEMA map below has not yet been updated to reflect new knowledge gained as a result of Memorial Day, Tax Day, Harvey and Imelda floods.

In fact, the 2014 date on the map below is misleading. It reflects an update of the base map, but the data that determines the extent of floodplains has not been updated since the 1980s, according to an expert familiar with Montgomery County flood maps.

From FEMA’s National Flood Hazard Layer Viewer.

FEMA and Harris County Flood Control have warned people that when new “post-Harvey” flood maps are released in the next year or two, floodplains will expand 50-100%. The floodway (striped area above) will likely expand into the 100-year floodplain (aqua). In turn, the 100-year will expand into the 500-year (tan). And the 500-year floodplain will extend past any of the colored areas.

That’s consistent with eyewitness accounts. And that could potentially put the entire property in floodplains.

Taking Advantage of Map-Update Window

The developer seems to be taking advantage of a window between post-Harvey flood surveys and release of the new maps.

I’m sure the developer’s lawyers would argue that they are complying with all current, applicable laws. But an ethical question arises. Will the new development expose unsuspecting homebuyers to greater-than-expected risk?

If so, why aren’t officials pushing to update maps and floodplain regs faster?

Could some officials be prioritizing economic development now over public safety later?

Certainly not all are. But many flood professionals worry about that.

Next to 5-Square Miles of Sand Mines

The new development sits next to the largest sand-mining complex on the San Jacinto West Fork. Sand mines in this area occupy almost five square miles. However, not all the mines are active. But they still show signs of heavy sediment pollution.

Looking E toward Sorters-McClellan from over West Fork. Northpark South is at top of frame beyond the sand pits.
The operator of this mine decided not to fish its equipment out when they abandoned the site.
More colors than Crayola. No telling what’s growing in these ponds.

Will routing drainage from Northpark South through these sand mines pose a safety risk for people downstream?

Will it be safe for kids to play or fish near these steep-sided pits?

Floodplain Development Called New Form of Redlining

This is an example of why the population of Texas floodplains is greater than the populations of 30 entire states. Yep. Thirty entire states have populations smaller than that of Texas floodplains.

One former floodplain administrator, who requested to remain anonymous, characterized these types of developments as a new form of redlining.

More than a few floodplain and wetland developers target minorities who may not fully understand the flood risk.

Owner financing often accompanies floodplain developments. Such financing can bypass many flood-risk detection procedures that accompany traditional bank financing.

Then, when floods come, the people who can least afford to repair homes suffer the most and longest. Neighborhoods decay faster. And that makes it harder for people to recover their investments.

Years later, the public is left holding the bag. We are asked to fund expensive flood-mitigation projects that would not be necessary had the developer built in a safer area.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/11/2023

2265 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 Publishes Nature-Based Solution Guides, Advice

FEMA has published two flood-mitigation guides on nature-based solutions showing how communities can develop projects with multiple benefits.

Both are titled “Building Community Resilience with Nature-Based Solutions.” But one focuses on “Strategies for Success.” The other focuses on “A Guide for Local Communities.” Together, they build a case for integrating green and gray solutions to improve resilience.

While geared toward policy makers, planners and flood-mitigation professionals, they will also help community leaders, activists, students and anyone interested in weaving green solutions into flood mitigation, whether on the watershed, community or household level.

These are not technical guides. They focus on high-level benefits and are packed with helpful examples and case studies. The writing is clear, compelling and easy to understand.

“Strategies for Success” Summarized

Strategies for Success is organized around five major themes.

  • Building strong partnerships
  • Engaging the whole community
  • Matching project size with desired goals and benefits.
  • Maximizing benefits.
  • Designing for the future.

If you wonder what the term “nature-based solutions” includes, see pages 17-22. They complement gray (engineered) solutions in many ways in many environments.

At the watershed scale, they can include:

  • Land conservation
  • Greenways
  • Wetland restoration and protection
  • Stormwater parks
  • Floodplain restoration
  • Fire management
  • Bike trails
  • Setback levees
  • Habitate management

At the neighborhood or site scale, they include:

  • Rain gardens
  • Vegetated swales
  • Green roofs
  • Rainwater harvesting
  • Permeable pavement
  • Tree canopy
  • Tree trenches
  • Green streets
  • Urban greenspace

In coastal areas, they include:

  • Wetlands
  • Oyster reefs
  • Dunes
  • Waterfront parks
  • Living shorelines
  • Coral reef
  • Sand trapping

The section about maximizing benefits will help leaders sell such projects to their communities. It contains helpful tips that improve value and case studies that dramatize it.

The guides also come with links to additional resources.

“Guide for Local Communities” Summarized

This guide begins by reprising many of the same solutions mentioned above. Then it quickly moves into three main sections:

Building the business case for nature-based solutions summaries their potential cost savings and non-monetary benefits. They include:

  • Hazard mitigation benefits in a variety of situations/locations
  • Community co-benefits, such as ecosystem services, economic benefits, and social benefits
  • Community cost savings, such as avoided flood losses, reduced stormwater management costs, reduced drinking water treatment costs.

Planning and Policy Making covers:

  • Land-use planning
  • Hazard mitigation planning
  • Stormwater management
  • Transportation planning
  • Open-space planning

Implementation includes:

  • Boosting public investment
  • Financing through grants and low interest loans
  • How to incentivize private investment
  • Federal funding opportunities

Key takeaways include:

Communities that invest in nature-based approaches can save money, lives, and property in the long-term AND improve quality of life in the short term. Other key takeaways are:

  1. The biggest selling point for nature-based solutions is the many ways they can improve a community’s quality of life and make it more attractive to new residents and businesses.
  2. Diverse partners must collaborate.
  3. Scaling up will require communities to align public and private investments.
  4. Many types of grant programs can be leveraged for funding.

I’ll add one more: It’s easier to build these into communities as they are developing rather than retrofit them after the fact.

Local Examples

Regardless, the right combination of green solutions can make a valuable supplement to flood mitigation in every community.

The 5,000 acre Lake Houston Park provides recreational amenities and flood protection to surrounding areas.

Many great examples of a nature-based solutions surround us locally. Look at Lake Houston Park; Kingwood and The Woodlands which have greenbelts and bike trails along creeks; the Spring Creek Greenway; and the Bayou Land Conservancy’s Arrowwood Preserve.

Recreational asset and flood-mitigation project.

Parks like Kingwood’s East End make more great examples. East End preserves wetlands, accommodates tens of thousands of visitors each year, and provides valuable habitat for wildlife.

Interested in getting more projects like this started near you? As a starting point, please share these brochures with leaders in your community. And support local groups seeking to preserve green spaces such as the Bayou Land Conservancy.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/23/23

2046 Days since Hurricane Harvey

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

Building-Code Pushback that Makes Disasters Worse

On 2/28/23, I attended an excellent online FEMA seminar about building codes. It was a two-part presentation. Part One discussed how higher building codes can reduce damages from flooding. Part Two discussed building-code pushback. For example, despite all the flood damage in Texas, the State hasn’t updated its building codes since 2012 – even though the International Building Code and International Resilience Code have been updated several times since then.

That raises the question, “Why not?”

Life-Saving Codes

Part One began by talking about how, after every major natural disaster, FEMA sends in building-code experts to examine how structures performed and make recommendations for code changes to reduce future damage. It’s part of a process of continuous improvement that could/should make us all safer. 

Part One ended with one of the most poignant stories I have ever heard. After a Cat 4 Hurricane struck Florida last year, a FEMA team was driving down a street littered with the debris of gutted homes and shattered lives. Mountains of waterlogged drywall, carpeting, furniture and cherished possessions lined both sides of the street waiting to be hauled away…just as it did in Houston after Harvey and Imelda.

Kingwood debris pile after Imelda.

But when the FEMA team got to the end of the street, they saw something that stunned them – a pristine home with nothing out front. It was actually the home on the street closest to the ocean. As they paused to marvel at the miracle, the homeowner drove up. They asked him the logical question, “Did you build above code requirements?” 

“Not really,” said the homeowner. “I just built to what the code required.”

He went on to elaborate how the building inspector was a real stickler. “I thought he just had it in for me because I was a hippie. I really hated the guy.”

“What do you think of him now?” asked the FEMA employees. The homeowner extended his arms and made a bowing motion as if to praise and thank the man who had been such a thorn in his side. 

Billions Saved

FEMA estimates that adoption of hazard-resistant building codes saved $32 billion during the last 20 years and could save another $132 billion by 2040. Not to mention saving a lot of heartbreak and misery.

So why are people so resistant to adopting higher building codes?

Resistance on Many Levels

Part Two of the presentation examined sources of resistance to adopting higher building codes. They used Louisiana’s attempt to increase freeboard factors as an example of the the types of resistance FEMA frequently encounters from various groups.

In engineering, freeboard is is the distance codes require you to build above the current estimated 100-year flood level.

The greater the freeboard, the safer you are.

But still, people found reasons not to increase the freeboard. The second presenter examined seven sources of resistance:

  1. Perceived conflict between statewide minimum codes and local governments that may wish to adopt higher standards.
  2. Uncertainty about where freeboard regulations had and hadn’t been adopted already.
  3. Debate about whether the state or local authorities should establish standards.
  4. Questions about why FEMA isn’t making the regulations at a national level.
  5. Perceived lack of discounts in Risk Rating 2.0 national flood insurance premiums for structures elevated to meet higher freeboard requirements.
  6. Concern about whether fill to elevate homes would make flooding worse.
  7. Confusion over how building code officials and floodplain managers can collaborate.

All are valid concerns. But all can be overcome. Pretty easily, it turns out.

Answers readily exist for each of these issues. For example, with #6 (probably the most valid concern), communities have adopted standards to limit fill in areas where floodwater storage is a major concern.

For the other answers, see the entire presentation. The point I really want to make is about the pushback against proven practices that save lives and property.

Why Resist Changes that Avert Human Suffering?

As I watched the presentation, the image floating through my head was of the NTSB investigating a plane crash that killed hundreds of people. Imagine if the investigation found a defective engine part caused the catastrophe. Do you think manufacturers would resist upgrading the part?

It’s unthinkable. Who would board such an airplane? What aircraft manufacturer would even lobby against the change? The negative publicity would put them out of business. 

But homebuilding and the development business are different. The industry has a million players, not a handful. A few bad actors can escape notice because:

  • The codes are so complex that few understand them.
  • Lobbyists frame discussion as “acceptable risk” vs. “unacceptable costs.”
  • Responsibility is shared among government regulators at many levels, their political masters, and private industry.
  • This creates an atmosphere of plausible deniability when disaster strikes. “We were just following regulations.” (Yeah, but who lobbied against them?) 

Building Codes Like Seat Belts

Some readers may remember the battles to pass and enforce seat belt laws. Even though the federal government required manufacturers to install seat belts in all new cars starting in 1968, only 14% of Americans regularly used them at first. Adoption of state laws mandating usage was spotty. And when a Michigan state rep introduced a bill in the early 1980s that levied a fine for not buckling up, he received hate mail comparing him to Hitler. American’s love their freedom so much, they can even react negatively to efforts to protect them.

It’s the same way with building codes. Even when they provide a greater than 10-to-1 payback and qualify you for a billion dollars in flood-mitigation funding!

If you want to see how appallingly out of date Texas building codes can be, explore these two websites.

Building Code Adoption Tracking Portal
Only six municipalities in all counties shown here have adopted up-to-date building codes.

So when the next disaster strikes, let the finger pointing begin.

No wait! Let’s just get a bailout from FEMA!

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/1/2023

2010 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.

Lake Houston Gates Project Moves Closer to Reality

The Lake Houston Gates Project is moving closer to reality with breakthroughs on the benefit/cost ratio, funding and endorsements.

City of Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin and Chief Recovery Officer Stephen Costello provided updates on 2/27/23 at City Hall on the Lake Houston Gates Project. The wide-ranging, hour-long discussion covered several related topics. They included:

  • A critical path for construction
  • Dredging of the lake
  • Funding for gates and dredging
  • Several related engineering studies
  • A favorable ruling from FEMA on the Benefit-Cost Ratio
  • An endorsement to the area’s legislators by the Greater Houston Partnership.

Need For Gates

For those new to the area, the City of Houston has been pushing to add gates to the Lake Houston Dam ever since Harvey in 2017. Upstream, Lake Conroe’s gates can release 150,000 cubic feet per second (CFS). But Lake Houston’s can only release 10,000 CFS.

The disparity in discharge capacity complicates joint-reservoir-management and pre-release strategies designed to avoid flooding by reducing the water level in Lake Houston.

Lake Houston releases cannot keep up with Lake Conroe’s. And pre-releasing water from Lake Houston takes so long that storms can veer away during the lowering process, often resulting in wasted water. That’s an important consideration for a water-supply lake.

According to Martin and Costello, the gate project will:

• Serve as the first phase of a long-term effort to extend the life of the Dam
• Enable the rapid lowering of lake levels in advance of a flood
• Eliminate the need for a seasonal lowering of both Lake Houston and Lake Conroe
• Provide potential water-rights savings
• Protect an estimated 5,000 residential properties in the surrounding area
• Yield an estimated half billion dollars in economic benefits during the life of the project

Gates, Funding, BCR, Studies

Preliminary engineering studies evaluated about a dozen different alternatives for adding discharge capacity to Lake Houston. The City initially favored adding crest gates to the spillway portion of the dam.

However, the City discarded that idea as “too risky” after further study. The engineering company cautioned the City that it would have a difficult time finding contractors willing to risk modifying a 70-year old concrete dam. The potential liability was just too great. So the City then revisited adding various numbers of tainter gates to the eastern, earthen portion of the dam.

Because tainter gates exceeded FEMA’s funding, the City had initially focused on crest gates. But after investigating the safety issues, the City decided to seek more funding for tainter gates instead.

The City now recommends adding 11 tainter gates.

Recommended location for new tainter gates is next to old ones, not farther east as I conjectured earlier.

The picture below is slightly wider and shows more of how both halves of the dam come together.

If funding comes through, new gates would go in the upper right along the earthen portion of the dam, next to the old gates.
Funding Needs

FEMA initially set aside $50 million for the gates. Plus Harris County committed $20 million in the 2018 Flood Bond to attract FEMA’s match. But the latest construction estimates show eleven tainter gates could cost between $200 and $250 million.

After engineering and environmental studies, only $68.3 million in funding remains. That includes an earmark secured by Congressman Dan Crenshaw. So the City is seeking another $150 million from the State of Texas. Martin and Costello have made weekly trips to Austin so far during this session to line up support from legislators, committee chairs, and the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

Social Benefits Improve Benefit/Cost Ratio

All this is suddenly possible because of a favorable ruling from FEMA on the benefit-cost ratio (BCR).

For years, Houston had struggled to get the BCR for the gate project above 1.0 (the point at which benefits exceed costs). Usually, FEMA strictly interprets benefits as “avoided damages to structures.”

But Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Costello met with FEMA to argue that the problem was much bigger than damaged structures.

As a result, FEMA allowed the City to add the value of “social benefits” to the BCR. Social benefits can include such things as avoiding lost wages when businesses are destroyed; transportation disruptions that reduce the region’s productivity; reducing negative impacts on student achievement when schools are disrupted; and more.

The social-benefit ruling covers a number of City projects, not just the gates. It should also benefit other areas, especially rural ones.

Said Costello, “The minute the social benefits came in, everything was great.” Instead of struggling to reach 1.0, the City is now far above it.

Greater Houston Partnership Endorsement

With that out of the way, the Greater Houston Partnership wrote a powerful letter to state legislators seeking their support for the gate project. See below.

Greater Houston Partnership letter endorsing Lake Houston Gates. For a printable PDF, click here.

The Partnership includes business leaders from 900 member companies in the 12-county Houston Region.

Dredging Update

While pressing ahead with the gates project, the City is also working on a long-term dredging plan for the lake and working with the SJRA on sedimentation and sand-trap pilot projects.

The Texas Water Department Board (TWDB) has estimated sediment inflow to Lake Houston at about 380 acre-feet of material annually.

The lake has already lost more than 20,000 acre feet of capacity due to sedimentation. That worsens flooding. While the Federal Government supports efforts to improve Lake Houston now, the chances of getting more money in the future will be reduced – unless we can show that we’re at least keeping pace with annual sediment deposits.

Since Harvey, FEMA, the Army Corps, TWDB, and City of Houston have removed almost 4 million cubic yards of material from the lake at a cost of $226 million.

We have to prevent more sediment from coming downstream or dredge it after it gets here.

Stephen Costello, City of Houston Chief Recovery Officer

The City is currently lobbying for another $50 million for maintenance dredging to add to the money secured in the last legislative session by now-retired State Representative Dan Huberty. New Representative Charles Cunningham will reportedly now carry that banner forward along with State Senator Brandon Creighton.

Legislative News to Follow

March 10th is the last day to file bills in the Texas Legislature this year. Please visit the legislation page on ReduceFlooding.com for updates once bills are filed and start moving forward in Austin.

Thanks to all of our elected and appointed representatives who have pushed so hard on so many fronts for the last 2008 days to tie all the pieces of this complicated flood-mitigation puzzle together.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 2/27/2023

2008 Days since Hurricane Harvey

FEMA Simplifying Procedures for Small Public Assistance Grants

On January 9, 2023, FEMA released a Simplified Procedures policy for Public Assistance grants to speed up recovery for applicants. Small projects are now defined as those up to $1 million.

The new policy should reduce administrative burdens and enable communities to recover more quickly after presidentially declared events by streamlining documentation requirements.

FEMA will accept estimates with summary information and the applicant’s certifications for damage and work, instead of requiring applicants to provide full or detailed documentation. 

FEMA Press Release

FEMA conducted a review in 2020. It showed that if a $1 million threshold were applied, 94 percent of projects would be considered small and help put additional recovery dollars in the hands of applicants faster and accelerate closure of projects.

FEMA intends to continue adjusting the threshold annually to reflect changes in the Consumer Price Index. It also intends to review the base threshold every three years.

The new policy is not directly aimed at individuals, but at state and local governments and certain types of private nonprofit organizations. Public Assistance grants cover such things as:

  • Disaster-related debris removal
  • Emergency protective measures
  • Repairs to damaged or destroyed infrastructure (i.e., roads).
FM 1010
FM1010 Washout during Harvey at Rocky Branch in Plum Grove near the East Fork. Still not repaired after 5.5 years.

Depending on repair cost and other factors, the road washout above is an example of the type of project that might benefit from the new policy. However, it’s not clear whether the simplified procedures apply retroactively to damage from past disasters or only future disasters. More details will follow.

How Public Assistance Usually Works

In general, applicants submit Requests for Public Assistance (RPAs) within 30 days of the disaster declaration. They must demonstrate that:

  • Damage is in a designated area
  • Applicant has legal responsibility to perform the work
  • Cost is reasonable.

Once FEMA and the state review and approve the government agencies’ or nonprofits’ RPAs, applicants work with their FEMA representative to develop a damage inventory. 

FEMA obligates funds to the state once a project meets Stafford Act eligibility requirements. The state is the official recipient of FEMA federal assistance. The state is then responsible for disbursing the money to applicants. 

FEMA will hold a series of webinars in coming weeks to explain more about the simplified policy. Additional details are not yet available.

Getting aid to people faster after a disaster is necessary. This is a very complex subject. I wish all forms of disaster relief, including hazard mitigation, could be simplified. We’re still waiting on the Harris County, the GLO and HUD to agree on a plan for spending $750 million in mitigation funds related to Hurricane Harvey – 5.5 years after the event!

Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/12/23 based on a FEMA Press Release

1962 Days after Hurricane Harvey

Flood Map Accuracy

On December 6, 2022, The Washington Post ran an article titled “America Underwater: Extreme floods expose the flaws in FEMA’s risk maps.” The lengthy story by Samuel Oakford, John Muyskens, Sarah Cahlan and Joyce Sohyun Lee cross-referenced photos and videos with FEMA flood maps from areas around the country that flooded last summer.

The basic premise: FEMA’s flood maps “are failing to warn Americans about flood risk.” The authors then claim, “The resulting picture leaves homeowners, prospective buyers, renters and cities in the dark about the potential dangers they face, which insurance they should buy and what kinds of development should be restricted.”

There’s certainly room for improvement in FEMA flood maps.

FEMA Map from National Flood Hazard Layer Viewer. Note how mapping stops at Montgomery County line, one of the issues cited in The Post article.

But is Climate Change the Reason for Inaccuracy?

However, the authors blame climate change for the inaccuracy far more than other contributing factors which are far more obvious.

FEMA is supposed to update flood maps every 5-10 years. It’s hard to imagine climate change invalidating them in that time period.

Climate is an average of weather occurring over much longer time periods. Depending on whether you talk to a meteorologist or a geologist, the time period could range from 30 to millions of years.

At least five major ice ages have occurred throughout Earth’s history: the earliest was over 2 billion years ago, and the most recent one began approximately 3 million years ago and continues today (yes, we live in an ice age!). Currently, we are in a warm interglacial that began about 11,000 years ago. The last period of glaciation, often called the “Ice Age,” peaked about 20,000 years ago. At that time, the world was on average probably about 10°F colder than today.

Interestingly, one day after The Post article, the New York Times ran a story about the DNA of animals found frozen in the permafrost of northern Greenland, just a few hundred miles from the North Pole. The 135 different species scientists found there paint a picture of an arctic once lush with life typical of warmer climates today.

But another thing puzzles me. I see climate change often mentioned as the reason for drought. The US Geological Survey states, “Climate change has further altered the natural pattern of droughts, making them more frequent, longer, and more severe.” But The Post uses almost identical language to blame climate change for frequent flooding in many of the same general areas at the same time. Which is it?

And to what degree can climate change explain flood map inaccuracy? Many more obvious reasons exist that are less of a stretch for any inaccuracies.

Reasons Listed in Post Article for Inaccuracy of Maps

Here’s a list of the references in The Washington Post story used to explain inaccuracies found within FEMA maps. I’ve broken them into two groups so you can see the weight they gave to climate change.

Climate-Change References:
  1. “As climate change accelerates, it is increasing types of flooding that the maps aren’t built to include.”
  2. “Extreme precipitation events are growing increasingly common.”
  3. “A warming climate allows storms to carry more moisture, producing greater rain or snow in a short period of time.”
  4. “Climate has changed so much that the maps aren’t going to keep up.”
  5. Maps are out of date, some decades-old “in a changing climate.”
  6. “The effects of a changing climate.”
  7. Climate change impacts are getting worse.
  8. Climate change is “pushing FEMA’s maps beyond their limits.”
  9.  A gap exists between the data that goes into FEMA maps and current climate conditions.
  10. Climate change baseline is changing.
  11. “Climate change velocities are high.”
  12. “Maps do not take climate change into account.”
  13. “Overestimating the rarity of some events even before climate change…”
Other Possible Explanations Mentioned by The Post:
  1. “Communities may resist expanding designated flood zones because it adds costs and can hamper development.”
  2. Not all areas that flooded are mapped yet.
  3.  “Local communities often resist the expansion of federal flood zones”
  4. “Maps do not forecast flooding. Maps only reflect past flooding…”
  5. “Local governments have been opposed to any maps that show an increasing risk.”
  6. Relatively high imperviousness of gentrifying areas.
  7. Maps don’t reflect intense bursts of rainfall in a short period and the resulting street flooding.
  8. Impervious surface is replacing porous surface.
  9. Maps cover mainly coastal and riverine flooding.
  10. “Rain combining with melted snowpack.”
  11. FEMA flood maps don’t even attempt to model urban flooding
  12. “City neglected drainage problems.”
  13. Local opposition to expanding the floodplain.
  14. No sense of urgency to update maps.
  15. “Multiple compounding factors contribute to the flooding”

However, the article makes no mention of the mathematical limitations of Extreme Value Analysis, the key to understanding the uncertainties associated with rainfall probabilities.

Floods Can Also Be Explained Without Climate Change

The second group of references in The Post article seems far more immediate, compelling and easily provable when explaining any inaccuracy found in flood maps. They’re certainly typical of what I have found in the Houston area.

For the past five years I have been researching instances of flooding in and around Harris County. I published more than 250 articles on different aspects of the 2019 Elm Grove floods alone. And I don’t recall one person ever blaming those on climate change.

Elm Grove did not flood during Harvey, but did flood on two much smaller rains in 2019. The difference? Clearcutting and insufficiently mitigated upstream development. Contractors clearcut approximately 270 acres immediately north of Elm Grove without building sufficient detention capacity before the rains fell.

Similar stories – with variations – have played out over and over again throughout the Houston region. For instance, we see developers filling in wetlands. Exaggerating the infiltration rates of soils. Underestimating impermeable cover. Building in floodplains. Building to outdated codes and floodplain regulations. Being grandfathered under old regulations. Various jurisdictions refusing to update regulations. And more.

Regardless of your position on climate change, this discussion dramatizes the needs to:

  • Understand your local flood risk and the factors that affect it
  • Buy flood insurance.

Hopefully, Harris County Flood Control District’s MAAPnext project will address data deficiencies discussed in The Post article. But it will be years before those maps become official. And when they do, the landscape will have already changed.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/12/22

1931 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.

Forest Cove Townhome Complex Ready for Demolition

Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) has completed condemnation proceedings on the last unit in another townhome complex on Marina Drive in Forest Cove. They will schedule the units for demolition as early as next week.

Hurricane Harvey destroyed the units so completely that FEMA made them the centerpiece of a video after Harvey. Since then, they have become magnets for looters, arsonists, drug dealers and illegal dumping.

Forest Cove Townhomes Censored
Forest Cove Townhomes destroyed by Harvey on Marina Drive could soon be demolished. Red rectangle contains censored graffiti.

Amy Stone, a spokesperson for HCFCD said, “There were nearly 90 units in that community! All required appraisals, offers, negotiations, closings and demolitions.”

Reasons for Slow Pace of Buyouts

Demolition of the first units began on Timberline Court in March 2019. But HCFCD has had to navigate rough waters since then.

I previously reported that some owners abandoned their properties and that HCFCD could not locate them. Those units had to go through condemnation proceedings before demolition could begin.

Stone reports that two complexes remain. HCFCD closed on the last unit in one last month and completed the site inspection last Thursday. “We are waiting for the asbestos survey report to come back. We should have a demolition date by next week,” said Stone.

Asked about the other complex, Stone reported, “1020 Marina Dr. will be demolished once the last unit is purchased. This unit is currently in condemnation.”

HCFCD and FEMA like buyouts to be voluntary wherever possible. But in the case of missing owners, condemnation may be necessary. This is a big reason why buyouts take so long. HCFCD cannot demolish a building until they own all units within it.

Some Investors Never Learn

So here we are…1744 days since Harvey made the buildings structurally unsound.

Multi-family housing represents a poor choice for homes in such high risk neighborhoods. But before these units are even demolished, Chinese investors seek to build more, even closer to the river, about a mile downstream. Residents who bought condos in this area before Harvey tell me that they have spotted developers pitching this idyllic location to busloads of Chinese tourists in the area below.

I’m guessing Forest Cove is not on the tour.

Condos under construction in Kings Harbor last year. San Jacinto West Fork is just feet away.

Posted by Bob Rehak on June 8, 2022

1744 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.