Tag Archive for: FEMA

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.

Martin Updates Community on Additional Gates for Lake Houston

Perhaps no flood-mitigation project has generated more interest in the Lake Houston Area recently than the addition of more flood gates to the Lake Houston Dam. In recent months, as engineers worked on the project’s benefit/cost ratio, information about the project became hard to find. That fueled rumors.

But Tuesday night, at the Kingwood Community Center, Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin put many of those rumors to rest. He denied the project was on hold, reaffirmed the City’s commitment to the project, and outlined the three main issues that engineers are currently grappling with.

Issues Still Being Evaluated

The main issues include:

  • Safety concerns about cutting into the concrete of a dam that’s almost 70 years old.
  • Getting the benefit/cost ratio up.
  • Finding a suitable alternative that significantly reduces flood risk within the budget.

Martin elaborated on each. Regarding:

Safety concerns – He described the risks of cutting into it to install crest gates. Among them, he said engineers worried about structural stability of the dam after construction. Accordingly, they are recommending significant reinforcement of the concrete. He also hinted that contractors might not bid on the project for fear of the potential liability.

Benefit/Cost Ratio – He said that the higher-than-expects costs on of some alternatives drove the BCR down, and that that was driving the exploration of additional alternatives. He did say, however, that FEMA allows including “social benefits” when the BCR is between .75 and 1.0. The inclusion of social benefits still must yield a BCR of 1.0 or greater. On a separate note, a federal employee told me that the Biden administration may change this policy. So significant uncertainty still exists re: calculation of the BCR.

Budget – He implied that some alternatives under consideration became non-starters because of high costs and inflation.

Alternatives Still Under Consideration

So, the search for a suitable alternative that meets all objectives continues. Among the options still in the running, Martin mentioned crest gates on the west side of the dam and adding a tainter gate to the earthen, eastern portion.

Martin shared a timetable that shows construction beginning in November. However, FEMA must approve the benefit/cost ratio before they release construction funds.

Schedule for adding gates to Lake Houston, first shown in July 2021. Also shown on 4/19/2022. Martin emphasized the schedule has not changed, but could.

Background of Project

At the peak of Harvey, 425,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) went over the dam’s spillway. That’s five times the average flow of Niagra Falls. Floodwater backed up so far that it flooded thousands of homes and businesses. It also killed 13 people in the Lake Houston Area, 12 of them in one retirement center.

The release of 80,000 CFS from Lake Conroe contributed almost a fifth of the water going over the spillway. Lake Conroe gates can release 150,000 CFS while Lake Houston’s can release only 10,000 CFS. The disparity in release capacity caused many to ask whether more gates on Lake Houston could reduce flooding.

Martin pointed out that when water gets high enough in Lake Houston, it can escape over a 2,000-foot-wide spillway. However, more gates could play a role in a pre-release strategy.

Pre-releasing water from Lake Houston in advance of major storms, as the City does now, creates extra capacity in the lake so that it can absorb more water without flooding homes and businesses. This strategy (coupled with the seasonal lowering of Lake Conroe) has worked effectively since Harvey and prevented flooding on more than one occasion.

Time Vs. Release Capacity Vs. Water Preservation

However, right now, it takes so long to release water from Lake Houston that storms can sometimes veer away and miss us after the lowering starts. Thus, water could be wasted. But bigger gates would let dam operators release the same volume of water in less time, so operators would not have to start releasing water so far in advance. In other words they would have a higher degree of confidence that the the storm would not veer away and that release was worthwhile.

Martin reassured people that:

  • Smaller (i.e., less costly) floodgates can lower Lake Houston sufficiently if given enough time
  • The lake usually refills quickly
  • Even if it doesn’t, the City can always call for the release of water from Lake Conroe.

We should know within a few months whether Black & Veatch, the engineering company leading the project, has succeeded in designing additional gates within the budget that meet all other objectives.

Staying on the schedule above will be ambitious. FEMA must approve the BCR before releasing money for construction.

Posted by Bob Rehak on April 21, 2022

1696 Days since Hurricane Harvey

MAAPnext Offers Powerful Historical Flood Loss Visualization Tools

By accident, I stumbled across some powerful historical flood loss visualization tools on Harris County Flood Control’s MAAPnext site today. They can help you understand the capricious nature of storms as well as political claims about which neighborhoods flood the most.

About MAAPnext

In 2019, using two FEMA grants and Flood Bond money, Harris County Flood Control District launched its MAAPnext project. MAAP stands for Modeling, Assessment and Awareness. The goal: to use new methodologies and technologies to improve understanding of flood risks throughout Harris County. The project goes far beyond updating Flood Insurance Rate Maps in the wake of recent storms. It also includes:

  • Interactive historical flood loss visualization tools
  • Water surface elevation change grids (maps showing difference between effective and revised floodplains)
  • Flood depth grids (for various flood frequencies including 10%, 4%, 2%, 1% and 0.2% annual chance events)
  • Urban flood maps (street flooding caused by rainfall exceeding storm sewer capacity)
  • Percent annual chance grids (giving you your exact probability of being flooded within a mapped floodplain)
  • 30-Year chance grids (showing your home’s exact chance of flooding within the life of a 30-year mortgage)
  • Water surface elevation grids (showing the water surface elevation in various flood frequencies)

Not all of these maps have been released yet. For instance, MAAPnext/FEMA will release new preliminary flood insurance rate maps for public comment this fall. However, I did find three fascinating interactive maps showing the history of flood losses in Harris County.

Historical Flood Loss Tools

Cumulative Losses since 1978

The first map provides a visual representation of where all flooding claims have occurred throughout the county since 1978. A property’s flood risk can be a influenced by many factors but it’s important to remember that it can flood anywhere in Harris County. The darkest areas have the most cumulative flood losses. The lightest areas have the least.

Total flood losses in various census tracts within Harris County since 1978.

To understand exactly WHERE and WHEN these flood losses happened, you need to go to the next two series of maps.

Historical Inundation Map

The Historical Inundation Map shows the extent of flooding in five different major storms since 2015. These include only streams with gages, not all Harris County channels. Zoom and scroll into an area of interest and then select the storm of interest from the layer menu.

Extent of flooding along the West and East Forks in the Memorial Day 2016 flood.

You can toggle layers rapidly to see how floods compared to each other.

Flood-Loss History by Event

The map above shows the spread of flood waters in various events. However, to see the relative damage in census tracts, you need to go to the map called “Flood Loss History by Event.” Again, you’ll need to toggle layers to select the event of interest. The darker the colors, the more damage.

Tax Day 2016 Storm Damage
Selecting the Tax Day 2016 layer shows that most damage from that storm occurred in NW Harris County.
Hurricane Harvey 2017 Damage
Selecting the Harvey layer shows that that storm affected the entire county with some watersheds experiencing more losses than others.
Imelda 2019 Damage
Distribution of damage in Harris County from Tropical Storm Imelda

For More Interactive Exploration…

The four maps above only scratch the surface of what you can find on the MAAPnext site. To explore the distribution of damage in various storms, visit the page called Understanding Your Flood Risk.

Media accounts of major storms might lead you to believe that major storms affect all parts of the county equally. But they don’t. Who floods depends on upstream rainfall totals, dam releases, proximity to floodplains, development regulations, elevation above the flood plain and more.

The most interesting aspect of MAAPnext is that it will eventually incorporate all of these factors and give you an individual risk rating for your property or one that you are considering buying.

If knowledge is power, this is power cubed, because it let’s you look at flood risk in multiple dimensions.

Be Patient

I can’t wait until the project is fully finished. Check back often and click around this site as new features seem to be bolted on periodically. The bolted-on comment relates to my only complaint. All information (and there’s a lot of it) is grouped under five pages in ways that are rarely intuitive and often invisible from the highest levels. For instance, to get to the historical flood loss maps, you have to:

  • Click on the home page
  • Click on a link embedded in one of the visuals called “Flooding is Our #1 Disaster.”
  • It will take you to a page called (strangely enough) “Understand Your Flood Risk.”
  • Scroll down past 7 other topics to the bottom of page to find the interactive maps.

Presumably, helping people understand their flood risk is the most important objective of this site, but the page by that name appears nowhere in navigation. That said, have fun exploring. You’ll find many other hidden gems on this site.

And remember that all flood insurance policies renewing on or after April 1, 2022, will be subject to FEMA’s new Risk Rating 2.0 methodology.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/12/2022

1656 Days since Hurricane Harvey

How Soon We Forget!

How soon we forget. Hurricane Harvey was just 4.5 years ago. Since then I have documented dozens, if not hundreds of questionable practices that erode margins of flood safety.

It Didn’t Have to Be That Bad

Harvey was the largest rainfall event in the history of North America. However, with better regulations and construction practices, it didn’t have to be as destructive as it was.

  • Lax regulations;
  • Willful blindness;
  • Development and construction practices that pushed the safety envelope;
  • Relentless destruction of forests and wetlands near rivers and streams;
  • And homebuyers who didn’t realize their true flood risk…

…made Harvey’s destruction worse than it otherwise would have been.

No one factor by itself would explain Harvey’s destruction. But put them all together, and it’s like “death of a thousand cuts.”

The sheer volume of material – more than 1,000,000 words on this site – makes it difficult for people to see the big picture sometimes. To put 1,000,000 words into perspective, the average novel contains only about 100,000. So I’m condensing the website into a book that includes the themes below.

No One Wins Arguments with Mother Nature

During an interview with Milan Saunders and his daughter Lori, Milan said, “No one wins arguments with Mother Nature.” How profound! It doesn’t matter how many surveys, studies and engineer stamps you have on your home’s title. If you don’t:

  • Respect the rivers.
  • Give them room to roam.
  • Protect wetlands.
  • Allow plenty of margin for safety…

…you will flood.

Thought courtesy of Milan Saunders, Chairman/CEO of Plains State Bank. That’s his daughter Lori’s house during Harvey.

Understanding the Causes of Flooding

Excess sedimentation is one of them. Sediment pollution is the single most common source of pollution in U.S. waters. Approximately 30% is caused by natural erosion, and the remaining 70% is caused by human activity.

Large islands built up during Harvey blocked both drainage ditches and rivers. Below, you can see a large sand island (top) built up at the confluence of the Kingwood Diversion Ditch where it reaches the San Jacinto West Fork at River Grove Park. This sand bar reached 10-12 feet in height above the waterline and helped back water up into Trailwood, the Barrington and Kingwood Lakes and Kings Forest. Before the Army Corps dredged this island, River Grove flooded five times in six months. It hasn’t flooded since.

The Kingwood Diversion Ditch and West Fork San Jacinto were almost totally blocked by sediment dams deposited during Harvey.

The second photo above was taken a few hundred yards downstream on the West Fork from the first. It shows “Sand Island” – so nicknamed by the Army Corps. It took the Corps months to dredge this island which they say had blocked the West Fork by 90%.

A certain amount of this sedimentation can be explained by natural erosion. But mankind also contributed to the sheer volume by other practices which I will discuss below.

Respect the Rivers

The red polygons in the satellite image below surround 20-square miles of sand mines on the West Fork of the San Jacinto in a 20 mile reach of river between I-45 and I-69. That exposes a mile-wide swath of sediment to erosion during floods and increases the potential for erosion by 33x compared the river’s normal width.

Even without floods, mines sometimes flush their waste into the rivers. The shot below on the top right shows the day the West Fork turned white. The TCEQ found the source of the pollution upstream: a sand mine that had flushed 56 million gallons of sludge into the West Fork (bottom right).

Influence of sand mines of West Fork San Jacinto water quality.

End the War on Wetlands

Wetlands are nature’s detention ponds. During storms, they hold water back so it won’t flood people downstream. But we seem to want to eradicate wetlands. The images below show the Colony Ridge development in Liberty County. Wetlands (right) are being cleared (left) to make way for the world’s largest trailer park. The acceleration of runoff wiped out FM1010 during Harvey. The road still has not been repaired.

Colony Ridge in Liberty County.

Conservation Costs Much Less than Mitigation

Halls Bayou at I-69 near Fiesta. Image on left shows whole subdivisions that that to be bought out before detention ponds on right could be built.

All across Harris County, especially in older areas inside Beltway 8, apartment complexes, homes and businesses are built right next to bayous and channels. This makes it difficult to enlarge streams or build detention ponds when necessary. One study showed that preservation of floodplains is 5X more cost effective than mitigation after homes flood. Yet private developers keep crowding bayous and residents keep demanding public solutions.

Respecting Individuals’ Property Rights While Protecting Others’

In Texas, it sometimes feels that an individual’s right to do what he/she wants with property trumps others’ rights NOT to flood. You may think you’re protected by all those public servants reviewing and approving plans. But what happens when developers and contractors decide to ignore the approved plans? Here’s a prime example: the Laurel Springs RV Resort near Lakewood Cove.

The approved plans said that “Stormwater runoff shall not cross property lines.” So what did the contractors do? They pumped their stormwater over the development’s detention pond wall. When that took too long, they dug a trench through the wall. Then they laid pipes through the wall to permanently empty the sludge into the wetlands of Harris County’s new Edgewater Park.

This apparently violated the developer’s City of Houston permit, the Texas Water Code, TCEQ’s construction permit and the developer’s stormwater pollution prevention plan. Four investigations are currently swirling around this development. The contractor also cut down approximately 50 feet of trees in Edgewater Park along the entire boundary line and received a cease-and-desist letter from the Harris County Attorney. But the damage is done.

Balance Upstream and Downstream Interests

About 10% of all the water coming down the West Fork at the peak of Harvey came from Crystal Creek in Montgomery County. But the wetlands near the headwaters of Crystal Creek are currently under development. And the developer is avoiding building detention ponds with a “beat-the-peak” survey. This loophole allowed by Montgomery County says that if you get your stormwater to the river faster than the peak of a flood arrives, then you’re not adding to the peak of a flood and you don’t have to build detention ponds. So developers conduct timing surveys to reduce costs and maximize salable land.

What happens when upstream areas develop without consideration for the impact on downstream property owners.

Of course, speeding up the flow of water in a flood is the opposite of what you want to do. To reduce flooding, you should hold back as much water as possible.

The slide above shows part of a new development called Madera at SH242 and FM1314 being built on wetlands near Crystal Creek.

The graph on the right shows what happened on Brays Bayou without suitable detention upstream. Floodwaters peak higher, sooner. Harris County has spent more than $700 million in the last 20 years to remediate flooding problems along Brays.

How much will we need to spend when more areas like Madera get built upstream on the West Fork?

How Quickly We Forget!

FEMA’s Base-Flood-Elevation Viewer shows that in that same area, developers have already built homes that could go under 1-5 feet of water in a 100-year flood. These homes are actually in a ten-year flood zone. And yet more homes are being built nearby. On even more marginal land!

In recent years, the price of land as a percent of a new home’s cost has risen from a historical average of 25% to approximately 40% today. This puts pressure on developers to seek out cheaper land in floodplains, reduce costs by avoiding detention pond requirements, pave over wetlands, and reduce lot sizes resulting in more impervious cover. All contribute to flooding.

Of course, smart homebuyers would not make such risky investments. But few lack the expertise to gauge flood risk. Educating such homebuyers will be one of the major objectives of the book I hope to write.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 2/23/2022

1639 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.

New MoCo Development Being Built on Wetlands in 10-Year Flood Zone

At least part of Madera, a new 1,700-acre development in Montgomery County that straddles FM1314 immediately north of SH242, is being built on wetlands and is in a 10-year flood zone.

US Fish & Wildlife Map Shows Wetlands Dot Development

Magera Wetlands
From US Fish & Wildlife Service National Wetlands Inventory. Madera will stretch past the left/right edges of this picture north of SH242 (the east/west highway near bottom.) FM1314 bisects picture from N to S in middle.

FEMA’s Base Flood Elevation Viewer Shows Flood Risk

From FEMA’s Base Flood Elevation Viewer. Extent of 100-year flood zone shown on left. 10-year flood zone shown on right.

Note that this survey shows only about a quarter of Madera (see below). The survey stops abruptly on the western margin. So, it is hard to say with certainty how bad flooding is throughout the rest of the site.

Yellow outline shows approximate outline of FEMA BFE survey shown above within Madera tract (black/white outline).

Option to See Depth of 100-Year Flood Waters

Also note that the purple area shows only the extent of 100- and 10-year floods. However, within the FEMA BFE viewer, you also have the option to select a layer that illustrates the depth of 100-year floodwaters. See below. (FEMA does not offer the option to show the depth of 10-year floods.)

FEMA BFE viewer
FEMA’s estimated Base Flood Elevation Viewer showing extent of 100-year flood on left and depth on right.

Limitations of BFE Viewer

Of course, FEMA shows “estimated conditions” before developers bring in fill and alter drainage. But notice how a pre-existing development near Madera would fare in the same 100-year flood. You can see the close up below just above SH242 near the right edge of the image above.

FEMA shows that most homes in this development are still in the flood zone and would still flood to a depth of 1-2 feet in a hundred-year flood.

The street leading out of the development to SH242 could be under more than FIVE FEET of water in places!

FEMA Base flood Elevation Viewer

FEMA’s “Estimated Base Flood Elevation” is “The estimated elevation of flood water during the 1% annual chance storm event.” Structures below the estimated water surface elevation may experience flooding.” A 1%-annual-chance flood is also known as a 100-year flood. FEMA defines properties with a 1% annual chance of flooding as having “high flood risk” and says they have a 26% chance of flooding during the life of a 30-year mortgage.

Purposes of BFE Viewer

The agency developed its Base Flood Elevation viewer with several purposes in mind. To:

  • Inform personal risk decisions related to the purchase of flood insurance and coverage levels.
  • Inform local and individual building and construction approaches.
  • Prepare local risk assessments, Hazard Mitigation Plans, Land Use Plans, etc.
  • Provide information for “Letter of Map Amendment” (LOMA) submittals.

A LOMA lets the developer of a subdivision change the depiction of how flooding affects his/her subdivision. It’s the key to offering up-to-date risk assessments.

Full BFE Reports Available

FEMA also lets you download or print full BFE reports that give more specific estimates of flood depth at exact points, not just within a wide area.

FEMA’s BFE Viewer also gives you the option to print out a detailed flood-risk report by clicking on a point.

At the point shown above, you could expect 4.2 feet of water above the land surface in a 1%-chance flood. For the full report, click here.

Here’s what that point looked like last Saturday (1/22/22) from the air.

Madera will eliminate wetlands but claims it will have no adverse impact.
Madera development today at FM1314 and SH242, the point shown in BFE report above.

Cross-check this area on the maps above for wetlands and swamps! Then you can see why it’s so soupy.

BFE, Fill Not Mentioned in Drainage Analysis or Construction Plans

Text searches of Madera’s construction and drainage plans showed no references to “BFE” or “base flood.”

It seems unlikely that a “cut and fill” operation could excavate enough dirt from Madera’s drainage channel (dotted blue line with red parallel lines) and detention ponds to raise the whole site out the hundred-year flood zone. Five feet is a lot of fill for a 1700 acre site.

To raise a site this large, contractors would likely have to bring in fill from outside the property. But a text search from the word “fill” did not turn up any exact matches either.

So maybe they’re just planning to create the world’s biggest drain and hope to carry water off before it can reach homes.

However, a summary of the Madera master drainage plan notes…

“Coordination with MCED [Montgomery County Engineering Department] and adjacent property owners is recommended … on the potential need for inundation easements.”

Revised Channel Alignment Memo, 2/19/21, Page 11

Still, engineers for the development claim it will have “No adverse impact.”

To review Montgomery County regulations regarding flood zones and drainage, see the documents under the “Construction Regs in Flood Hazard Areas” tab on my reports page. You’ll see plenty of opportunities for improvement.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/27/22

1612 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.

Equity Myth Buster: “Rich Neighborhoods Get All the Flood-Mitigation Funding”

A myth being promulgated in Harris County Commissioners Court and certain low-to-moderate income (LMI) watersheds these days goes something like this:

  • The FEMA Benefit/Cost Ratio (used to rank grant applications for flood-mitigation projects) favors high-dollar homes.
  • That disadvantages less affluent, inner-city neighborhoods compared to more affluent suburbs.
  • Therefore, less affluent neighborhoods get no help and the more affluent neighborhoods get it all.

This post busts that myth. But it won’t stop activists from demanding more “equity.”

If you look at all flood-mitigation spending in Harris County since 2000, on average, less affluent watersheds already receive 4.7X more partner funding per watershed than their more affluent counterparts.

Analysis of data obtained via FOIA request

Myth Ignores Other Factors, Frequently Leaps to Wrong Conclusions

Like much of political discourse these days, the myth focuses on a narrow sliver of truth, ignores other factors, and frequently leaps to the wrong conclusions.

An analysis of Harris County Flood Control District data going back to the start of this century shows how far off the myth can be.

There are dozens of different ways to slice and dice the data. I’ve looked at most of them and validated “dollars invested” with aerial photography.

Today, I focus on partner grants because they represent such a huge percentage of the flood-bond budget and because there is so much misinformation floating around about them.

And I will look at partner funding from the standpoint of outcomes, not just processes (as in the myth).

Methodology for Analysis

For this analysis I obtained Harris County Flood Control District spending data between 1/1/2000 and 9/31/2021 via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. I requested the data by watershed, decade, pre-/Post Harvey, source of funding (local vs. partner), and type of activity (i.e., engineering, right-of-way acquisition, construction and more). I cross-referenced this with other data such as flood-damaged structures, population, population density, and percentage of low-to-moderate income (LMI) residents.

When considering grants, the percentage of LMI residents in a watershed takes on special significance. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants often require high percentages of LMI residents in the area under consideration.

In the charts below, you will see references to watersheds with LMI populations above and below 50%. Above 50% means more than half the residents in the watershed have an income LESS THAN the average for the region. Below 50% means more than half the residents earn more than the regional average.

Harris County has 23 watersheds. Eight have LMI percentages above 50% (less affluent). Fifteen have LMI percentages below 50% (more affluent).

When reviewing the charts below, pay particular attention to the italicized words: Total, Partner, and On Average. They represent three different ways to look at the same question: Do housing values disadvantage an area when applying for grants?

For this analysis, I focused only on the long term, since decisions on more than a billion dollars in flood-bond grants are still outstanding.

FOIA Analysis Contradicts the Popular Myth

One of the first things you notice when you look at watersheds above and below 50% LMI, is that the eight least affluent watersheds have gotten more than 60% of all dollars actually spent on flood mitigation since 2000.

Less affluent watersheds, despite being half as numerous, received 60% of all dollars since 2000.

Because the allegation was that partnership grants favored affluent areas, I then analyzed whether partner dollars went mostly to affluent or less-affluent watersheds. The answer is less affluent…overwhelmingly.

More than 70% of all partner dollars in the last 22 years went to the eight less-affluent watersheds.

The last observation by itself is telling. But because of the widely different number of watersheds in each group, I also wanted to calculate the average partner dollars per watershed in each group. This blows the “rich neighborhoods get all the grants” argument to pieces. Less affluent watersheds got, on average, 4.7X more.

Dividing the total partner dollars by the number of watersheds in each group shows that less affluent watersheds average 4.7X more than affluent ones.

This busts the myth. But digging even deeper into the data reveals two things: wide variation between sources of funding and within LMI groupings.

USACE Funding Skews Partner Totals

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) accounts for much of the partner funding. USACE has provided significant funding for projects in the Sims, Brays, White Oak, Hunting, and Greens Bayou watersheds. The Clear Creek watershed will also soon see work on a new USACE project. USACE has completed its planning process and proved positive benefits to national economic development. That made projects worthy of Federal investment. 

Halls Bayou: Digging Deeper

The Halls Bayou watershed also went through the USACE planning process, but the results did not show enough flood-damage-reduction benefits to outweigh the costs of the proposed projects. Thus, the Halls Bayou watershed currently has no USACE-funded projects.

Despite that, Halls has received more partner funding than 16 other watersheds since 2000. Only two watersheds in the affluent group of 15 received more partner funding. See the table below.

Total and partner spending by watershed since 2000 arranged in order of highest to lowest LMI percentages.

USACE also evaluated the more affluent Buffalo Bayou; results showed that costs outweighed the flood-damage-reduction benefits there.

Despite Halls having the highest percentage of LMI residents in Harris County, Halls has received more total funding and 2.5X more partner funding than Buffalo Bayou in the more affluent group.

FEMA Considers More than Home Values, Not All Grants Come From FEMA

While it’s true that FEMA considers housing values as a factor in benefit/cost ratios, benefit/cost ratios (BCRs) also consider factors such as:

  • The number of structures damaged
  • Threats to infrastructure
  • Proximity to employment centers
  • Need for economic revitalization
  • Percentage of low-to-moderate income residents in an area
  • Number of structures that can be removed from the floodplain by a project.

And not all grants come from FEMA. For instance:

So don’t settle for soundbites. They often mislead.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/30/2021

1584 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Biden Orders Simplification of Disaster Relief

On December 13 – 1567 days after Hurricane Harvey – President Biden issued an executive order to improve disaster relief by the federal government. The order covers a range of other government services, too. It aims to improve service service to citizens with the ultimate goals of improving customer satisfaction and restoring trust in government.

The White House says 25 million individuals, families, and small businesses live through a Federally recognized natural disaster each year. This should be great news for all of them. In the last four years, I have posted about the disaster called disaster relief more than once.

FEMA Mandate: Streamline Applications and Rules Re: Documentation

Specifically, the order states that theDepartment of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) shall “design and deliver a streamlined, online disaster assistance application. It also requires FEMA to “work with States to proactively update existing rules and policies on supporting documentation needed for disaster assistance processes to reduce burden and increase accessibility.”

Forest Cove Townhome destroyed by Harvey. What happens when 240,000 cubic feet per second roar through your home. When residents evacuated, survival was uppermost on their minds, not finding documents they might need for disaster-relief applications. FEMA chose this location to film a video about the destructiveness of Harvey.

HUD Required to Inventory Ways to Improve Customer Service

Unfortunately, the Order only mentions Housing and Urban Development (HUD) once and doesn’t offer many specifics. It requires HUD to submit a report to the Office of Management and Budget that assesses improvements needed in the department’s customer experience management and service design capabilities to comply with the order. The report must also prioritize improvements within available and budgeted resources.

Types of improvements mentioned throughout the order include:

  • Streamlining and improving accessibility
  • Improving digital experiences
  • Eliminating unnecessary administrative burdens on customers
  • Ensuring accessibility for those with disabilities
  • Ensuring access for those with limited English proficiency
  • Coordinating between agencies to reduce the need for customers to interact separately with multiple agencies.
  • Callback systems for those on hold
  • Enrollment assistance for benefits, etc.
  • Improving compliance with the Plain Writing Act.

Goal: Help People Focus on Recovery

This fact sheet prepared by the White House staff elaborates on disasters.

“After a disaster,” it says, “more survivors will be able to focus on helping their families, businesses, and communities because of streamlined assistance processes, rather than having to navigate a complex Government bureaucracy to get the help they need.”

“Disaster survivors will no longer need to navigate multiple assistance forms across multiple agencies to get the help they need, saving time and energy to allow them to focus on their recovery and well-being.”

“Survivors will have access to more flexible mechanisms to provide supporting documentation, such as virtual inspections and submitting photos of disaster damage from a mobile phone.”

The press release concludes: “The Government’s primary mission is to serve. By placing people at the center of everything we do, the Government will be able to deliver timely, modern, and secure services to you – the people. We will rebuild trust in our Government, ensure no one is left behind, and inspire others to join us in serving future generations of Americans.”

President Clinton had similar ambitions in the early days of the digital revolution. His plan helped transform government, but there’s still a long way to go. This sounds like a good deal if it works. But it will be a massive undertaking that takes place in stages over years, not overnight.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/16/2021

1570 Days since Hurricane Harvey

FEMA Study Shows Better Building Codes Provide 11-to-1 Return

A recent study by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) demonstrated the value of adopting hazard-resistant building codes. They can provide an 11-to-1 return by reducing losses and helping communities get back on their feet faster after disasters. Not to mention saving lives. This 12-page brochure summarizes the 189-page study.

What FEMA Found

FEMA found that only about a third of counties and municipalities across the U.S. have adopted modern building codes; 65% have not. People living in those places, says FEMA, are bearing a dangerous, costly, and unnecessarily high level of risk in the face of natural disasters.

Weighing Costs Vs. Benefits Makes Compelling Case

The additional cost of building features such as roof tie-downs, window protection, strengthened walls, is on average less that 2% of total construction costs. Yet FEMA’s study found that areas with modern building codes will avoid at least $32 billion in losses from natural disasters when compared to jurisdictions without modern building codes.

That likely underrepresents savings, because the study focused only on buildings constructed since 2000, which represent only about 20% of buildings in the country. It also did not include “indirect losses” such as business interruption, time off the job to rebuild, and tax revenues lost.

Forty to sixty percent of small businesses do not reopen after a flood or hurricane which affects the overall viability of the entire community.

The next part of the brochure talks about the escalating threat of natural disasters and breaking the chain of destruction.

FEMA found that every $1 spent on mitigation in new building code construction saves $11 in disaster repair and recovery costs.

For instance, spending $4,500 to elevate a new home, and install roof-tie downs and storm shutters could save $48,000 during the life of a 30-year mortgage.

A 1% cost premium will provide the roof tie-downs, window covers and other features that help a house survive high winds during a hurricane. In addition, 1.2%–1.7% cost increase over standard construction costs will raise the ground floor, generating the “freeboard” needed to withstand most floods.

How to Help Your Community Get Better

The final part of the brochure provides a roadmap for getting cities and counties to adopt better building codes.

For its part, FEMA is starting to provide grants to cities that have adopted contemporary building codes through its BRIC program (Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities). Here’s this year’s Notice of Funding Availability.

It appears that Texas could qualify for a billion dollars in BRIC grants if the State adopted current building codes.

Many people just assume that local officials have their backs and are doing the right thing when it comes to adopting the latest building codes. But obviously, if two thirds aren’t current, that’s a bad assumption. Building codes may not be the highest priority of officials. So how can you know which standards your community goes by?

The Department of Homeland Security has developed a new website called InspectToProtect.org. Putting your address, city or zip code in the search bar. The site will then search its database and tell you where you stand.

Inspect to Protect’s rating for Humble.

Use this information to start a dialog with your local representatives. You can also point them to this 90-minute video of a webinar produced by FEMA. It’s called “Where and How We Build: Using Land-Use and Building Codes to Increase Resilience.”

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/22/21

1546 Days after Hurricane Harvey

Montgomery County Holding Three Meetings for Flood Victims Interested in Buyouts

Morgan Lumbley, Montgomery County’s Disaster Recovery Manager, will hold community outreach meetings in Spring, Conroe and Splendora in the next 10 days to explain buyout options for flood victims. “It is my hope that through positive engagement we can provide the ability for homeowners to relocate out of harm’s way,” said Lumbley. 

See specifics about times, dates and places in the poster below.

Anybody in Montgomery County may attend any meeting. Choose the most convenient.

The primary purpose of the meetings will be to explain FEMA’s 2021 Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) program, but Lumbley will also explain HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) buyout program.

If you’re a Montgomery County resident and you’ve ever wondered whether you qualified for a buyout, whether you could get fair compensation for your home, or how you could apply, these meetings are for you.

The meetings will cover:

  • Who qualifies (eligibility requirements)
  • For which type of assistance (FEMA vs. HUD)
  • How long it takes
  • The application process
  • How homes are valued
  • How to get help filling out the forms if you need it

Importance of Meetings and Timing

Lumbley described the meetings as community outreach. She needs to identify properties owners interested in buyouts and determine their eligibility. Once she does that, she will apply to FEMA for an FMA grant (Flood Mitigation Assistance) equal to the total value of all homes that quality.

The application process happens once a year. If interested, learn how to apply now.

“If we get awarded a grant,” said Lumbley, “those are the properties that we look to purchase first. Others may be considered only if someone drops out of the process.”

FEMA Requirements Explained at Meeting

The FEMA Flood Mitigation Assistance Grant basically has two requirements.

  • It has to be a severe repetitive loss or a just a repetitive loss property, as indicated by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
  • You must currently have a NFIP policy backed by FEMA. Private insurance is not eligible.

Lumbley cautions that getting a buyout can take years. “It’s not a tomorrow-type thing,” she said. “We may not have anything final for another year and a half to two years. So we’ll talk about that first. Then realizing that some may not qualify for FEMA’s program, we will also talk about HUD buyouts.”

FEMA Applications Due Back November 15th

Once Lumbley determines the number of homes that meet requirements, she will build a budget around those eligible homes. “We are basically saying to FEMA, ‘If you give us this money, these are the homes that we’re going to buy out. That’s how we establish the budget.”

“It all comes down to how many eligible individuals want to participate,” said Lumbley. “We will submit the county’s application to FEMA with five or a 100 homes.”

Definitions of Repetitive Loss and Severe Repetitive Loss

“Very specific definitions exist for repetitive loss and severe repetitive loss properties,” she said. “A repetitive loss property has had flood related damage on two occasions in which the cost of repairs averaged together equal or exceed 25 percent of the market value of the structure – at the time of the floods. Severe repetitive loss properties have had four or more separate floods, with each claim being $5000 or more. And at least two of those claims have to be within a 10 year period.”

“Another way to qualify as a severe repetitive loss is to have at least two separate NFIP claims that that total more than the market value of the structure,” she added.

Valuation

“We will write the county’s 2021 FEMA grant application to reflect current market value of homes. If FEMA approves that, applicants would get whatever the competitive open market value is on the day that the appraiser goes out to appraise it.”

HUD grants are based on pre-disaster valuation. “So it goes back to the disaster on which funding is based,” said Lumbley. “We’re currently working off the 2015/2016 floods and Hurricane Harvey. So what value did the home have before the storm hit, minus any funding that the owner might have received that did not go back into the home as it was intended?”

Eligible Years Vary by Type of Grant

Community Development Block Grants from HUD are disaster specific. So to be eligible for a HUD grant, you must have been damaged during one of those ‘funded storms,’ such as 2015, 2016 or Harvey.

But FEMA FMA grants are not disaster based. So as long as you have a current NFIP backed flood insurance policy and you meet the definitions of repetitive loss or a severe repetitive loss, you could to be eligible. For instance, maybe you flooded four times in 1978, 1982, 1994 and 2001.”

it gets complicated. If you’re interested in a buyout, the time to explore it is now – at one of these meetings – and the person to ask is Lumbley.

For more information, visit the Recovery MXTX page on Facebook.

If you know someone interested in a buyout, make sure he/she attends one of these meetings. Please share this post with others in Montgomery County.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/3/2021 based on information from Morgan Lumbley

1527 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Government Moves to Make Climate Information, Decision Tools More Accessible

Last week, the White House announced a government-wide initiative to make climate information more accessible and actionable. The effort targets individuals and communities hit by flooding, drought, wildfires, extreme heat, coastal erosion, and more.

Not everyone agrees on climate change. But we have all observed what happens when people fail to sufficiently heed climate risk. This effort to make climate information and science more accessible to the public is long overdue and welcome.

A better understanding of climate risks will empower communities to better prepare for them.



From Climate.gov’s Data Snapshot Page

For instance, did you know that La Niña—the cool phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation climate pattern—has returned to the tropical Pacific this month. NOAA gives it an 87 percent chance to last through Northern Hemisphere winter. Here’s what that could mean for us.

List of New Websites, Reports, Initiatives

Below are 15 websites, reports and initiatives that may help those making important decisions about starting a business, buying a home, or protecting their communities.

  • Extreme heat hot spots 
  • Areas impacted by wildfire smoke
  • NOAA’s redesigned Climate.gov. Upgrades to this website will better connect Americans to climate explainers, data dashboards, and classroom-ready teaching resources. It now better provides the public with clear, timely, and science-based information about climate. Climate.gov’s Global Climate Dashboard gives a data-driven readout on the state of the climate system with public-friendly explainers and answers to frequently asked questions. Climate.gov also provides access to commonly requested climate data and tools hosted by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.
    • Using an artificial intelligence platform to improve the search tool, allowing queries based on location so that users can find city and state-specific maps and data;
    • Cross-linking content to highlight all available resources sitewide that are relevant to each visitor’s unique interests;
    • Improving the mobile experience on tablets and smartphones; and
    • Redesigning pages with user experience and accessibility in mind.
  • These efforts build on FEMA’s announcement earlier this year of nearly $5 billion in funding available for community projects to prepare for extreme weather.
  • An Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP), NOAA, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) report on expanding and improving climate information and services for the public.
  • A Federal Geographic Data Committee report focusing on opportunities to enhance climate planning.
  • A FEMA initiative will assess National Flood Insurance Program standards to help communities update minimum floodplain management standards—which makes them eligible for federal flood insurance. The standards have not been substantially updated since 1976. But through a Request for Information, FEMA will gather stakeholder input to make communities more resilient while saving lives, homes, and money.
  • A report titled “Opportunities for Expanding and Improving Climate Information and Services for the Public,” charts a course for expanding accessibility and use of the federal government’s climate information to support all communities, including those who have been historically underserved, on climate planning and resilience activities. The report lays out opportunities to: 
    • Focus climate services on the challenges that pose the greatest risks and opportunities
    • Foster interagency coordination and public-private partnerships
    • Enhance the usability of climate services for all Americans
    • Strengthen core science capabilities
  • Another report builds off of the federal government’s existing information, tools, and services, such as the interagency U.S. Climate Resilience ToolkitFEMA’s National Risk Index for Natural Hazards; and the AirNow Fire and Smoke Map.
  • A third report titled “Advancing the Nation’s Geospatial Capabilities to Promote Federal, State, Local, and Tribal Climate Planning and Resilience” addresses Federal Mapping Services for Climate Planning
  • The National Science Foundation will leverage its Societal Experts Action Network (SEAN) to support the work of National Climate Task Force’s Interagency Working Groups on Drought, Flood, Coastal, Extreme Heat, and Wildfire Resilience.

This information is a dream come true for weather wonks, science teachers and flood victims.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/17/2021 based on information provided by the White House, and thanks to FEMA’s Diane Innes Cooper for the heads up.

1510 Days since Hurricane Harvey