Tag Archive for: Flood-bond spending

New County Administrator Moves to Modify Formula for Allocating Flood–Bond Spending – Again

The new county administrator, David Berry, put an item on the Commissioners Court Agenda for next Tuesday that would modify the formula for allocating flood-bond spending among watersheds – again. Item #21-6881 (17th on the agenda) reads: “Request for discussion and possible action to modify the previously adopted “Prioritization Framework for the Implementation of the Harris County Flood Control District 2018 Bond Program” (Prioritization Framework).”

First Change in Flood-Bond Spending Priorities

Commissioners adopted the “Equity Prioritization Framework” in 2019, a year after the flood bond passed. That was the first change.

At the time, Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioner Adrian Garcia swore that the guidelines would only affect the ORDER in which Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) initiated bond projects and that they would cancel no bond projects.

Second Change in Priorities

Then in June this year, Commissioner’s Court changed the “weight” given to elements in the flood-bond spending formula when they created the Flood Resilience Trust. They created the Trust with money from other departments, such as engineering and toll roads, so that low-income watersheds wouldn’t have to wait on HUD funding (which isn’t guaranteed).

Changes included eliminating flood-risk reduction from consideration (formerly 25% in original formula). They also eliminated “existing conditions” as a weighting factor (formerly 20%). So for instance, if a creek near you flooded every other year and someone else lived near a creek that only flooded every 25 years, that risk would be eliminated from comparison for funding purposes.

Third Change in Priorities Attempted

Later, in October, as part of the redistricting process, Adrian Garcia attempted to shift money from part of his old district to a new area that he would inherit. The switch would have deprived Cedar Bayou of $191 million in previously allocated flood-bond funds. Luckily Commissioner Cagle reminded Judge Hidalgo of her promise and she voted with Republicans on that issue to defeat it.

Although Garcia lost that particular motion, before the debate ended, he made a demand – that HCFCD address flooding in the 500-year flood plain, not just the 100-year. This is a complex issue. Usually, homes flooding OUTSIDE the 100-year floodplain – on less than 100-year rains – indicates local (street) drainage systems are deficient.

Such flooding is a common complaint in large parts of Northeast Houston. See the reason why below.

I photographed hundreds of ditches like these while driving around NE Houston for an entire day in June this year.

HCFCD doesn’t build or maintain street drainage systems. That is the job of cities and precinct commissioners. Flood-bond spending was never intended to cover such repairs. So now, if flood bond money is forced to stretch to cover them, something else must give.

Garcia’s demand was really a veiled attempt to have flood-bond spending cover part of his budget. And in fact, that demand showed up in the…

Fourth Potential Change in Priorities

In my opinion, this latest proposal has the potential to cancel projects and shift money between watersheds. However, Berry’s office does not address either of those possibilities in backup materials provided to Commissioners and the public.

Here is the entire text of the proposal sent to commissioners by Berry. And here is some backup documentation.

Berry says of the changes to the equity framework, “We are proposing a number of modifications to improve the Framework to more effectively and more equitably allocate money from the Flood Resilience Trust, as well as to help prioritize new projects not included in the 2018 Bond Program.”

Key changes include:

  • Placing greater emphasis on the number of people that a project benefits.
  • Excluding partnership funding
  • Addressing flooding both inside and outside of the mapped 100-year floodplain

Here’s my take on these.

Number of People

While it’s always good to help the greatest number of people possible, in Harris County, most people live inside Beltway 8. That places areas outside Beltway 8 at a disadvantage – especially those in rapidly growing areas, for instance near the Grand Parkway.

It also places emphasis on flood mitigation at the expense of flood prevention. In that sense, it emphasizes short-term as opposed to long-term gains.

As the Grand Parkway builds around to the east, we have only to look at flooding on the west side to see the future on the east. This measure, if adopted, would be like a doctor who only treats disease and ignores disease prevention. Both are important.

Harris County’s Frontier program is currently buying up land on the periphery of the county in the Little Cypress Creek watershed in an attempt to prevent rapidly developing areas from inundating current residents downstream. We could use more of that! It’s much less expensive and more humane in the long run than waiting until after people flood to do something.

Excluding Partnership Funding

Approximately half of total flood-bond spending relied on Partnership Funding from sources such as FEMA, HUD and the Texas Water Development Board.

Voters actually only approved $2.5 billion in flood bonds. Officials at the time counted on another $2,389,261,250 in partner funds (grants) to complete the list of flood-bond projects. However, if this motion passes, we will no longer consider potential HUD funding. We’ll just pay cash out of the flood bond or flood resilience trust for projects in low-income neighborhoods, some of which have a 90% match for a 10% local share. Then, when the $2.5 billion runs out, the people with uncompleted projects (those that started last) won’t even be eligible for HUD funding, because they don’t live in low-to-moderate income neighborhoods with a high social-vulnerability index.

Basically, Berry’s proposal could increase out-of-pocket costs up to 9X for a large portion of the flood bond.

Inside AND Outside 100-year Floodplain

As previously mentioned, there’s not enough money in the flood bond to shift responsibility for street flooding to HCFCD, Even with the flood-resilience trust. Something has to give.

That something will likely be projects that are still in the study phase where right-of-way acquisition and construction have not yet started. Hmmm. Guess who that is!

Where Will Extra Money Come From?

Berry maintains at the end of his proposal that all of the projects in the bond have already started. True dat! But he also says that the new guidelines will determine how the flood resilience trust is used, without mentioning the potential shortfall in that.

A spokeswoman for the GLO said she expects HUD to rule on $750 million in grants to Harris County in January. That could make all of this juggling a tempest in a teapot. So why the rush?

Belly Laugh of Day

Mr Berry also proposed a new “Open Data Policy” for the County under the guise of providing more transparency (Agenda Item #20).

He provides three pieces of backup to explain it:

Legislation Text – which doesn’t contain the text of the proposed motion.

Legislation Details WITH Text – a duplicate of the file above.

Legislation Details – a blank page. See below.

Text of new County Administrator’s proposed legislation on “open data,” AKA transparency.

As if to underscore Mr. Berry’s commitment to transparency, he has placed yet another item on the Agenda – #119. It would take $20 million out of the flood resilience trust for engineering studies for projects that he considers high priorities. But he never describes what the projects are. Nor does he disclose who would get the $20 million.

So much for transparency!

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/10/2021 based on the agenda for the next Harris County Commissioners Court meeting.

1164 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.

Where Flood-Bond Spending Is Going, When New Flood Maps Will Be Released

On the Harris County Commissioner’s Court agenda for today are two Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) “transmittals.” One will update commissioners on flood-bond spending to date. The other will update commissioners on the progress of new flood maps (the MAAPnext program). They are items 269 and 270 on today’s agenda.

Transmittals are reports by departments. Commissioners don’t usually discuss them unless one of the commissioners wishes to make comments for some reason. So, I’m calling them to your attention here.

Flood-Mitigation Spending Through Third Quarter Reaches $865 Million

About half of the $865 million spent on flood mitigation since voters passed the bond in 2018 has come from bond funds. The rest has come from grants and local partnerships. See pie chart below on left.

The left pie chart underscores the importance of partnership funding.

The map below shows where flood-bond spending has occurred.

Flood-mitigation spending by watershed since approval of flood-bond in 2018.

The winner in the $weep$take$: HCFCD spent almost $154 million on Brays Bayou.

Other leading watersheds (rounded to nearest million) in flood-bond spending included:

  • $81 million in Addicks Reservoir
  • $76 million on Greens Bayou
  • $76 million on Cypress Creek
  • $50 million on Little Cypress Creek
  • $46 million on White Oak Bayou
  • $32 million on Clear Creek

With a few exceptions, this spending reflects the influence of the Harris County Flood-Bond Equity Prioritization Framework implemented in 2019. That framework gives highest priority to low- to middle-income watersheds with a high social-vulnerability index. Thus, tiny Halls Bayou has received more assistance than the largest watershed in the county – the San Jacinto River. And Brays Bayou has received almost 11 times more assistance than Buffalo Bayou.

Two notable exceptions are:

  • Vince Bayou which is almost totally inside the City of Pasadena and is therefore primarily Pasadena’s responsibility.
  • Little Cypress Creek which is part of HCFCD’s experimental Frontier Program. The Frontier Program aims to prevent future flooding by buying up land on the cheap before it’s developed. HCFCD then sells detention basin capacity to developers to help make back its investment.

Other Insights Gained from Report

  • Most projects are ahead of schedule and on budget. Good news!
  • More than half of buyouts have been completed and enough funding apparently remains to complete the rest.
  • Progress continues on the $124 million FEDERAL Flood Damage Reduction project on White Oak Bayou, where six stormwater detention basins will hold almost a billion gallons of stormwater. That’s equivalent to about a foot of stormwater falling over almost 5 square miles.
  • No actual projects in the Kingwood Area have begun construction yet. However, the Excavation and Removal Project on Woodridge Village could soon begin.

Additional maps in the full report show:

  • Dollars funded to date by watershed (Note, for instance, another $47 million in funding already committed to Brays).
  • Active Maintenance projects
  • Active Capital projects

Also, a massive GANNT chart shows the stages of every project in every watershed and county-wide projects.

Check out the full report here.

Controversy over Previous Version of Report

An earlier version of this report generated some controversy. People in some watersheds didn’t believe the reported expenditures. Members of the Northeast Action Collective questioned whether any projects had started in their watersheds. They demanded immediate cancellation of projects in Kingwood and transfer of Kingwood’s funds, so that projects in Halls and Greens Bayou could start immediately.

That’s, in part, why I wrote “How to Find and Verify Flood-Related Information: Part I.” Flood-mitigation projects are hard to spot from the ground. Construction almost always happens out of sight behind tall fences and dense tree lines. After construction, the projects are often disguised as parks. For those who doubt, I recommend confirming the existence of projects from the air.

I haven’t confirmed every project in the county, but I have spot-checked many. And I have yet to find discrepancies between what HCFCD reports and what I can see from the air.

C-25, a Halls Bayou Detention pond now under construction by HCFCD
C-25, a Halls Bayou Detention pond now under construction by HCFCD. The bayou runs through the trees in the foreground.
flood detention basin
New basin at Hopper and US59 on a tributary of Halls Bayou.
Lauder Detention Basin on Greens Bayou as of 10/12/2021
Lauder Detention Basin on Greens Bayou as of 10/12/2021. Phase One of a two-phase project is nearly complete.
Cutten Road detention basin on Greens Bayou continues its relentless expansion.
Phase 2 Aldine Westfield Basin
Phase 1 of the Greens Bayou Aldine-Westfield Basin on left is complete. Phase 2 on right is now beginning.

For more information that includes watershed spending data before the flood-bond, check out the funding page.

MAAPnext Effort About to Be Turned Over to FEMA

Harris County Flood Control (HCFCD) estimates it has completed 86% of its part of the flood-map updates. HCFCD will deliver drafts of the new maps to FEMA in January for review and kick off a campaign of public meetings at the same time. The public will see draft maps in February. A public comment period of 90 days will follow. And FEMA hopes to release preliminary flood insurance insurance rate maps by mid-year next year.

I have had a peek at the new maps and reports. And I must say, the effort should result in a dramatic leap forward in flood-risk understanding. Individualized reports will inform homeowners of their flood risks from a variety of different sources, including street flooding. The prototype of the website is very user friendly.

After receiving preliminary maps from HCFCD, it typically takes FEMA another 18-24 months to release final, official flood maps. That gives affected property owners time to comment and appeal. The process looks like this.

MAAPnext milestones as of the end of 2021.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/30/2021

1554 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Your Last Chance to Register Your Opinion on Disparity in Flood-Bond Spending

County Judge Lina Hidalgo has asked for your opinion on the composition and by-laws of a new Community Resilience Task Force. The purpose of the task force is to make recommendations on how to allocate flood-bond spending to help minorities, low income households, and other socially vulnerable groups … even more.

Argument for Social Vulnerability

The Judge argues that low income households have a harder time recovering from floods. For instance, the inability to repair a flood-damaged home can create health consequences as mold multiplies. The loss of a vehicle can mean the loss of a job and subsequent eviction.

Data Shows Spending Favors Vulnerable Segments 4:1 So Far

Active HCFCD projects in neighborhoods that rank above and below .5 on the CDC’s social vulnerability index. The blue segment represents less affluent, minority neighborhoods, which current have 79% of the active bond projects.
HCFCD buyouts in neighborhoods that rank above and below .5 on the CDC’s social vulnerability index. The blue segment represents less affluent, minority neighborhoods. They have 80% of all the buyouts.

Whether you are looking at mitigation projects or buyouts, the most socially vulnerable neighborhoods tend to get FOUR TIMES more than less socially vulnerable neighborhoods.

Yet Judge Hidalgo, Commissioner Ellis and Commissioner Garcia want to increase that percentage even more … for the next 30 years … with their Community Resilience Task Force.

Questions Posed by Lopsided Emphasis

The questions are:

  • What happens to everyone ELSE who floods?
  • Will they get NO help?
  • What is a FAIR and EQUITABLE distribution?
  • Does the NUMBER of damaged structures not merit consideration?
  • Will the DISPARITY in spending discourage middle class flood victims and motivate them to leave the county if they flood again?
  • Why are certain commissioners using the word “equity” to describe “disparity”?

The language in the flood bond promised an equitable distribution of projects, not a lopsided one.

Speak Now or Live with Consequences of Silence

Today is the end of the month and the last day to submit comments to the Judge if you want them to be considered.

Below is a poignant letter written by Jennifer Coulter, a mother with two young children. She and her husband had just started a company before Harvey. So they didn’t have the credit history to qualify for an SBA loan. And their income from the previous year threw them into the lowest category for a Homeowner Assistance Grant. Two years after applying, they’re still waiting for a call-back.

And because they lived outside the 500-year flood plain, they didn’t have flood insurance. Nevertheless, they managed to restore their home by cashing in retirement accounts. They worry now about whether they can afford college for their kids.

Jennifer Coulter’s Letter to Judge

Dear Judge Hidalgo and members of the CRTF,

Please find my public comments and questions below as they relate to the proposed draft bylaws for the Community Resiliency Task Force and the inclusion of social vulnerability guidelines in flood mitigation project considerations.

My family lives in Kingwood. We flooded in Kingwood following Hurricane Harvey, and chose to reinvest in our community by rebuilding our home. We did not have flood insurance at the time of the flood.  We also did not quality for an SBA loan. We used retirement savings to fund the rebuild. As a result, our personal financial security has changed dramatically. 

The Kingwood and Lake Houston area has historically received a disproportionate amount of flood mitigation project investment related to the greater Houston and Harris County area.  Meaning, we have received far less.  The proposed social vulnerability guidelines would continue that trend, perhaps even worsening it for this area.  

As a family, we have made the difficult decision that if flooded again, we will not rebuild and again reinvest in this community.  Without a fair investment in flood mitigation projects based upon flood vulnerability rather than social vulnerability, we are almost certain to flood again.  

We are not alone.  There are many homeowners, who if able, will relocate out of Harris County if flooded again. My questions to the task force are:  

  1. How do you intend to fund this 30-year plan if your tax base leaves?  
  2. Is making this vital tax base expendable a wise long-term solution to improve flood mitigation in ANY community within Harris County?
  3. If you are not choosing project allocation based upon engineering and likeliness to flood, how do you intend to redirect flood waters to areas chosen to receive flood mitigation improvements? Do you have a means to tell rising flood waters to only go to those areas that received improvements and not to those that didn’t qualify for improvements because they weren’t socially vulnerable enough? 

Thank you for your time,
Jennifer Coulter

I know many people like the Coulters. The prospect of more flooding with no mitigation has them at the end of their tethers. Especially after they voted for the flood bond and its promise of equity. One has already moved to Montgomery County.

Contact the Judge NOW

Please email the Judge and tell her that we need more balance in flood bond spending. Do it now! Tomorrow is too late.

Email CRTF@cjo.hctx.net to submit comments. Please be polite and succinct.

For Additional Information

Here are links to:

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/30/2020

1066 Days after Hurricane Harvey

NY Times Covers Harris County Flood-Bond Spending, but Omits Spending Data

The New York Times ran a story on flood-bond spending, but forgot to look at where the budget to date has gone.

The story by Christopher Flavelle was titled, “A Climate Plan in Texas Focuses on Minorities. Not Everyone Likes It.” It outlined arguments on each side of the equity debate in flood-bond spending. From a balance point of view, it did a great job. However, it came up short in two areas.

Problems with Article

First, the headline misleads. This isn’t about climate. The story is about how to distribute flood-bond dollars equitably.

Second, it makes no mention of where flood-bond dollars to date have actually gone. Nor does it mention historical spending except in a generalized way. It implies poor people got none; rich people got it all. By avoiding research into actual current and historical spending, it perpetuated myths that do little to protect people from flooding.

Had the author checked, he would have found that those “underfunded,” disadvantaged neighborhoods have actually received 79% of the flood-bond projects to date.

Had he bothered to check historical or federal spending, he might have found an even more exaggerated pattern.

Trap Laid by Ellis

Mr. Clavelle fell into the trap that Commissioner Ellis laid. In effect, the argument goes like this. “Because homes in poor neighborhoods cost less than those in rich neighborhoods, it brings down the benefit/cost ratio for poor neighborhoods. FEMA considers that ratio in grant requests. That disadvantages grants for poor neighborhoods and perpetuates a downward cycle.”

That’s literally true – if you look only at FEMA grants. But it’s the exact opposite for HUD grants which heavily favor disadvantaged neighborhoods. Mr. Clavelle fails to mention that. As do Mr. Ellis and his surrogates whenever they talk on this subject.

Approximately 70% of those HUD grants MUST go to disadvantaged neighborhoods. The actual percentage varies by storm and type of grant. After Harvey, Harris County received a billion dollars. And the City of Houston received $1.1 billion. Together, that’s almost as much money as in the $2.5-billion flood bond. And there are still billions of additional dollars available from HUD through the General Land Office.

Preserve Your Community

If more of this money continues to go south, the Lake Houston Area is sunk in the next big storm.

But the County is considering a Community Resilience Task Force that would institutionalize this spending bias for the next 30 years.

The County Judge’s office is inviting the public to share their thoughts and ideas on the proposed draft bylaws of the Community Resilience Task Force. You can register your opinion from now until July 30th, 2020, via one of the following methods:

  • Email CRTF@cjo.hctx.net and submit comments digitally, beginning July 21
  • Join a virtual focus group via Zoom. After registering, participants will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.
  • Offer input during the July 28th Commissioner’s Court

Please express your opinions to the county judge. Nothing is more important to the future of the Lake Houston Area than achieving more balance in flood-bond spending.

Some Key Facts to Consider

Some key points I intend to make:

  • 79% of flood bond projects to date have gone to neighborhoods that rate high on the social vulnerability index leaving only 21% to everyone else. We need to tweak the formula to achieve greater balance.
  • The argument that FEMA’s emphasis on Benefit/Cost Ratios disadvantages minority neighborhoods ignores the fact that billions of dollars in HUD grants advantage minority neighborhoods. Focusing only on one without acknowledging the other is intellectually dishonest.
  • HCFCD and USACE have historically underfunded flood mitigation projects in the Lake Houston Area. In the history of HCFCD, the District has not developed ONE USACE-funded project in this area.

For More Information

For more information on the “equity bias,” see this series on “Where Flood Mitigation Dollars Have Really Gone.” It was developed a year ago so the focus is on historical spending.

Or this series on “Equity”:

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/25/2020

1061 Days after Hurricane Harvey