Tag Archive for: flood-mitigation spending

San Jacinto Flood-Mitigation Spending Down 81% in One Quarter

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. On 4/20/23, I reported about a drastic slowdown in the rate of Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) spending. Data obtained via a FOIA request indicate that with a few exceptions the slowdown has affected watersheds across the county.

Two thirds saw a decline in flood-mitigation spending last quarter. But the decline in the San Jacinto Watershed, which had the eighth most flood damage in Harris County in the last quarter century, was particularly steep.

The San Jacinto watershed decreased from $1.614 million in the fourth quarter of 2022 to $306,000 last quarter – an 81% decline in one quarter!

Admittedly, that’s over a very small base to start with. But that in itself is a testament to how little flood-mitigation activity there is in Harris County’s largest watershed at this time.

4Q22 to 1Q23 Changes

Comparing the last quarter of 2022 with the first quarter of 2023 shows that spending increased in only eight watersheds: Greens, Luce, White Oak, Armand, Goose Creek, Barker, Vince, and Spring Creek. Spring increased only from $24,000 to $37,000 in the first quarter.

Arranged in order of 4Q22 spending.

Increases totaled only $6.1 million. They were offset by $16.4 million in decreases, for a net spending decline of more than $10 million. Spending totaled only $38 million for the quarter.

San Jacinto Ranking Slips

Below, you can see how each watershed ranked solely on the basis of first-quarter spending.

Watersheds ordered by 1Q23 spending

The San Jacinto watershed slipped to 17th place in 1Q23 (down from 14th when the ranking includes spending going back to 2000).

Spending by watershed since 2000
From 1/1/2000 to 3/31/2023. Data supplied by HCFCD in response to FOIA request.

San Jac had ranked as high as 7th in post-Harvey spending back in mid-2021.

HCFCD construction in the San Jacinto watershed has seen multiyear delays in start dates while other areas received higher priority based on factors unrelated to flooding.

So-called “equity policies” instituted by a majority of Harris County Commissioners starting in 2019 have punished San Jacinto residents. That’s because the watershed contains only 31% low-to-moderate income (LMI) residents and the area is predominantly white. Under the County’s current policy…

“Socially vulnerable” areas with higher percentages of minorities and LMI residents get priority, even if they have less severe flooding.

Damage No Longer a Factor in Allocation

For instance, in five major storms since 2000 (Allison, Tax Day, Memorial Day, Harvey and Imelda), the San Jacinto Watershed had the eighth largest number of damaged structures. It also ranked fourth in the percentage of the population affected by flooding (see below).

When looking at flood incidents as a % of population, the San Jacinto has fourth highest % in Harris County.

Clearly, Hunting and Halls Bayous need all the help they can get. So do Greens and the San Jacinto Watershed. But the San Jac is getting little. Despite the percentage of residents who have flooded. Not to mention that 40% of all businesses in the Lake Houston Area Chamber of Commerce also flooded.

If I hear County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Commissioner Rodney Ellis or Commissioner Adrian Garcia talk about “worst first” one more time, I’m going to send them “GET REAL” cards. What rationale do they offer for ignoring the watershed with the deepest flooding – the San Jacinto?

worst first
Feet above flood stage at 33 gages on misc. bayous in Harris County during Harvey.

Here’s what that 20+ feet of floodwater looked like.

San Jacinto West Fork at I-69 during Harvey

If Judge Hidalgo, Commissioner Ellis and Commissioner Garcia want to see “social vulnerability,” I challenge them to visit Kingwood Village Estates, a complex 1.2 miles from the San Jacinto West Fork that caters to seniors.

Residents trying to escape as Harvey's floodwaters rose
Twelve seniors ages 65 to 95 from Kingwood Village Estates died as a result of Harvey.

I doubt Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia will take me up on that challenge. So, in the meantime, we need to accelerate flood-mitigation spending – across the board. HCFCD spent just $38 million in the first quarter in the entire county. That’s very close to the spending rate before the 2018 flood bond.

We need to determine the reasons new projects are not starting in a timely way. We’re only 25% of the way through the flood bond. We have plenty of pressing projects waiting.

Policies, procedures, practices and people that subject anyone anywhere to higher-than-necessary flood risk longer than necessary need to change. More on that in a future post.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/22/23

2062 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.

HCFCD Flood-Mitigation Spending Plummets

Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) flood-mitigation spending has plummeted. Data obtained via a FOIA request shows a precipitous falloff too prolonged and too steep to attribute to hiccups on individual projects.

The historical graphs below show annualized spending projections for 2023 based on first quarter spending (i.e., multiplied by four). HCFCD says that the first quarter of 2023 “has been slower than we want to see. But using Q1 spending as a proxy for the entire year is not a meaningful projection.”

However, spending decreased from $59 million in the first quarter of 2022 to $38 million in first quarter 2023 – a 36% drop. Likewise, looking at key spending components year over year:

  • Right-of-way (ROW) acquisition fell 87%
  • Partner spending fell 74%
  • Construction spending fell 34%.

Those decreases follow other substantial decreases in the preceding two years.

It’s impossible to tell exactly what will happen in the rest of 2023. But given recent trends and acknowledging the uncertainty, it appears likely that we’re headed for the third straight year of declining flood-mitigation activity.

The Falloff in Historical Perspective

If my annualized projection is in the ballpark, spending will fall this year to its lowest level since the passage of the 2018 Flood Bond. Almost five years after the passage of the bond, many projects should be moving into the expensive construction phase. So, total spending should be increasing, not decreasing. But spending is:

  • Half of what it was during the first full year of the bond in 2019.
  • About a third of what it was at the peak of bond spending in 2020.
  • Roughly equal to spending during 2017, the year before the bond vote. 
Includes all stages of all HCFCD projects.

As a result of the drop in flood-mitigation spending, families in large parts of the county will remain exposed to high flood risks longer than necessary.

So why the drop? Let’s start by looking at the major buckets of money.

Right of Way Acquisition and Construction Account for 79% of All Spending

Historically, ROW comprises 34% of all project spending since 2000, while construction comprises 45%. All other phases combined contribute only 21% to total costs.

Total spending between 1/1/2000 and 3/31/2023 by project lifecycle stage.

Right-of-Way Acquisition

The drop in total spending appears tied to a drop in right-of-way acquisition, including buyouts.

Before HCFCD can widen channels and build detention basins, it must own the property. So it’s a leading indicator.

But right-of-way (ROW) acquisition spending has fallen from a recent peak of $172 million in 2020 to an annualized rate of about $5 million this year. That’s a 34X decrease.

After reviewing the graph above, HCFCD responded that it purchased many properties for future projects upfront in the bond program. While true, it’s also true that many projects still require right-of-way acquisitions.

A District spokesperson also pointed to the time since Harvey. “It has been several years since our region’s last major flood event, and owner participation in the buyout program has declined. In our experience, owners are most motivated to sell their flood-prone property soon after a flood event.”

Certainly, buyout difficulty increases after people repair their homes.

But the county faces organizational challenges as well that go beyond HCFCD.

  • Harris County reportedly severed its relationship with a private firm that managed flood buyouts for decades and has not hired a replacement.
  • The Harris County Real Property Division, a part of the Engineering Department, now handles buyouts, but appears to be broken, like many other Harris County Departments. (See Brain Drain in Harris County Government.) According to people familiar with the turnover, the county has reportedly replaced seasoned professionals with political hires.
  • Commissioner Adrian Garcia reportedly hates buyouts and Garcia controls the Engineering Department.

Drop in Grants, Partner Spending

Another factor has been a decrease in grants and partner spending. It dropped 74% from $20.6 million in Q1 2022 to $5.4 million in Q1 2023.

Decreases seem to be persistent. The graph below shows partner spending by month since the start of the flood bond through the end of last year.

Grants by month since start of flood bond in 2018
Data supplied by HCFCD in response to separate FOIA request.

In at least one high-profile case, $750 million in partner funding was delayed two years when Harris County Commissioners Court had the Community Services Department – NOT HCFCD – prepare a plan for spending U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Harvey flood-mitigation funds.

Harris County first learned that the Texas General Land Office (GLO), which manages HUD money in Texas, was recommending the $750 million allocation in May 2021. But Community Services won’t hold a conference soliciting projects until May 2023. And the GLO doesn’t expect a project list for approval from Community Services until June 2023 at the earliest.

HCFCD already had a list of projects ready that met HUD criteria in May 2021. HCFCD could have used all of that $750 million and then some. But with the political interference, HCFCD will now get less than half that amount for flood mitigation – $326.25 million.

HCFCD hopes to turn the decline in partner spending around. Their spokesperson said, “Looking ahead, we have worked with our federal, state and local partners to secure additional project funding opportunities, including opportunities through CDBG-MIT, CDBG-DR, FEMA, EPA, and others. This increase in funding will help to spur spending as well, especially given the timelines associated with several of the funding opportunities and partnerships.”

I pray they’re successful with that. But even if HCFCD can ramp up partner spending, sources cite several other problems.

Constant Changes in Direction

Before 2019, flood damage largely drove which watersheds received funding. But in 2019, Harris County Commissioners, led by Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis, passed an Equity Prioritization Plan. That plan has been revised constantly since then.

HCFCD claims that no projects have been cancelled or paused because of prioritization changes. That’s true. Once started, HCFCD works projects to completion. But the revisions do contribute to delays in starting projects.

It’s impossible to calculate exactly how much the revisions have slowed the total spending rate. However, former HCFCD employees have complained about wasted time and effort. “Why prioritize projects once when you can do it three or four times!”

Another former employee gave a more specific example, “The changes cause confusion and additional work as projects must be re-scored each time. A project may be just about ready to go to Commissioners Court for approval, then the criteria change so it might get pulled until it’s rescored. Then, Commissioners may ask additional questions about where that project now ranks among others. And those conversations take time. So it may take several court meetings which could take a month or more before an item can go back to Court for approval.”

No one seems very excited about such issues now. But I suspect they’ll demand answers after the next flood.

What Else Accounts for the Decrease?

In fairness, an HCFCD spokesperson pointed out that after Hurricane Harvey, emergency repairs accounted for a large portion of spending. Those exaggerated the peaks in the bar graphs above and made the drop-offs look steeper than they otherwise might. However, HCFCD did not quantify how much it spent on emergency repairs.

Posted by Bob Rehak on April 20, 2023

2060 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.

Footnote: an attentive reader might notice some variation between previously reported spending and the numbers reported here. HCFCD has transferred subdivision drainage improvement expenses to Harris County Engineering. The transfers involve both current and historical spending, so year over year totals are still comparable for other categories.

Should Already Lopsided Flood-Mitigation Spending Tilt Even More Toward LMI Neighborhoods?

Tomorrow, Harris County Commissioners Court will consider a proposal that could shift even more flood-mitigation dollars toward Low-to-Moderate Income (LMI) neighborhoods. Harris County has 23 watersheds. Eight have a majority of LMI residents; the other 15 have a minority.

For years now, certain Commissioners have argued that poorer watersheds should get more help because their residents are financially less able to recover from floods. But none has ever said what a fair split should be. They just incorrectly assert that rich neighborhoods like Kingwood get all the money to justify shifting even more money toward poorer neighborhoods.

Where Money Really Goes

So let’s look at where the money is really going. Via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, I obtained Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) spending data by watershed dating back to 2000. The numbers below go through the end of the third quarter this year.

LMI Watersheds Already Receive 61% of All Spending

Because of damage patterns during floods and “equity guidelines” established by Commissioner’s Court, eight LMI watersheds have received 61% of all flood-mitigation spending since 2000. Fifteen other watersheds cover twice as much area but receive only 39%.

LMI = residents earning less than half of average income for region. An LMI watershed is one where more than half the residents qualify as LMI.

But the lopsided spending is even more dramatic when you look at the distribution within the LMI category. Just four watersheds have received more than half of all spending since 2000.

Spending by watershed since 2000. Includes HCFCD plus partners.

The top four LMI watersheds alone (Brays, White Oak, Sims and Greens) have received 53% of all flood-mitigation spending since 2000 even though they comprise just one quarter of the square mileage in the county.

HCFCD spending data through end of q3 2021.

Proposed Changes in Allocation Formula Could Accelerate Spending in LMI Watersheds

In June, commissioners voted to eliminate flood risk reduction as a “weighting factor” in the allocation of flood-bond funds.

The changes being considered tomorrow would let projects in poorer neighborhoods move forward immediately before the status of $750 million in HUD funding becomes clear – reportedly in January. They would also let flood-bond money be used to cover street flooding, something never contemplated in the flood-bond project list and something that is not part of HCFCD’s charter.

These changes could ultimately leave projects in more affluent watersheds without enough money to complete them. For a fuller discussion of the impacts, see this post. What’s Fair?

As certain commissioners seek to increase spending in LMI neighborhoods even more, the question arises: “Are others getting their equitable share?” I’ve asked that question many times and can never get an answer. I’m always met with silence. Regardless, tomorrow, certain commissioners will try to tilt the scales even further. I’ll be watching to see how they try to justify it.

You can watch the meeting live at https://www.harriscountytx.gov/Government/Court-Agenda/Court-Videos.

To comment on the proposal (Item 17 on the agenda), you must sign up to speak before 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday, December 14, if you attend the meeting in person. If you attend virtually, you must sign up to speak no later than 8:00 a.m. at https://appearancerequest.harriscountytx.gov/. If you sign up to speak, you will be placed in a queue and called when it is your turn.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/13/2021

1567 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.