Looking Through the Wrong End of the Drainpipe: The Politics of Misdirection
Seventh in a series of eight articles on flood-mitigation funding in Harris County.
For the last two years, I’ve heard the same tirades in Commissioners’ Court – that rich neighborhood’s get all the flood-mitigation money while the poor neighborhoods get none. According to Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, that’s because higher home values in rich neighborhoods generate higher Benefit/Cost Ratios and therefore get more FEMA grants. Problem is, FEMA looks at many other factors. And HUD grants favor low-income neighborhoods. But you never hear Ellis or Garcia talk about those.
In reality, most flood mitigation-money in Harris County goes to watersheds with high percentages of low-income residents. (See links to previous posts below.)
In the most flooded parts of Halls and Greens watersheds, street after street has clogged ditch drains. Responsibility for cleaning those drains falls onto, you guessed it, Ellis and Garcia, along with their counterpart at the City of Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner.
Simple FOIA Request Disproves Narrative
The Ellis/Garcia narrative just didn’t sound right to me. So I submitted a Freedom-of-Information-Act (FOIA) request to the Harris County Flood Control District in March for historical funding data. I wanted to see if the allegations were true. They’re not.
Analysis shows that the Ellis/Garcia narrative is 180-degrees from the truth. By almost any statistical measure, flood-mitigation spending favors the poorer watersheds in Harris County. That’s where most of the damage is.
Surely Commissioners Ellis and Garcia can’t be oblivious to more than a billion dollars of construction benefitting their own precincts.
And had they bothered to look, they would have found Kingwood, their favorite whipping boy, has never received one Harris County Flood Control District Capital Improvement Project.
Verbal Sleight of Hand Deflects Attention from Who’s Responsible
So, what’s going on here? Why the constant barrage of racial accusations and divisive rhetoric?
They seem designed to deflect attention from those responsible for a crucial part of the problem: street drainage.
And if you don’t fix that, you will never solve flooding no matter how much money you throw at channel widening, detention ponds and green solutions.
A process engineer in the oil and gas industry once told me, “There’s always a bottleneck in every system somewhere.” And one of the biggest issues in neighborhoods that flood repetitively is street drainage. Water can’t get out of the neighborhoods to the bayous.
Poor Ditch Maintenance Contributes to Street Flooding
By alleging racism in the HCFCD funding, Commissioners Ellis and Garcia are deflecting attention from a serious issue; many of the neighborhoods in their jurisdictions have awful internal drainage (streets and storm sewers) that contribute to frequent street flooding. Street flooding happens when high rainfall rates exceed the capacity of storm drains and ditches to carry the water away. The reduced capacity of the ditches below makes the streets flood on smaller rains.
Vasquez says that after a heavy rain, this drain backs water up throughout his neighborhood and contributes to flooding. He says it can take up to 3-4 days for water to drain away. Completely unprompted, he then said that Kingwood was getting all the help from the City. I told him that I lived in Kingwood and that our drains were just as bad as his. See below.
But I digress. Here are some more street drainage photos taken on 6/26/21 in Halls and Greens Bayou Watersheds as well as Kashmere Gardens on the southeast corner of US59 and Loop 610.
Wherever I drove for five hours, residents repeatedly told me that because of poor maintenance, water has a hard time getting out of neighborhoods. It must either sink in or evaporate. See below.
To be fair, not all the ditches were this bad. But I saw thousands like these on hundreds of streets while driving around for five hours. Sometimes sediment almost completely covered drains. I often had hard times spotting the pipes.
The saddest sight I saw all day was this home on Etheline Street between Homestead and US59.
With drainage this bad, water may evaporate or infiltrate faster than it flows out of neighborhoods!
Who is Responsible for Streets and Storm Sewers?
Who is responsible for clearing blockages like these? Not the Harris County Flood Control District.
Inside the City of Houston, it is the Houston Public Works Department and a mayor who has been sued for diverting drainage fees.
Who is responsible for the unincorporated areas of Harris County? The Precincts. And the worst drainage happens in Precincts One and Two with Commissioners Ellis and Garcia.
- Why does Kashmere Gardens (in the City) have open ditch drainage that hasn’t been maintained in years?
- How do areas in East Aldine still have barely functional roadside ditches and residents who do not have municipal water and sewer service?
Commissioners Ellis and Garcia have the power and the money to address these issues. Yet they have chosen not to. Why have they not helped the very people they claim are left behind?
Show Us the Data
It is important to note the questions NOT being asked in this so-called “equity” debate.
- How much has the City of Houston invested in these flood-damaged areas to remediate drainage?
- How much have Precincts 1 and 2 invested?
- What drainage projects have they completed since 2000?
- What is the capital improvement plan for each precinct, and how much of that includes drainage improvements?
- What is the equity prioritization framework for precinct spending?
- How much unspent money does each precinct have for infrastructure?
The answers may point right back at the people making racial accusations.
The City and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia need to provide answers. Let’s see the data. How much have the City and the Precincts spent in these areas? If these areas are underserved, Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, and Mayor Turner are responsible.
They have claimed transparency is important to them. The time to prove that is now.
Blaming the problems on racial discrimination is an easy sell in minority neighborhoods. But it’s misdirection and it keeps the spotlight off Commissioners.
Hounding talented executives like Russ Poppe, the soon to be ex-head of the flood control district, out of their jobs won’t fix the issue either. That’s also misdirection.
And it diverts focus from finding solutions to the real problems that contribute to flooding. For that, many people need look no further than the end of their driveways.
We all need to step back and look at flooding from end to end. Then maybe we’ll make life easier for the most vulnerable people among us.
For More Information
For more information, see:
- HCFCDs historical spending spreadsheet by watershed in response to my FOIA request.
- My summary spreadsheet that includes related information such as population and watershed size.
- Flood Mitigation Funding: Halls, Greens Get $422 Million, the first story in this series
- Comparison of low- and high-income quartiles, second story in series.
- Comparison of groups above and below 50% LMI, third story in series.
- Low Income Watersheds Get 3X more Funding per Square Mile, fourth in series.
- Why racial rhetoric distracts from finding flood solutions, fifth in series.
- Watersheds with lower voter turnout get most flood-mitigation funding, sixth in series.
- Greens Projects Under Construction
- Greens Projects Recently Completed
- Eight Halls Projects Recently Completed and Under Construction
- Difficulty/Cost of Developing Flood Mitigation Projects in Densely Populated Watersheds Such as Halls
Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/27/2021
1398 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.