Tag Archive for: Maryland

In Harm’s Way – To Build or Not to Build?

Texas and Maryland represent opposite ends of the political spectrum. So, it’s not too surprising that floodplain regulations in the two areas differ radically. When it comes to building in harm’s way, most municipalities and counties in the Houston region allow development in the floodplain with certain precautions. But several counties in Maryland prohibit floodplain building altogether. One even requires developers to deed floodplain land to the county.

In contrast, Texas developers even fight for the right to build in floodways!

Looking E toward Lake Houston in distance along the floodway of the San Jacinto West Fork. Photo taken July 2020.

The right to develop floodway land in the left foreground above was the subject of an eight-year lawsuit between a developer and the City of Houston.

Let’s examine the differences more closely.

Floodways vs. Floodplains

FEMA defines a floodway as the main channel of a river PLUS adjacent land that must remain free of development in order to avoid flooding areas upstream.

A floodplain extends farther out, usually to the edge of a valley. Floodplains flood repeatedly. Frequency and depth depend on rainfall and elevation within the floodplain. The area in the photo above flooded 53 times since Lake Houston was built 67 years ago. It even flooded SIX times in ONE year.

Houston Building Regulations

During Harvey, more than 150,000 structures in Harris County flooded. The area shown above went under 28 feet of water.

After Hurricane Harvey, Houston made its building regulations in floodplains more stringent. This table by the engineering firm WGA summarizes the changes.

From WGA

The idea: by building higher, you build safer.

Regulations also address the foundation type and “fill” practices.

However, builders can still move dirt around inside the floodplain. They use a practice called “cut and fill.” Example: they take dirt out of a stormwater detention basin and use it to elevate slabs. That way they don’t reduce the area available to store floodwater.

These regulations do nothing to make homes already built in a floodplain safer. They only affect new building.

And they only make people safer to the extent that engineers can accurately predict the future. The future includes both rainfall and upstream development.

In the case of Harvey, remember that FEMA had revised flood maps just 10 years earlier. Now it’s revising them again.

The point: under the “there are ways to build here safely” philosophy, your “safety” is based on imperfect knowledge, changing conditions, changing regulations and shifting estimates.

Sample Maryland Regulations

Maryland takes a different approach to building in harm’s way. It says “Don’t.”

The State of Maryland provides model floodplain regulations. Section 4.2(b)1 states: “Subdivision proposals shall be laid out such that proposed building pads are located outside of the special flood hazard area and any portion of platted lots that include land areas that are below the base flood elevation shall be used for other purposes, deed restricted, or otherwise protected to preserve it as open space.”

Counties and Communities implement their own floodplain regulations. I haven’t checked every county, but found that Howard County:

  • Prohibits any new structures in the 100-year floodplain. See page 152.
  • Requires subdivisions to either a) deed land in floodplains to the county or b) grant floodplain easements to the county. (Page 136)
  • Prohibits storing building materials in a floodplain. (Page 136)
  • Prohibits clearing, excavating, filling or altering drainage in floodplains. (Page 136)
  • Will not issue variances for projects within floodways that result in any flood discharge levels (Page 139)

Montgomery County, Maryland, has prohibited residential development in 100-year floodplains since 2007. (Page 4).

Frederick County, Maryland, states that no development has occurred in its floodplains in the past 10 years.

Two Different Philosophies

The Texas philosophy says, “There are ways to build safely in flood-prone areas.” The Maryland philosophy seems to say, “It’s safer not to.”

It’s difficult to say objectively which is better/safer. The regulations are designed for different different people in different areas: Rural vs urban. Hilly vs. flat. Temperate vs. Subtropical.

But I will say this. As I read Howard County’s Hazard Mitigation Plan, the number of homes that could be damaged in a 100-year flood – ten – and a 500-year flood – twenty – shocked me. (Page 39). Compare that to the 154,000 structures damaged in Harris County during Harvey. Well, no, don’t. There is no comparison.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/4/2022

1923 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.

Time is Enemy of Flood Mitigation

Everyone says, “It’s not if, but when we will flood again.” Most people would therefore deduce that “Time is the enemy of flood mitigation.”

The Maryland Reminder

We were reminded of that this week with the horrific images of flash floods raging down Main Street of a small Maryland town. It was the town’s second so-called “thousand-year storm” in 22 monthsJust two weeks ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded the state and county more than $1 million to pay for projects aimed at reducing the flood risk in areas around Main Street. The project had barely begun when the second storm hit, wiping out the town again and killing at least one person. Luckless residents lamented how they had already spent their life savings to fix up their homes and businesses after the first flood.

Reason for Count-Up Calendar on This Site

Yes, time is the enemy. That’s precisely why I have put the count-up calendar at the top of every page on this website and why I sign off every post with the number of days since Hurricane Harvey.

I would urge you to do the same every time you contact friends, colleagues and representatives. Remind them how long it’s been. Don’t let people forget.

Official Start of Hurricane Season

Today is the official start of another hurricane season. Already one tropical storm, Alberto, narrowly missed us before the season even began. So where do major flood mitigation projects stand for our area?

Where Major Projects Stand

The Army Corps of Engineers delayed the opening of bids for the West Fork dredging project until June 12. They expect the project to take through the end of the year … just to go from River Grove Park to the West Lake Houston Parkway Bridge.

The TCEQ is still trying to decide whether to allow the SJRA to lower the level of Lake Conroe during the peak of hurricane season … which, if historical averages hold, would amount to a whopping 4.8 inches (because evaporation usually lowers Lake Conroe already by more than 1.5 feet due to evaporation).

Harris County plans to issue a $2.5 billion flood bond on August 25th, the anniversary of Harvey. Harris County Flood Control is  currently defining projects within that fund and soliciting community input on them. (Please come to the Kingwood meeting at the Community Center on June 14 at 6pm.)

Flood gate additions for Lake Houston? See below.

The Flood-Gate Gauntlet

The City of Houston and Harris County Flood Control hired a consultant to evaluate the idea of adding more flood gates to Lake Houston to increase the discharge capacity during floods.

Then the city filled out a three-page Notice of Intent for the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM). TDEM is part of the Texas Department of Public Safety. A Notice of Intent is like an application to fill out an application! The TDEM uses it to evaluate eligibility of an application before the City goes to all the time and expense of actually filling out the real application.

In May, Houston City Council Member Dave Martin notified the public in his newsletter that, “The Notice of Intent was recently approved by the Texas Division of Emergency Management. The City of Houston is now working diligently to complete this application and submit for selection.”

Currently Working on Application

Stephen Costello said, “TDEM has approved the gates project to go to the application phase. We are meeting with Tetra Tech this week (May 7) to discuss timing of application preparation and submittal. Either way we plan on having all resilience projects applications submitted no later than end of August.”

The City must still submit the real application to TDEM. TDEM prioritizes applications based primarily on benefit/cost analysis. TDEM sends those that provide the most benefit for the buck to the Federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) within FEMA. FEMA, of course, is within the Department of Homeland Security.

Submittal Hopefully before End of August

Dave Jackson, Chairman of the State Hazard Mitigation team at DPS, has stated that Texas will send $1.2 billion worth of recommended projects to FEMA by August 25th, the anniversary of Harvey.

“If TDEM approves the project application, TDEM then prepares the grant paperwork for City of Houston acceptance,” says Matt Zeve of Harris County Flood Control who has recently submitted 15 other mitigation projects himself. “That’s when the local match is actually encumbered.” HMGP projects work on a 75/25 split.  That means that if the gates cost $47 million, the City must put up almost $12 million that becomes legally reserved for the project.

Grant Approval and Lining Up Funding

It’s unclear at this time where those matching funds will come from. If they come from Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds, those funds have not yet been released by the Federal Government and probably won’t be until November. The CDBG-DR, of course, is administered by yet another agency of the Federal Government – Housing and Urban Development. However, at least one Federal official thinks the City may also be able to use some funds left over from debris cleanup for the match.

Engineering and Construction

Once the monies are committed and plans approved, the Army Corps of Engineers, part of the Department of Defense, gets involved! I am told that the Corps would approve the engineering of the new flood gates.

Shepherding projects such as this one through the federal gauntlet requires constant supervision. Ted Poe and our senators have asked all departments involved to expedite the project. However, Ted Poe retires at the end of this year and either Todd Litton or Dan Crenshaw will replace him. Both would be freshman legislators.

And don’t forget time for environmental studies and comments.

Ted Poe’s Chief of Staff is optimistic though. “With luck, construction could begin in two years,” said Tim Tarpley.

The Case for Process Re-engineering

If ever I saw a classic case for the need to re-engineer business processes, this is it. For the gates, A TIME-SENSITIVE PROJECT, we have involved or will involve:

  • The City of Houston
  • Consultants
  • The Mayor
  • City Council Members
  • City Engineer
  • The Texas Division of Emergency Management
  • The Texas Department of Public Safety
  • The Governor of Texas
  • Federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program
  • FEMA
  • Department of Homeland Security
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • Department of Defense
  • Community Block Grant Development Disaster Recovery Fund
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • U.S. House of Representatives
  • U.S. Senate
  • Cabinet Secretaries
  • Agency Heads
  • Countless staff members at every entity above
  • Environmentalists

Could we possibly make this multi-jurisdictional morass more complicated? A Rubic’s Cube has fewer facets!

After Pearl Harbor, it took approximately 3.5 years to win World War II. Anyone want to bet on how long it will take to add flood gates to Lake Houston?

Posted June 1, 2018 by Bob Rehak

276 Days Since Hurricane Harvey