May 30, 2024

As a series of monster rainstorms pounded southeast Texas last week, thousands of homes flooded in low-lying neighborhoods around Houston. The storms dumped several months’ worth of rainfall on Houston in the space of a few days, overflowing rivers and creeks that wind through the city and forcing officials to divert millions of gallons of water from reservoirs. Elsewhere in the state, the rain and winds killed at least three people, including a 4-year-old son which was swept away by floodwaters.

Much of the deepest flooding occurred in the San Jacinto River, a meandering waterway that winds along Houston’s eastern edge and empties into the Gulf of Mexico. This area happens to be the site of perhaps the country’s longest experiment in adaptation policy known as “managed retreat,” which involves homeowners moving away from neighborhoods that will become increasingly vulnerable to disasters as climate change worsens. Harris County has spent millions of dollars over the past decade buying out and demolishing at-risk homes along the river. But the past week’s floods have shown that even this nation-leading program could not keep up with the escalating disaster.

“It’s basically the biggest and deepest river in the country, and the floodplain is so deep that we really can’t do projects to fix these areas,” said James Wade, who leads the home buyout for the Harris County Flood Control District. “We’re trying to get continuous ownership in these areas so we can basically convert them back to nature.”

It’s slow going: Wade says the country has bought about 600 flood-prone houses along the waterway over the past 30 years, almost all of which would have been flooded during the recent storm had it not been bought out and demolished. There are still more than 1,600 vulnerable homes the county is trying to buy, but it has struggled to secure the necessary funds and get property owners on board.

Harris County was one of the first local governments in the United States to buy out flood-prone homes with money provided by FEMA, the federal disaster relief agency. The district has acquired more than 4,000 homes in dozens of subdivisions around Houston since the turn of the century, essentially creating miniature ghost towns around the city and its suburbs. Many of these neighborhoods, including those around San Jacinto, were so prone to flooding that the county could not protect them with canals and retention ponds that secure other neighborhoods.

The county doubled down on this strategy around the San Jacinto after Hurricane Harvey flooded hundreds of homes along the river in 2017, confirming that many residences were “hopelessly deep” in the floodplain, in the county’s words. Not only is the land around the river low-lying and marshy, but it also sits downstream of a reservoir that must release water during flood events so that it does not overflow.

The county used federal funds to purchase and demolish an entire subdivision called Forest Cove, turning the open space into a “greenway” park with walking and biking trails. Elsewhere, it home owners bought out who had already raised their houses along the river as high as 14 feet in the air but still saw flooding during Hurricane Harvey. These buyouts were voluntary, but after years of advocacy, the province succeeded in persuading most homeowners to leave.

A separate district agency has a compulsory buyout in a few subdivisions where residents were flooded multiple times, including one large community along the San Jacinto. This mandatory initiative has drew criticism from residents accusing the county of uprooting established communities, but the county saw it as a necessary measure to control flood risk in places where no other flood control strategies would work. More than six years after Harvey, officials are still working to close the last of those homes.

Yet this aggressive program still left many vulnerable neighborhoods untouched. The county gets most of its buyout funding from FEMA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which tend to hand out grants only after major disasters. It has too floated a $2.5 billion bond to finance flood protection and buyouts, but this amount proved too little. There are far more flood-prone homes even along the San Jacinto than the county can afford to buy, to say nothing of the rest of the Houston metropolitan area, one of the nation’s most populous urban centers.

“Money is obviously the biggest constraint,” said Alex Greer, an associate professor of emergency management at the University at Albany who has studied buyout programs. “They often have far more interested homeowners than they have funds, and the funding comes way too late.” Wade is not yet sure if the flood has done enough damage to meet the criteria for a presidential disaster declaration, which would unlock significant FEMA aid and likely help the county fund more buyouts along the San Jacinto.

Furthermore, buyouts can take years to execute. In most cases, the county must convince individual homeowners to sign up for a buyout program, then complete months of paperwork to buy their homes, and then wait for the homeowners to move. If there are holdouts that don’t want to go away, the buyouts end up happening in a “checkerboard” pattern, and the government can’t let water take the land back. Some neighborhoods, like those in the more upscale Kingwood areafight for alternative solutions such as new upstream reservoirs or dredging projects that could reduce flooding without homeowners having to leave.

Although residents along the beleaguered river have faced flooding for decades, Wade says he hopes this most recent flood will convince more of them to join the buyout program, which will allow the province to acquire more land along the river to give back to nature. Without more money, however, he won’t be able to take advantage of what Greer calls the “window to woo.”

“Right after a flood event is when people say the most: ‘I don’t want to do it again,'” he said. “But then there’s that time lag between them coming forward and us being able to secure the funds, and they can change their minds.”

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