One year ago today, the remnants of a tropical storm were soaking the Yucatan Peninsula. Those remnants quickly reorganized over the warm Gulf of Mexico, and the storm strengthened to a Category 4 hurricane, making landfall outside of Rockport, Texas just three days later.
Hurricane Harvey stalled over the Houston area, dumping an apocalyptic volume of rain. Houston’s drainage infrastructure was overrun as thousands lost their homes.
What followed was a phenomenon we often see in the days and weeks after a natural disaster. Houstonians and volunteers from across the country tirelessly worked together to evacuate and shelter victims of the torrential storm. Emergency response personnel and citizens alike endangered their own lives for their fellow residents. We as a city demonstrated our collective commitment to the safety and well-being of our residents.
On Saturday, Aug. 25, Houstonians will have another chance to come together. The Harris County Flood Control District, the agency responsible for protecting county residents from flooding, asks the public for its support in a $2.5 billion bond election. These bonds, the county’s largest single issue to date, would fund a number of projects throughout Harris County, including new detention ponds, drainage studies and debris removal to increase waterways’ conveyance capacity. Many of the projects listed by the Harris County Flood Control District are eligible for federal matching funds totaling more than $2 billion, but only if the county can secure its own funding with this election.
This bond issue does not include funding for a much-discussed third flood control reservoir, though it does allocate $750,000 to study the idea. Additionally, though much of the bond money would pay for physical improvements, $12.5 million would be allocated to floodplain mapping, which would help homeowners and homebuyers more accurately assess their risk of flooding. The bond would also pay for home and land buyouts in floodways and floodplains totaling $242 million. The package would increase most county residents’ property tax rates by between 2 and 3 cents per $100 valuation, but seniors over 65 and residents with homes under $200,000 would see no change in their annual tax bill.
Harvey was far from Houston’s first experience with flooding. As a city built on a swamp, Houston has always been prone to inundation. But things are changing. Harvey was our third so-called 500-year flood event in three years. Climate change is certainly playing a role in the city’s experience with severe weather, contributing to more intense and more frequent storms. Another cause, though, is Houston’s rapid development into areas like the Katy Prairie, which at one time served as a sponge to absorb floodwaters and slow their flow.
An investigation by the Houston Chronicle found that developers often operated with a callous disregard for the land’s drainage characteristics, building entire subdivisions beneath the so-called “pool level” within Barker and Addicks reservoirs.
This is where we are now. After years of inaction, our problems have compounded. But the Harris County Flood Control District, armed with input and ideas gleaned from a marathon of community meetings in each of the county’s 23 watersheds, has a list of 237 projects to ease Houston’s flooding woes. Thirty-eight of those projects came about because of community input from interested citizens just like you.
Will they stop another Harvey? Probably not. But they will get us back on track to deal with the ongoing challenges of living in this coastal swamp. So, if you’re a registered voter in Harris County, check your polling place and go vote this Saturday.
Students registered in on-campus housing can cast their votes at the Rice Memorial Center.