Houston, Texas, with its increasing population and diversity, has faced the constraint of catastrophic floods for decades. In response, the Harris County Flood Control District mounted the Voluntary Acquisition Program to identify property in likely inundation paths and work with residents. It finds success on two paths: delivering public spaces that control flooding impact and executing buyouts that rescue homeowners. The Community Flood Resilience Task Force will advise county officials in making Harris County more flood resilient, including ways to equitably distribute future flood damage reduction projects in the county.
Houston, Texas, has for decades promised boundless growth for urban investment. The city has no rigid zoning code and an expanding diversity of ethnicities and neighborhood types. Yet the risk of flooding has always existed and has only been exacerbated by increased development. According to a study by the Nature Conservancy and Texas A&M University, around 3,500 properties that Hurricane Harvey damaged in summer 2017 had seen damage before. The repetitive flood loss claims for these properties over the 40 years before Harvey total some $634 million.
To reduce future flood damage, the Voluntary Acquisition Program seeks clusters of homes to acquire and replace with open-space land uses that may incorporate both flood reduction and recreation where possible. James Wade, who runs the Property Acquisition Department of the Harris County Flood Control District, is charged with identifying places in the path of inundation and working with property owners through the buyout process to help them find homes outside the flood path. Although the Flood Control District has operated since 1937, says Wade, federal grants for buyouts have emerged only since the 1990s.
These federal grants now supply most of the district’s buyout funds and shape its focus. In recent years, Wade’s team has zeroed in on dozens of sites it views as hazardous. “We’ve identified over 70 areas in the county where we feel a buyout is appropriate, and we do outreach to owners to notify them that we would like them to volunteer.”
That statement makes the calculation seem simpler than it is. Since 2018, managers have had to consider community priorities in allocating $2.5 million of new flood control bond proceeds to finance more than 180 flood control projects over the next 10 years. The bond measure was voted on by residents about a year after Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas.
Starting in early 2021, a 17-seat Community Flood Resilience Task Force has worked to represent the county’s diversity in mapping and planning. The Community Flood Resilience Task Force will support investment for buyouts and future flood mitigation projects while maintaining equity as a central component and use transparent evaluation frameworks to track the process.
Its inaugural five members, who appoint the remaining 12, include a scientist, a communications expert, and an engineer along with two leaders of community-based organizations. New requirements compel the task force to include at least three such leaders, along with at least three experts in engineering.
This respectful approach to planning, Wade notes, needs to telescope through years of prevalent droughts and variable flooding. That variation means Wade’s team must engage in scoping as well as listening. “A year or two back we estimated that it would take $1 billion to purchase all 5,500 properties [identified as high flood risk] and located within the 70 approved buyout areas,” explains Wade about the vulnerable sites his staff found. “After Hurricane Harvey, we had about 4,000 folks volunteer for buyouts: of those 4,000, about 1,000 were in the areas we’d identified.” Volunteer requests for buyouts go directly to Wade’s inbox, and a chunk of his workflow involves working with volunteers who have addresses that are identified as high flood risk.
Completing these deals can feel like a nail-biter, as Wade’s team needs to find local matching funds for FEMA and complete associated paperwork. “It takes eight to 18 months to get a federal grant in place,” Wade says. “In that time, people can collect [their house’s value] from insurance and [making it hard for us to] say, hey, hold out.”
Through comprehensive planning before and after buyouts, the district can develop sites with attractive public uses once the district has assembled critical contiguous parcels. Wade notes that this assembly can take years. “Once we have contiguous properties, we look at land use,” he explains. “Something may be usable as public space.”
The Glen Forest Stormwater Detention Basin, completed in March 2021, is part of a flood risk reduction plan for the mid-reach of the Greens Bayou that originally started as a voluntary buyout. The basin can now hold 91.3 million gallons of excess stormwater that would have otherwise flooded properties during a precipitation event.
The 160-acre open space was partially funded by a $39.2 million FEMA grant, awarded to the Harris County Flood Control District in 2015, under the Hurricane Ike Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. Harris County Flood Control District contributed matching funds to fully fund the projects, bringing the total cost of construction to $63.7 million.
The basin’s design includes almost four acres of native tree and shrub plantings and wetlands. It also includes channel design features including riffles, pools, and a natural meander pattern to enhance water quality as it flows.
While planning for future uses and connecting corridors always makes an appealing goal, Wade adds, the team focuses on acquiring properties in zones they have historically mapped as “hopelessly deep.” This informal term covers places that would see three feet of flooding in the sort of flood that might happen once a century, or places likely to flood once a decade, or places in the path of an active floodway. As with all sites, the team prefers executing flood reduction projects to initiating buyout negotiations.
Reduce flood risk with strategic flood mitigation projects that leverage buyouts, when necessary. Wade says the district is successful in reaching flood reduction goals when it strategically implements engineered flood mitigation projects with buyouts. A combination of flood reduction projects and buyouts where both are cost-effective, beneficial, and in tune with community values is the key.
Keep eyes on properties that cannot survive predictable disasters. Wade says the prevalence of willing sellers tends to shoot up after a disaster and then fade, even with forward-looking work by his team before disasters. Whatever signals he gets from curious homeowners, though, his team focuses on sites where homeowners would not be safe to stay in the case of a flood event.
Keep fundraising all the time. In a hot market like Houston, where insurance payouts are not always reliable, the government needs to continuously identify matching local funds for federal grants. Fundraising can progress slowly, and interest tends to jump after floods. Because floods can devastate residents who will need to relocate quickly, it is vital to keep money coming in as sustainably as possible.