After Hurricane Harvey, a Heated Debate Over Flood Control Funds in Texas’ Harris County

The newly elected Democratic county commissioners mandated equity in allocating the money. Last month, the flood control district reported back—and the fireworks started.

People walk down a flooded street as they evacuate their homes after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 27, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

People walk down a flooded street as they evacuate their homes after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 27, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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Christina Quintero and her husband bought their three-bedroom piece of the American dream on Houston’s heavily Latino East Side back in 2011, hoping to give their 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old autistic son a secure future.

Six years later, the 1950s-style ranch house, still featuring the wood-panel restoration that came after 2001’s Tropical Storm Allison, was deluged by Hurricane Harvey, the greatest rainstorm in American history.

“My house had water up to four feet high,” said Quintero, now 37. “And when it subsided, there was a horrible stench. Thousands of dollars’ worth of therapy toys for my kid were destroyed and it was heartbreaking to throw them away.”  

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Since then, with her house still in disrepair and $10,000 in debt, Quintero had put her faith in the newly elected Democratic majority on the Harris County board of commissioners, counting on a more equitable allocation of $2.5 billion in flood relief bond funds approved by voters in 2018, a year after Harvey.

But she and other neighborhood activists said their hopes were dashed last month when officials from the nation’s third largest county not only revealed a massive $1.3 billion shortfall in flood relief funding, but put forth a project list that favored white, middle- and upper-middle class neighborhoods.

Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a Democrat and the only African American on the five-member commission, said the county flood control district’s proposed project funding was not what residents voted for in approving the $2.5 billion bond issue. “It represents the dangerous, inequitable funding formulas of the past,” he said, “where people in poor neighborhoods are sacrificed in favor of protecting the property of wealthier neighborhoods.”

Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University in Houston and co-chair of National Black Environmental Justice Network, said those funding preferences continue a system of “redlining” communities of color that dates to the 1930s and helped produce housing segregation in Houston and across the country.

“What we’re dealing with is the legacy of a racialized formula where money follows money, power and wealth,” Bullard said. “This paradigm diverted public funds to predominantly white and wealthy neighborhoods. Conversely, those neighborhoods that were redlined are generally considered less attractive for investment and became poorer over the years because of repeated neglect.”

At a long and contentious county commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday, Black and Latino residents complained bitterly that the funding map looked the same as always, with affluent white communities damaged by Harvey receiving far more funding than communities of color that suffered as much, and in some cases more, from the flooding.

“I have lost six members of my family to Hurricane Harvey as they tried to go to a safer location,” said Billy Guevara, who is blind and recently took a seat on the county’s 17-member Flood Resilience Task Force. “And this is what I expect to happen again the next time it floods or rains.”

He referred to the single most deadly incident caused by Harvey’s massive flooding in August 2017: His aunt and uncle, both in their 80s, and four of their grandchildren, ages 6, 8, 14 and 16, drowned in a van as they attempted to cross a swollen Greens Bayou in east Houston. Their bodies were found inside the vehicle.

Under the flood district’s funding allocations, flood control projects along Greens and Halls Bayous in east Houston were allotted only about 25 percent of the money necessary for completion, while those along Buffalo Bayou in affluent west Houston received about 85 percent.

District officials now have until June 30 to return to the commissioners with a more equitable plan. “With what face can we go back to voters,” Ellis asked Russell Poppe, the flood district’s executive director, reminding him that he’d promised that $2.5 billion in county bond funds would be matched with $2.5 billion in federal and state funds. But the matching funds have now fallen $1.3 billion short. 

“It was a commitment at your word,” Ellis said. “You need to come up with this.”

A ‘Cost-Benefit’ Approach Has Always Cost Communities of Color  

Hurricane Harvey dumped over 50 inches of rain on Harris County, home to greater Houston, swelling the area’s network of major creeks and small rivers, called bayous, and causing damages estimated at up to $160 billion. About 160,000 structures in wealthy, middle-class and low-income communities alike were damaged by floods in Harris and neighboring Galveston counties. 

Bullard, the Texas Southern professor, said Harvey also triggered significant grassroots political activism among nonprofits in Houston’s communities of color.

“And their first act was to approach the county commissioners and demand a just recovery,” Bullard recalled, adding that community groups asked for equitable allocation of tax dollars going into flood recovery. “The idea was to flip the racialized formula that favored cost-benefit approach, and get the money flowing to neighborhoods that keep getting flooded and stay vulnerable.”   

Flooded homes are shown near Lake Houston following Hurricane Harvey August 30, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Flooded homes are shown near Lake Houston following Hurricane Harvey August 30, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

In summer of 2018, a year after Hurricane Harvey, those groups played a significant role in mobilizing support for the $2.5 billion bond issue to fund 237 flood-control projects across the region.

Then, in November 2018, Democrats wrested control of the Harris County commission for the first time in three decades. On the five-member commission, Democrats now have three votes. Previously, they only had one.

On the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey in the summer of 2019, the newly Democratic commission passed a resolution directing the county’s flood control district to ensure flood mitigation projects complied with an Equity Prioritization Framework.

The framework was based on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index, which considers such factors as family income, unemployment, poverty, crowded housing, minority status, language barriers and vehicle access, among other factors.

Applying these metrics to Houston’s neighborhoods, community activists said, should have ensured that flood control projects along Halls Bayou and Greens Bayou, which inundated Quintero’s ranch house and drowned Guevara’s relatives, should have received the highest funding priorities.

The flood district’s previous “cost-benefit” approach favored wealthier white neighborhoods where real estate was much more valuable, and every flood control dollar committed produced far more “benefit” than those spent in poorer neighborhoods with less valuable real estate.

A recent national study by the real estate brokerage firm Redfin said redlining kept home values in Black neighborhoods depressed, which meant less money was invested and reinvested in those neighborhoods for decades. According to Redfin’s senior economist: “As climate change fuels rising sea levels and powerful storms, many of these neighborhoods lack the funding for the infrastructure upgrades necessary to combat flooding.”

In Houston, Bullard said, the result has been that communities of color that “were historically deprived of funding have since borne the burden of flooding, pollution and are prone to disasters.”

With the new Equity Prioritization Framework in place, the overall funding plan was predicated upon the $2.5 billion in county bond funds being matched by $2.5 billion in federal and state funds.

Congress had appropriated $66 billion in 2018 for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and FEMA to help communities recover from three devastating hurricanes, Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Houston and Harris County each got $1 billion from HUD in 2019 for home repairs, and the assumption was that the county flood control district would also receive $1 billion for flood mitigation, in addition to other funding.

Then came a most unwelcome surprise.

A ‘Massive Miscalculation’

At the county commissioners’ meeting on March 9, county officials revealed that the flood control district had come up $1.3 billion short in those matching funds. The Houston Chronicle called it a “massive miscalculation” that might lead to local tax increases if the flood control projects were to be fully funded.

But beyond the giant hole in the budget, community activists for the first time got a look at the flood control district’s project prioritization and couldn’t find evidence of the Equity Prioritization Framework.

Jordan Macha, head of the nonprofit Bayou City Waterkeeper, said she and other activists had repeatedly asked the Harris County Commissioners and the flood control district how the framework was being applied in prioritizing projects and funding. “As we’ve seen in the last month, that question is still unanswered,” she said, “Over the last 18 months, it is unclear how and if the [flood control district] is utilizing the equity framework to allocate funding and implement projects on the flood bond project list.”

Macha said that Poppe, the district’s executive director, has publicly supported the framework but has yet to demonstrate his commitment. “Poppe has not been able to give concrete examples of how or when the prioritization has been utilized,” she said, “notably leaving the impression that [the district] is actively choosing not to apply the framework to prioritize the flood bond projects—disenfranchising communities who need flood infrastructure now.” 

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Macha explained that instead of using the money available under the flood bond to fund the projects in vulnerable areas along Greens and Halls Bayous, the district decided to fund them predominantly with federal funds that hadn’t yet materialized. 

She added that federal funding is competitive and follows the same old cost-benefit approach, making it extremely difficult for poorer neighborhoods to meet the criteria. “Flood control district did apply for federal funding. But it was never guaranteed,” she said. “Which has now come to light. This was a significant deception. They could have been honest about it.”

Rob Lazaro, a district spokesman, said that initial assumption was that the $2.5 billion in county bond funds “could be matched with the state and federal government” money, although that funding was never guaranteed.

“We have a number of outstanding grants and the number will grow,” he said, adding that if the federal funds don’t pan out, the district can look for other partners. “But regardless of the shortfall in funding, all the projects stay on the list,” he said.

Bullard said the district’s allocation of in-hand county bond funds in favor of wealthier communities symbolized a subtle resistance to change. “If there wasn’t a blue wave in 2018, there would not have been this conversation to begin with,” he said. “But the flood control district is behaving as if this shift has not happened and we just need to suck it up and live with it.” 

Poppe and his colleagues at the district left the March 9 meeting with clear marching orders: come back at the end of June with a new plan.

Saying ‘No’ to White Male Engineers

When the county commissioners created the equity framework in the summer of 2019, they also ordered creation of the 17-seat Flood Resilience Task Force.

Iris Gonzalez, director of the Coalition for Environment, Equity and Resilience, a consortium of 25 community nonprofits that came together after Hurricane Harvey, lamented delays in filling all of the seats on the resilience task force. She was one of its first five members, charged with helping recruit the rest.

The overwhelming number of applicants were white males with engineering backgrounds, while the task force is intended to mirror the demographics of Harris County, which is about 65 percent non-white. “That’s where we had robust discussions and we had to say a lot of no,” she said. “So that’s where the contention was—to push back on preferring engineering expertise over lived experiences of the people of color.”

Guevara applied to be on the task force last summer and finally took his seat in January.

He remembers living through Hurricane Harvey. “It was frightening,” he said. “I’m afraid of the dark. You might find it weird because I’m blind and always in the dark. But as long as I know there’s sun out there, I feel fine. But during the storm I knew the sun was not there and that made it worse.”

The loss of six family members only added to the trauma.

When the flood district officials revealed their $1.4 billion budget hole in early March, they had Guevara to contend with. “We were guaranteed that we will get the funds this time,” he said, “But now they’re taking it away from us. And I don’t get it.”

And when they came back to update the commissioners earlier this week, Guevara jumped all over them again. “Looking at the map, it looks the same as always,” he said.

After the meeting, in an interview, Guevara said he was already hearing talk of a property tax increase to help fill the $1.4 billion crater. But he was having none of it. “It’s not fair to us,” he said.

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