As Harris County officials work to complete a broad slate of flood control projects following the approval of a $2.5 billion bond referendum last August—a process that could take 10 years—officials are looking to get ahead of questions over how projects will be prioritized and which communities' needs will be addressed first.

At a Feb. 26 meeting of the Harris County Commissioners Court, several commissioners and public speakers called on the county to focus first on areas that have been hit hardest as opposed to areas with higher valued property.

"We want to make sure, if you’re getting water in your house, it doesn’t make a difference if you’re a rich man or a poor man," Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said at the meeting. "We want to make sure that those who are getting flooded the most are being taken care of first."

About 80 bond projects are already underway—either because they started before the bond or because matching funds were available from partner sources—but the majority of projects have not been started and are not in any particular order, Judge Lina Hidalgo said.

The county is in the process of creating a "transparency dashboard"—an online portal where residents will be able to view a map of all flood control projects funded by the bond as well as costs, funding sources, timelines and regular updates, she said.

"We can have a mysterious process by which nobody knows why a certain project was done first, or we can have an open, transparent and thoughtful process for deciding which are done first," Hidalgo said following the Feb. 26 meeting. "All we’re doing is being clear about the order of the projects that are getting done, recognizing that it’s impossible to do them all at the same time."

Matt Zeve, deputy executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District, said his goal is to execute the entire bond program over the course of 10 years. He said the district is developing a framework to determine how projects should be ordered, a draft of which calls for taking seven criteria into account:

  • Existing conditions—drainage level of service, projects in areas that flood repetitively

  • Flood risk reduction—the number of people who will be removed from the flood plain

  • Potential for multiple benefits—using space for recreational and environmental benefit as well as flood mitigation

  • Project efficiency—total cost divided by number of structures benefited, taking into account the opportunity for partnerships to save costs

  • Long term maintenance costs

  • Minimizing environmental impact

  • Lack of service—whether a project has been completed within the past 10 years or if it was completed more than 10 years ago

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said, when it comes to flood control projects, the use of a cost-benefit ratio to determine what projects should be funded results in places with higher property values being prioritized over lower-income communities that might be more in need or have more people who would benefit.

Several speakers echoed Ellis' concerns during the public comment period, including Trey Kramer, assistant superintendent of high schools for Humble ISD, which sustained nearly $100 million in damage during Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.

"From our perspective, places that flood the worst should be addressed first," Kramer told the court. "I do not believe our district or the community of Kingwood can survive another flood."

Hidalgo said guidelines for how projects should be prioritized will be presented to commissioners court for approval within the next month. The first phase of the transparency dashboard is expected to be rolled out in a couple weeks, she said.

At the Feb. 26 meeting, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle also asked the flood control district to look into the feasibility of hiring more staff with the goal of executing all bond projects in five years instead of 10.

Zeve said he would look into it, but said other departments—including the county's purchasing department and attorney's office—would need to bolster their staffs as well. He said a vigorous hiring effort is already underway, including efforts to bring in staff from other states, who often come with a learning curve.

“Realistically between the flood control district, the office of the county engineer, [the Texas Department of Transportation], the city of Houston, the regional water authorities … everyone is tapped out, everyone is trying to hire," he said.