In the midst of 2020’s economic downturn, Harris County continues to consider social vulnerability when prioritizing flood mitigation projects

Several named storms have brought heavy rainfall to the Houston area during the 2020 hurricane season amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Several named storms have brought heavy rainfall to the Houston area during the 2020 hurricane season amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Several named storms have brought heavy rainfall to the Houston area during the 2020 hurricane season amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

A year after Harris County voters passed a $2.5 billion bond package of flood mitigation projects, Commissioners Court approved a prioritization framework in August 2019 that has been carried out on all remaining projects in the Harris County Flood Control District’s jurisdiction.

Flood risk reduction, project efficiency, environmental impacts and long-term maintenance costs are a few of the determining criteria, but one of the factors—the social vulnerability index—was met with disagreement from some community members.

The social vulnerability index accounts for 20% in the prioritization rating system and calculates indicators such as the percentage of elderly residents, limited English proficiency and households without a vehicle, among others. According to the framework, more socially vulnerable neighborhoods are at greater risk for a slow recovery following a disaster such as a flood.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo at the time said this would ensure vulnerable communities were not overlooked as the remaining bond projects were carried out.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle voted against the guidelines. Cagle said he did not agree with the weight social vulnerability was considered and said floodwaters did not discriminate based on the socioeconomic status of neighborhoods.

In an Oct. 28 interview, Matt Zeve, the deputy executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District, said while the neighborhoods experiencing repetitive flood damage had been previously identified, the bond provided funding for projects in communities hit hardest, including relocating families from homes at high risk of flooding to safer neighborhoods through the home buyout program.

Sara Bronin is a native Houstonian, zoning expert and professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where she also runs the Center for Energy and Environmental Law. She has applauded Hidalgo’s efforts to prioritize marginalized populations when it comes to flood mitigation and said it is more important than ever now that the nation is experiencing an economic downturn and high unemployment rates amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

This Community Impact Newspaper interview conducted with Bronin on Oct. 15 has been edited for length and clarity.

What does this decision to prioritize flood mitigation work in vulnerable communities mean for Harris County residents?

The way that I look at this change in policy is that it is an attempt to try to remedy decades' worth of policies that have a disparate impact on racial minorities and on the poor. Prior to the change, much of the flood control infrastructure and much of the funding for the flood control infrastructure went to communities with high property values, meaning that many of the people who lived in those communities were high-income families.

Because the money went there, it didn't benefit disadvantaged neighborhoods. I would say this shift in policy is overdue, and it is just the first attempt to try to reverse decades worth of neglect in distressed neighborhoods.

Why is it important to focus on preventive measures ahead of a major flooding event than to leave vulnerable residents waiting to figure it out in the aftermath?

Many families—if they’re living at or below the poverty line or even if they’re within 200% of the poverty line—are still living month to month when it comes to rent. Because of coronavirus, many people have lost their jobs, and so the safety net that they might have had has started to evaporate. If they get hit by a flooding event, it puts not only their economic well-being in jeopardy, but it potentially robs them of a place to live.

Because they’re considered to be vulnerable populations, we are in a sense helping to create a housing crisis if we don’t try to prevent the impacts that we’ve seen in the past from flooding.

When an area is flooded, they lose their homes or they lose access to their homes for a period of time, and in order for them to live somewhere else where it’s dry and safe, that’s more money. If they’re renting, the landlord may still expect them to pay rent even if parts of their house are unusable. So really, you’re putting people into a vicious cycle when you don’t help them protect their homes.

Why do you believe it took so long for the county to make these investments in neighborhoods that might have previously been overlooked?

This is a story that’s common in many communities across the country where the people who are low income, marginalized or otherwise disadvantaged aren’t seen to have a voice in the political process and are ignored because they don’t have the same kind of voice and the same kind of access to policymakers that many coming from wealthy backgrounds do.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo got some pushback on this. Why do you think that is?

If some neighborhoods are used to having priority over others, of course people in those neighborhoods will be upset if that situation is reversed, so I can see why she might have had pushback. What she’s doing is upending the status quo, and that’s always going to ruffle feathers; it’s always going to cause people to be angry. But in this case, the move is long overdue, and it’s important to try to rectify past wrongs.

More generally, Houston needs to think about land use planning more seriously and needs to stop letting people sprawl out, build in flood plains and erode natural infrastructure that would help Houston be able to better withstand flooding events. Land use planning with an equity component is critical to ensuring that Houston doesn’t suffer again and again from the kinds of large-scale events and devastation that we’ve seen in the past.

How can lawmakers and public officials continue to ensure that low-income neighborhoods are getting equal treatment when it comes to funding and assistance?

It’s important for political leaders to be honest with their constituents about the consequences of unlimited development and sprawl. I think a lot of local leaders haven’t really been ready to denounce sprawl and its effects, and it really is time to think about whether using up so much land across the city is the best option when the city was built on a swamp vulnerable to hurricanes.

And we all know because of climate change, hurricanes and weather events are going to get more frequent and are going to be stronger, so this is not a problem that’s going to go away.
By Danica Lloyd
Danica joined Community Impact Newspaper as a Cy-Fair reporter in May 2016 after graduating with a journalism degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. She became editor of the Cy-Fair edition in March 2020 and continues to cover education, local government, business, demographic trends, real estate development and nonprofits.


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