Questions swirling around Harvey buyouts, but Fort Bend County still awaiting 2016 decisions

Hurricane Harvey's torrential rainfall coupled with the overflow of water from the Brazos River left most of the Richmond area inundated with floodwaters for days.

Hurricane Harvey's torrential rainfall coupled with the overflow of water from the Brazos River left most of the Richmond area inundated with floodwaters for days.

As homeowners clean out their flooded properties around the Greater Houston area, questions about buyouts by the Federal Emergency Management Agency are common.

But Fort Bend County, which includes about 4,000 of the homes flooded by the Barker Reservoir during Tropical Storm Harvey, is still awaiting decisions for buyouts from last year’s floods.

Buying flood-prone homes or homes that have repeatedly flooded is a mitigation program available to FEMA, which is then administered at the local level. The program is voluntary and homeowners must apply for a buyout.

During a Sept. 23 community meeting at Fulshear High School, organized by Fort Bend County, First Assistant County Engineer Rick Staigle said it would likely take another six months—for a total of about 18 months—before the county hears about buyouts approved for 2016 floods.

The applications for those buyouts in the flood plain were submitted between October and December 2016, he said.

“I have to tell you you’re looking at 18-24 months before we know whether there is going to be any money available for [Harvey-related] buyouts,” he said. “If there are, we will be contacting you or the people in this area to see if they want to be on that list.

Fort Bend County hired Tetra Tech, an engineering and construction consulting firm, to advise staff during the storm recovery process.

Congress passed a supplemental spending bill for disaster relief funding for Harvey and Hurricane Irma on Sept. 8, according to information from the Congressional Research Service. The bill included $15.25 billion for community development block grant disaster recovery—one of two federal funds that finance buyouts—and the Small Business Administration's Disaster Loan Program.

FEMA buyouts are approved for homes that either have a history of flooding or are deemed prone to flooding. According to the Harris County Flood Control District, homes located partially within or completely outside of the 100-year flood plain are not ideal candidates for a buyout.

Homeowners do not receive a check from FEMA. The agency allocates funds to state-level grantees, such as the Texas General Land Office or the Texas Water Development Board. Those offices then decide how to allocate the funds to local subgrantees, such as HCFCD or Fort Bend County.

The local subgrantees then notify homeowners whether their application is approved, and the buyout process commences, according to HCFCD.

Buyouts are not an immediate fix, and John Miles, a FEMA representative present at the Sept. 23 meeting, said whether or not a homeowner should rebuild their flooded property while waiting for a buyout is a personal decision. He recommended people consider what resources are available to them aside from a buyout.

“Conceptually, we would not want anyone to live in an area with a high likelihood of flooding,” he said. “But who are we to tell people how to live?”