Beginning May 7 and in the days that followed, short duration, high-intensity rainfall events produced as much as three inches of rain in 30 minutes, four inches of rain in an hour and almost eight inches of rain in six hours in the Kingwood area, according to Russ Poppe, executive director of the Harris County Flood Control Department.
The resulting high water areas around the Greater Houston area, specifically in Kingwood, forced school and business closures, flooded homes and collapsed streets. Damage assessments as of May 13 indicated that about 150 homes—mostly in the Kingwood area—flooded, according to County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
“The flooding last week was horrific,” Hidalgo said during the May 14 commissioners court meeting. “I visited some of the communities out in Kingwood last night, [and] you know, one home being flooded is a lot, and it’s catastrophic in and of itself. But just the number of people affected is astounding.”
County officials said initial damage assessments did not bode well for securing aid for the Kingwood community. Certain thresholds need to be met at both the state and federal level to qualify for financial disaster assistance.
According to Hidalgo, the federal government requires Harris County to have more than $15 million in uninsured losses to qualify for disaster assistance. The state required more than $40 million in losses, she said. The average number of homes that must sustain heavy damage or be destroyed to reach that threshold is more than 800, Hidalgo said in a statement May 13.
“What is not on the table now [and] is on the table, hopefully for the future, is a disaster declaration because we don’t meet that threshold,” Hidalgo said during the meeting. “A disaster declaration is one of the most important powers I have as a county judge. It basically oversteps the law and gives me emergency powers, so declaring a disaster is not something I can take lightly.”
Hidalgo stated that while many residents have requested the court to look into Small Business Administration Disaster Loans to aid with the rebuilding process, initial assessments indicate the county does not qualify for that assistance either. To meet those requirements, 25 uninsured properties would have to sustain substantial damages, meaning the cost to repair would be more than 40% of the property’s market value.
Residents who spoke at the meeting said initial assessments are “grossly underestimated.”
“Kingwood alone would put you over the top,” said Beth Guide, who represented the Elm Grove Homeowners Association at the meeting. “You’re getting a lowball number—there’s more [affected] homes in my neighborhood than [the city of Houston] is saying. We’ve got your backs, [and] we’ll do whatever you need, but you’ve got to have ours as well.”
Guide added that the majority of people in the Elm Grove neighborhood are working-class residents. Many of them live in 1,400- to 1,800-square-foot homes valued roughly at $200,000 or less, she said.
“We’re the poor section of a rich neighborhood,” Guide said. “If they’re holding our means against us because we don’t live in big houses, so therefore our losses aren’t as great, the losses are greater to these people because they don’t have the money to repair [their homes].”
Hidalgo said that while Harris County and the city of Houston are still tracking how many homes were damaged, it is imperative for residents to let the county know if they have been affected. Residents can report home flooding and damage by calling 3-1-1 or clicking here.
Thirteen other residents from the Kingwood area echoed Guide in pleading for disaster assistance, while sharing their family’s unique flooding story with the court.
Elm Grove resident Adam Laurie talked tearfully about attempting to restore a sense of normalcy for his 5- and 7-year-old daughters. One of the girls had been begging him and his wife to sleep with her every night since the flood, he said.
“She informed me that she was afraid, and I asked her ‘Of what?’ and she informed me that she was afraid of the rain," he said. "As I tried consoling her to let her know that the flood would never happen again, she literally began crying and telling me that she did not want to die.”
Cynthia Moblo, another Elm Grove resident, said her husband is a retired Harris County Sheriff’s Office deputy. He is now looking to re-enter the workforce at age 62 because of the losses their family had incurred, she said.
Resident Jessica Escobar, who addressed the court on behalf of her Spanish-speaking parents, said her mom had to carry her 4-year-old brother through floodwaters to safety.
“We got flooded, and we have no [flood] insurance,” Escobar said. “It’s all going to have to come out of my dad’s pocket, and I’m going to have to help as well with some of the funds I had for college.”
Daryl Palmer serves as president of the Kingwood Chapter of Taylor’s Organization, which supports law enforcement. He reiterated that the losses incurred by the Kingwood community were more than just a dollar figure.
“We’re not just talking about cold numbers here. We’re talking about human hearts. We’re talking about human lives,” Palmer said. “People that have lost years and years of their memories and their furniture and their belongings ... they’re having to pile them on the curb and watch the city of Houston come by and pick up their lives and haul them away like garbage. You lose a part of yourself when that happens.”
Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said he could sympathize with Palmer after his own experience during Hurricane Harvey.
“I know what it’s like to not be able to see your curb because your family memories are all piled up,” Cagle said. “I understand what these folks are talking about, not in theory, but through experience.”
Fighting the flood
Following resident input, the court talked with Poppe about his department's status on $2.5 billion worth of flood projects outlined in the bond Harris County voters approved in August 2018.
The bond includes 237 projects planned over the next 10 years. Hidalgo asked what was needed to speed up the process.
“We are working nights and weekends to execute that,” Poppe said. “We’re trying to bring more staff on board, I think we’re almost up to 20 firms now, providing staff augmentation, helping us execute projects more quickly.”
Poppe added that in addition to exhausting HCFCD staff and existing resources, another hangup involves the delay from partnering entities.
“We had just shy of $900 million in the bond program that we had allocated for partnership opportunities, meaning we’re going to try and leverage our local dollars as much as we could, whether that be with the [federal government], with the state, other municipalities,” he said. “So the scheduling and execution of that money is largely dependent upon the partners and when they’re going to bring the money to the table. We’ve made the offer, but we’re waiting for the partners to respond.”
Hidalgo added that some of the flooding issues in Harris County are related to development upstream. The county is also looking into improving its flood warning system and implementing a push notification system.
“We’re working right now on an investigation to figure out what can be done upstream to protect the Kingwood community, and it’s probably going to be massive detention ponds up north of the community,” she said. “The county’s committed $20 million to whatever result of that investigation is."
That is a joint project with Montgomery County, the San Jacinto River Authority, city of Houston and FEMA, she said.
The court encouraged Poppe to return to the next commissioners court meeting on June 4 with specific requests for additional resources that HCFCD would need to expedite the bond projects.
In the meantime, Poppe stressed the importance of flood insurance for all residents.
“This is our No. 1 priority—flooding and the safety of our residents—and we’re in a hurry making up for a lot of lost time, but that means we move doubly and triply fast,” Hidalgo said.
Correction: A previous version of this story did not credit the flooding photo to the proper source, so the photo has been removed.