With funds from six flooding buyout programs providing $66 million in assistance and 73 homes purchased since 2015, Montgomery County is completing its first set of buyouts while awaiting more grant funding in May as a new hurricane season approaches.

According to Montgomery County Recovery Manager Morgan Lumbley, the county has successfully completed the buyout process for 11 homes so far in 2023, with a goal to purchase 50 by the end of the year.

The county’s buyout program relies on two funding sources: the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. As of April 3, the county has received $52.4 million from the 2016-20 FEMA Flood Mitigation Assistance programs and HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program for disaster recovery.

Lumbley said the county expects another $13.84 million from FEMA’s 2021 Flood Mitigation Assistance program to be received around May followed by contracts between the state and county. Buyouts are anticipated to begin in November, she said.

Since 2015, Montgomery County has seen several major flooding events, including the Memorial Day and Tax Day floods in 2015 and 2016, respectively, Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and Tropical Storm Imelda in 2019. Around 1,500 homes and 880 homes were damaged in Imelda and in the 2016 floods, respectively, Community Impact previously reported.

In The Woodlands area, these flooding events have resulted in flooding in areas along Spring Creek including Timber Lakes Timber Ridge.

According to data from Lumbley, 10 homes in The Woodlands area have successfully completed the buyout process since 2015.

An additional five buyouts throughout the county were approved April 11 by Montgomery County Commissioners Court.

“I wish more people would take advantage of this program,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley said. “For so many years, we’ve been watching people get flooded and flooded and flooded, and we just go back and let them rebuild and rebuild. ... We’ve got to get these people out there somewhere else where we don’t have to continually rebuild stuff that we know is not going to last.”

Breaking down buyouts

Montgomery County has four buyout programs through FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance program and two through HUD’s disaster recovery grant program.

For FEMA’s program, eligible applicants are identified before the county applies for the funding, while the HUD program works in the opposite way, with eligible applicants being identified after the county receives the funding, Lumbley said. The Texas Water Development Board provides oversight for FEMA’s grants while the Texas General Land Office oversees HUD’s grants.

“Typically, once the funds are awarded, the funds are ‘earmarked’ on the county side,” Lumbley said in an April 5 email. “Funds are spent on the front end, and throughout the program the county seeks reimbursements from the state.”

There is no cap for buying out homes through the FEMA program, and homes that have been bought have ranged from $60,000-$750,000 in price, Lumbley said.

“A lot of the low-dollar ones came from the 2016 program because the majority of those that were named as part of the application were damaged in Harvey and not rebuilt,” she said. “So the value was current market value, so it was valued in a damaged state.”

For HUD grants from the 2015-16 floods and Hurricane Harvey, the structure cap is $175,000 and $200,000, respectively. But homeowners eligible for buyouts through the program can receive up to a $100,000 relocation incentive if it was their primary home and the homeowners are considered low-to-moderate income, Lumbley said. The new home must be located within Montgomery County and outside a flood plain.

HUD funds have also been used for flood mitigation. Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack said the county has previously committed $12.5 million in HUD funding for programs addressing areas including Tamina. The county has also applied for funding for infrastructure, including a Sawdust Road bridge for access to several flood-prone areas.

Buyout delay factors

With around three years elapsing between funding application due dates and final awarding of funds for FEMA programs, other factors can delay the buyout process. Lumbley said obtaining a clear title on the home has been the biggest factor in delaying a buyout.

According to Brittany Eck, director of communications for the Texas General Land Office, the federal requirements behind the FEMA and HUD programs create many stalemate situations as the state and local governments work to meet all the requirements.

“Montgomery County is actually one of the most proficient grantees utilizing buyout funds,” Eck said. “It is a difficult undertaking, and many counties and cities simply do not wish to administer the program dues to the federal process requirements.”

Lumbley said sometimes participants can withdraw from the program, which is usually done when they receive the offer letter. Under the HUD grant, delays can also occur if a participant needs to relocate.

“We work with them, and we provide them time to try and get an alternate housing plan prior to us purchasing [the home],” Lumbley said. “So that might delay it a little bit.”

Lumbley also said all the paperwork associated with a HUD buyout must go through the General Land Office for approval before the county can issue an offer letter, all of which is part of the general guidelines and cannot be skipped.

The buyout program was temporarily paused during the early stages of the pandemic, but Lumbley said she believes the pandemic has not substantially delayed the buyout process.

Lumbley said the county bought its first property through the program March 27, 2020.

“We purchased them all throughout 2020, 2021 and 2022,” she said. “[The pandemic] didn’t slow me down.”

Looking ahead

The county is closing out its 2016 Flood Mitigation Assistance program as of April, Lumbley said, and it will return the federal funding it could not spend. However, she said the goal is always to spend the entire amount funded.

“I think where some of the complication comes in is the waiting time between when we submit the application—and that homeowner is engaged and involved, and it’s something that they want—versus when we actually get the funding,” Lumbley said.

Barring another flooding event, Lumbley said she expects the 2021 Flood Mitigation Assistance program to be the last one for the county.

“After we’ve received the allocation, and we purchase the homes, unless there’s a specific need to do additional buyouts, I think that might be it,” she said. “The goal is to have all buyouts completed by 2025.”

Local solutions

FEMA is in the process of revising flood plain maps for the Greater Houston area, with preliminary data expected to come out some time in 2023 based on a December 2022 update from FEMA. According to Montgomery County Floodplain Administrator John McKinney, the Texas Water Development Board is reviewing the Spring Creek area for vulnerabilities as of April.

The Spring Creek area was one of several discussed by The Woodlands One Water Task Force between 2016 and 2022. The task force was formed in the aftermath of the Memorial and Tax Day floods for water agencies and township representatives to discuss issues such as flooding and drainage since The Woodlands has no direct authority over those areas.

Bruce Rieser, a former chair of the One Water Task Force and former township board member, said he believes a lack of improvements to Spring Creek and additional development has likely only worsened the problem.

“Spring Creek is essentially completely uncontrolled, and there hasn’t been any improvements made to improve the flow,” Rieser said.

After being dissolved in April 2022, the task force was reformed by the township in March to continue seeking preventive solutions for future flooding events.

“If we have another Harvey, we will have the same problem that we had when we started,” Rieser said. “You know, I think it will be as bad or worse.”