Despite having no budget or staff, Stephen Costello has high expectations for his tenure as chief resilience officer. Just four months after he was appointed to the position by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Costello has suggested using city money to help expedite Harris County drainage projects and purchasing land for regional drainage space. He is also lobbying for a program similar to the city of Houston’s pothole initiative, where citizens can report a pothole and expect it to be filled by the next business day, for minor drainage diversion projects. Costello, who was dubbed the “Flood Czar” by Turner in May, was appointed on the heels of flooding in April and May, when several Lake Houston area homes and businesses were flooded.
How can you help reduce flooding?
I’m primarily a person who will first be interfacing between agencies, whether it be the city and the state, the city and the county, or the city and the federal government. Or if there’s ongoing projects that the city hasn’t been involved with, I will get involved in [them] and just get an understanding of what’s going on and see how it’ll impact the city. I’ll be in my office and looking at an issue that I think might be noteworthy for the city to take on and then I think, “How do we do this?”
What Lake Houston area projects do you have in the works?
I was just talking to council member [Dave] Martin, and I told him that I’m going to go visit with the Coastal Water Authority about the operations of Lake Houston and the dam. Council member Martin [asked] “Can we operate Lake Houston like we do Addicks and Barker dams in terms of lowering the water level in anticipation of a flood coming down the San Jacinto River?” The issue with Lake Houston is a little different because it’s not a reservoir for flood control, it’s a surface water reservoir.
How will you work with county governments in the region?
A taxpayer, when they get water in their house, they don’t really care about who does what—they want everybody helping. So the way I describe it to people is, the difference between the city of Houston and the Harris County Flood Control District when it comes to flooding is we’re the drainage entity and they’re the flooding entity. We are responsible for rainfall from the rooftop to the bayou, and they’re responsible from the bayou to the bay. And along the way we make sure we don’t flood anyone downstream.
How will this process work?
The [Army] Corps of Engineers and Harris County Flood Control District have like seven ongoing projects in the area. Some are being delayed because of a cash strain on the local sponsor. The city can come in, even though you have a contractual relationship between the county and federal government, and help the county with more money. We’ll give you the money; you build it, send the bill to the feds and when they pay you back, you pay us back.
What other projects do you plan to initiate during your tenure?
We have maps that show where houses flood, and most of them are concentrated around the bayous. But then we have areas that are not anywhere near a bayou that are flooding. They’re flooding because of poor drainage, and its either because of old infrastructure or inadequate infrastructure. What I’m trying to develop is a small project, very similar to the pothole project program, where we go out, assess the problem and make some mitigating improvements, knowing full well that it’s not the ultimate solution but it’ll solve most of the drainage problems. Then at a later date the city will come in and do a big capital project.
How will having additional drainage reduce flooding?
What we hope to accomplish with these small drainage projects is that we can get out and touch the neighborhoods a little more. Most people say “We don’t see the city very often out here,” and my thought process is, if we can get out and people can see us more, then they’ll have a better appreciation of where we’re spending our money and why.
Why are you passionate about preventing flooding?
I didn’t decide to focus on flooding and drainage until Tropical Storm Claudette, which was in 1979. It dropped 42 inches of rain in 24 hours. My first experience to house flooding was going out to a neighborhood on Chocolate Bayou south of Alvin, [Texas]. I saw a couple hundred homes with everything out in the front yard, and I’d never seen that before. In talking to the residents about how devastating it was, I said “This is what I want to do for a living.” I’ve been in the business ever since.
Is “Flood Czar” your real title?
The reason why the mayor coined it the “Flood Czar” was because when I first agreed to come back to the city it was post the Tax Day flood and then right after Memorial Day flooding. He wanted me to focus more on flooding and drainage, which is due to my engineering background. He called me that publicly, and that name has stuck.