This research investigates the impact of devastating flood events in Houston, Texas, on flood-specific legislation at a statewide level and regulation within Harris County and Houston City. Although extant studies have investigated the two separately, the interrelationship has received surprisingly little scholarly attention. While it may be reasonably assumed that major events result in significant legislative responses, this investigation shows a highly mediated relationship between the two, with political barriers to proactive policymaking, including the limited attention of lawmakers and complex intergovernmental relationships, conditioning flood responses. Two semi-structured interviews were conducted with Dr. Phillip Bedient, director of the SSPEED Center at Rice University, and Texas State Senator Brandon Creighton to understand the magnitude of the policy problem and the reach of legislative responses. An examination of three floods and state and local responses between 2015-2021 indicates a distinct upward trend in flood-related laws and enhanced cooperation between governmental agencies. However, the measures have been largely reactive, with proactive policymaking confronting the significant hurdles of organizational boundaries and political agenda.
Legislative and Regulatory Responses to Houston-Area Flood Events Since 2015
Houston, America’s fourth largest metropolitan area, is experiencing a period of heightened precipitation with unprecedented regularity, resulting in catastrophic damage on a human, economic, and environmental level. These events have been accompanied by a reactive increase in flood-related laws and regulation, both in Houston and Harris County and in the State legislature. Scholarly studies have investigated rainfall in Harris County and concluded that Houston is experiencing extreme events with higher precipitation than ever before (Statkewicz, et al, 2021). Further research has investigated recent flood-related legislation and escalated flood spending in Texas. While these studies scrutinize storms and their effects independently from each other, no research has unpacked the complex relationship between disastrous flood events and governmental responses. With the intention of filling this gap, this paper conducts an inquiry into the effects of floods in the Greater Houston area on three levels of government in Texas and analyzes the mediated relationships between the events and legislative-regulatory outcomes.
This paper first addresses the geography, frequency of flood events in the region, and the impact of climate change on weather patterns. The literature review and primary resources are combined into three case studies examining governmental reactions to three events in a seven-year period: The Memorial Day Flood in 2015, Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and Tropical Storm Imelda in 2019. The events were selected for their respective significance in terms of costs and damages, their occurrence during biennial legislative sessions, and for their direct impact on subsequent legislation.
Following a detailed review of the secondary literature, primary source legislative analysis, and three exploratory interviews, two political and policy experts were selected for interview. The primary data was collected via semi-structured interviews to go beyond the scholarly literature and expand upon significant findings. Interviews were conducted on April 1st, 2022, with Texas State Senator Brandon Creighton of District 4, and on April 3rd, 2022, with Dr. Phillip Bedient, Professor of Environmental Engineering and Director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, & Evacuation from Disasters Center (SSPEED) at Rice University. Preliminary interviews for topic consultation and pre-research were also conducted with Tessa Crosby, a Rice University PhD candidate in environmental engineering, Rex Harris, a Houston lawyer, and with the researcher’s Honors College peer mentor.
Literature review and Case Analysis
The Greater Houston region is situated largely within a natural wetland and much of the land is inclined to hold water. The county is situated on a web of low elevation bayous and creeks, and their respective watersheds provide most of the water drainage to the Gulf (Blackburn p. 4). Many of these creeks and bayous have watersheds that are contained within Harris County, and their low-elevation and interconnection with other watercourses means that water levels rise easily during episodes of heavy rain ( p.4).
Houston’s flatness and reliance on low-lying bayous for drainage makes it highly susceptible to flood events, which are increasing in frequency. A 2021 study of Houston discovered a clear upward trend in wet days (in terms of frequency and average precipitation) over a three-decade period between 1989 and 2018 and concluded that the number of dry days (measured by a total absence of rainfall) were decreasing (Statkewicz, et al, 2021). Moreover, the research found that dry days tended to fall in drought spells, suggesting that extreme rainfall amounts in shorter periods of time may be becoming the new normal for this area. According to the researchers, “the increasing trend of 6.6 mm in annual totals most likely owes itself to the increase in extreme events exhibited (e.g., Memorial Day flood, 2015; Tax Day flood, 2016; Hurricane Harvey, 2017)” (Statkewicz, et al, 2021).
In addition to the data presented by Statkewicz et al, the severity of rainfall events is apparent in the amount of funds spent on flood-specific disaster recovery. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), 2021 is the “seventh consecutive year (2015-2021) in which 10 or more-billion-dollar weather and climate disaster incidents have impacted the United States” (NOAA, 2022). Figure 1 below shows inflation-adjusted data from NOAA between 1980-2021. The data reveal that between 2015–2021, tropical cyclone and inland flooding events increased in frequency and resulted in a cost of over $200 billion in damages in Texas alone (NOAA, 2022).
A report by the Texas State Water Development Board (TWDB) notes that weather changes in Greater Houston were responsible for a 2018 update to the NOAA’s eleventh volume of Atlas 14, the official advisory guide for estimated rainfall amounts per location in the U.S. which serves as a basis for many disaster-readiness plans at state and local levels in Texas (TWDB). The 2018 update, which was included due to Harvey’s extreme rainfall, adds five inches to the 1% annual chance for 24-hour events in Houston (TWDB). This effectively changes the boundaries of the pre-existing 100-year floodplain in Houston.
Case 1: The Memorial Day Flood, 05/25/2015
The Memorial Day flood began on May 25th, 2015, during a long period of rainfall over Harris County. Although the average rainfall across the area was only 5.3 inches, 162 billion gallons of water fell into reservoirs and waterways that were already swollen from previous rainfall (Talbott). Michael D. Talbott, the Executive Director of the Harris County Flood Control District at the time, reported that a Flash Flood Emergency was issued by the National Weather service in Harris County for the first time during this event and warnings were delivered to the affected areas. However, despite the warning, the sudden floods and inundated waterways and roadways caused the deaths of eight people in the Greater Houston area. The Housing and Community Development Department of Houston states on their website that the event was immediately declared a federal disaster by President Obama, and Houston was granted $87 million in federal funds for recovery (HCDD).
The Memorial Day Flood took place during the last days of the eighty-fourth regular session of the Texas Legislature and consequentially, legislators were able to act immediately on state-level disaster relief. House Bill 6, which pertains to state budget arrangements, was amended only days after the Memorial Day Flood. The added amendment, proposed by (then) Senator Kirk Watson of senate district 14, which was hit hard by flooding, reads as follows:
On September 1, 2015, the Floodplain Management Account…is re-created by this Act as a special fund in the state treasury outside the general revenue fund, and all revenue dedicated for deposit to the credit of the Floodplain Management Account… is rededicated by this Act for that purpose, except that revenue deposited to the Floodplain Management Account may be transferred to the Disaster Contingency Fund No.i453 to be used for extraordinary costs associated with flood risk analysis, planning, and public education (HB 6).
The bill allowed for the floodplain management account (issued in 2007) to be re-created. The new separate account permitted all estimated revenue for future years 2016 and 2017 to be transferred to the Disaster Contingency Fund (DCF) in September 2015 (HB 6).
The State decision to transfer future revenue ultimately impacted smaller local government efforts, as money from the DCF was used in fund-matched grants for flood mitigation projects by the TWDB one year later. In August of 2016, the TWDB approved a sum of $3.5 million dollars to be used for flood improvement projects in seventeen affected areas, many of which lie adjacent to or within Harris County (Munguia, 2016). Of this amount, $1.5 million was transferred directly from the Disaster Contingency Fund (Munguia, 2016). According to TWDB board member Kathleen Jackson, the program’s “combination of statewide and local efforts allows the TWDB to capitalize on the strength of both to maximize flood outreach across the state” (Munguia, 2016). This statement highlights the state and local government’s efforts to collaborate on flood protection efforts following 2015, signaling a noticeable move towards greater state responsibility for localized events.
In Houston, the disastrous flooding revealed the need for a specialized officer to preside over flood mitigation and recovery efforts. In 2016, Mayor Sylvester Turner created a new office for the city and hired Stephen Costello as the city’s first Chief Resilience Officer, a position colloquially dubbed “flood czar” by the media. This position would, in Turner’s words, “serve as the City’s focal point for integrating regional resiliency efforts in the Houston area” (“Imelda Assistance Fund”). Also in Houston, 10 million dollars in the form of the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery 2015 (CDBG-DR15) Action Plan was granted through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to the city (“Houston Action Plan”). The grant sponsored the Houston Strategic Buyout Program, part of which was created in 2016 in direct response to the flooding sustained by Houston during 2015 (“Houston Action Plan”). This program was designed to offer voluntary buyouts of properties that suffered repeated flooding and provide funding for the rehabilitation of any homes or properties deemed rebuildable. However, according to data from FEMA, as analyzed by NPR, the City of Houston had only bought out seventy-five homes by 2016 following the multiple flood disasters (“Response”).
The sluggish action demonstrated by the buyout program illustrates an observation offered by Professor Bedient; the processes of government are generally slow and difficult (personal interview, Apr 4, 2022). In the case of the buyouts, Response to and Recovery from Disasters further explains the implications and structure of the buyout plan, which impedes timely action. The article states that, “the average buyout takes longer than five years [to complete] and only one in five typically qualifies.” Moreover, the buyout option can only benefit property owners directly, so “if multi-family properties are bought out, the funds go to the owners, and tenants are required to leave” (“Response”). The length of time required to close the sale plus the risk of inadvertently causing the displacement of tenants, puts a damper on the buyout program and limits its effectiveness (“Response”).
Case 2: Hurricane Harvey, 08/26/2017
Hurricane Harvey is central to this research, as the breadth of its destruction and flooding across the Greater Houston area has had the most far-reaching impact on all governing bodies in Texas during the period of study. On August 26th, 2017, Harvey made landfall as a category 4 hurricane, and the storm broke all previous records for U.S. rainfall in one event, with parts of Houston reporting nearly fifty-two inches of rain (FEMA). Of the thousands of houses flooded, 23,000 were under more than 5 feet of water according to a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) report issued in September 2017 (FEMA). This storm provided a unique challenge to the Greater Houston area, for, although the previous storms had prompted some reactive changes, the sheer volume of water overpowered the city. Following the storm, an outpouring of efforts at flood mitigation gained traction in the halls of state and local government.
This reactive push to improve infrastructure was exemplified by the Brays Bayou project in Meyerland. According to Bedient (2022) the area has a long history of flooding caused by the bayou and had been undergoing an infrastructure improvement project that had “languished” since 2001. The Brays Bayou project is a joint effort between the Harris County Flood Control District and the Army Corps of Engineers, with both entities financially invested in its progress (“C-11 Project Brays”). Although Meyerland was badly affected by every storm since 2015, progress remained slow, and Harvey caught Meyerland with very little improvement to infrastructure (Bedient, 2022). However, due to the reactive nature of the governmental process and Harvey’s disastrous effect on the unimproved area, money to complete the project was allocated following the President’s declaration of disaster (“C-11 Project Brays”). On the one-year anniversary of Harvey, the county approved a 2.5-billion-dollar bond program to improve county infrastructure. This bond program, as reported by the Harris County Flood Control District, is currently contributing to multiple projects with a combined value of nearly $5 billion, including the Brays Bayou project. The county website states that, “When possible, Harris County Flood Control District will leverage the bond funding to participate in partnership programs that could bring in billions in additional partnership funding” (HCFCD). The publicly funded nature of these projects brought new partnerships across the federal, state, and private sectors.
By the following legislative session in 2019, lawmakers delivered flood-related bills in numbers greater than all bills pertaining to drought, which have historically been the dominant focus of weather-related legislation. Matthew Berg’s article for The Texas Water Journal in 2019, states that 128 bills mentioning the word “flood” were filed during this session and a total of 240 bills dealing in part or whole with floods were submitted (p. 2). In addition, a 71 percent majority of those bills were authored by representatives from districts that had increased annual precipitation rates in Atlas 14’s 2018 update (Berg, 2019 p. 4). This overflow of disaster-conscious bills may have been necessitated by the massive events of the previous four years, but they were certainly rendered all the more urgent by the weather conditions immediately preceding the session. Berg (2019) states, “the 6 months leading up to the session were the wettest July-December period ever recorded in Texas” (p.. 2, 2019). This increase in wet-weather-aware legislation included historic changes for the state.
During the 86th legislature, Texas assigned the task of creating a state-wide flood management plan to the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB). The task was accomplished by senate bills (SB) 7 and 8. SB 8 is discussed at length by Peter Lake, the former Chairman of the TWDB, in a 2019 article published in the Texas Water Journal. The article details that, while the creation of the SFP is a new milestone in government collaboration, it is based on the structure of an already time-tested statewide planning tool: the State Water Plan (SWP) (Texas Water Development Board). The TWDB has managed the SWP, which focuses on drought supply, since its creation in 1957 and has handled flood mitigation in a fractured capacity as the state’s National Flood Insurance Program coordinator and through its work with FEMA as grant administrator (Lake, 2019, p.59). Peter Lake (2019) states that the new SFP will rely on three “pillars” of flood-fighting: Mapping, Planning, and Mitigation (p. 61). Mapping entails updates to the Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) for each county. Lake writes that, “as of 2018, the average age of Texas floodplain maps was 13 years old,” and considering the evidence suggesting a change to precipitation rates and frequency of extreme rainfall events, maps that are a decade old are no longer relevant to the mitigation efforts and must be updated (p. 61).
Additionally, planning coordinates the organization of local, county, and state projects into a unified plan. In accordance with SB 8, the TWDB created fifteen Regional Flood Planning Groups (RFPGs) with committees for each. The regions are organized around watersheds, and their structure ensures upstream and downstream communication with stakeholders on every part of a connected waterway (Lake, (2019 p. 63). The RFPGs are entirely responsible for which projects are submitted to the SFP and, in Lake’s words, “The future of fighting floods in Texas will be built from the ground up by the people who are most directly impacted by floods in their unique corner of the state” (p. 63). Ultimately, the planning pillar’s outcome is entirely decided by the local shareholders in the region, and the TWDB has no influence beyond the creation of the groups.
Finally, the mitigation pillar entails funding studies and projects to alleviate the effects of major flood events (Lake, 2019, p. 61). Funding projects will involve coordination between the state, private companies, and the federal government. SB7 provided the necessary funding for the SFP to begin to work. After SB7 was passed, House Joint Resolution 4, known as Proposition 8, was added to create the Flood Infrastructure Fund. Voters “enshrined the FIF in the Texas Constitution so it will exist in perpetuity, outside of normal budget cycles and fiscal year limitations” (Lake, 2019, p. 64). The FIF was granted a one-time transfer of $793 million for grants and loans for eligible mitigation projects across the state (Lake, p. 64, 2019).
Regarding Senate Bill 7, Senator Creighton, the bill’s author, states, “There wasn’t up until this time  a concerted effort…for the entire legislature to focus on such a huge response and long-term planning” (personal communication, April 1, 2022). Because of Harvey, and the great costs to the state, the legislature was highly motivated to work together and collaborate on a solution (Creighton, 2022). Senate Bill 7, in addition to funding the FIF, includes provisions for state-sponsored federal disaster fund matching (SB 7).
Sec. 15.534. USE OF INFRASTRUCTURE FUND [FIF]. (a) The board may use the infrastructure fund only: 4. To make a grant to an eligible political subdivision [county or city] to provide matching funds to enable the eligible political subdivision to participate in a federal program for a flood project (SB 7).
In Creighton’s words (2022), Senate Bill 7 will “bring value to the entire state because it’s disaster related, not just flooding related.” The inclusion of other disaster events, including wildfires and tornadoes, transforms the bill from one that focuses on coastal or riverine areas (e.g., Harris County) to one that benefits the whole state and, therefore, garners greater political support (Creighton, 2022).
In addition to the large-scale statewide legislative changes brought about by Senate Bills 7 and 8, Texas also passed an amendment to the Water Code during the 86th session. Amendment 2, Section 12.052, subsection a, regulates the manner and procedure of emergency dam releases. The amendment requires the operator of a dam to notify downstream communities of an impending emergency water release, notify the public with details on the affected flood area, include a disclaimer in their announcement that protects the agency from accusations of false alert, and provide protection for the dams from admitting liability by following the amendment (HB 26.) This update unifies watersheds and requires full communication with every downstream community that will be affected by a dam release.
Writing in 2017, Jim Blackburn, Professor of Environmental Law, and Co-Director of SSPEED at Rice University in Houston, examines the policies in place immediately after Harvey and concludes that a lack of regulation is responsible for many of the worst outcomes of this historic event. One such outcome is the case of the federally managed Addicks and Barker dams and their reservoirs, which were built on the outskirts of Houston in 1948 by the Army Corps of Engineers and are now incorporated within city limits. During Hurricane Harvey, massive flood damage was sustained by uninsured homes built within the maximum flood level area of the reservoirs (Blackburn, 2017). Blackburn finds that the footprint of the reservoir was not maintained as a condemned area. Indeed, as the dams had been designed to assist the bayous by containing water during heavy rain and were never meant to hold water long-term, this may have led to the impression that the low-lying land above them was not in danger of flooding (Blackburn, 2017).
In addition to a possible misconception of the reservoir’s capacity, Diggs et al (2021) suggest a further reason for the lack of transparency for homeowners in the reservoirs; unless dictated by state law, the city government has ultimate authority over zoning decisions in its region, which may allow the city to pursue profit over safety (p. 15). In Houston’s case, the city allowed developers to build homes within the maximum level of the reservoirs without disclosing the threat of flood, resulting in the inundation of uninsured homes in 2017 (Blackburn, 2017). The extreme cost to homeowners and the lack of insurance on these homes coincides with a push in the state legislature to pass Senate Bill 339 and its companion, House Bill 3815, in 2019, requiring home sellers to disclose a property’s previous flood history and flood zone status to the buyer (SB 339, HB 3815).
Harvey’s direct effect on local government was wide-ranging, but one truly notable outcome for Houston occurred in 2018. Bedient (2022) references a mandate that was passed requiring new construction sites in the pre-NOAA Atlas 14 500-year flood zone to be elevated two feet above the floodplain (Cardenas & Formby, 2018). This decision was notable to Bedient, as it complicates the interests of what he referred to as a “developer owned city” by increasing the cost of building. Previously, only the 100-year flood zone was regulated, and the old zoning law required new homes to be raised just one foot above the floodplain (Cardenas and Formby, 2018). As the mandate was passed before the update to the NOAA’s Atlas 14, the Houston decision has increased the regulations in what must now be considered the equivalent to the pre-update 100-year zone. This revision, which predicts weather patterns based on updated research, has essentially expanded high-risk zones that were previously designated as 500-year zones (Bedient, 2022).
Case 3: Tropical storm Imelda, 09/17/2019
Tropical storm Imelda is a study in the drought-flood cycle in Texas. After the unprecedented wet weather preceding the 86th legislature, Texas and the south-eastern U.S. experienced record-setting heat, culminating in widespread “flash drought” conditions during September 2019 (Di Liberto, 2019). While the ground was baked dry and unabsorbent from drought, another catastrophic weather event hit the Houston/Harris County area. Imelda, a slow-moving tropical storm that became a tropical depression as it progressed inland, produced heavy rain and tornadoes across the state and into Oklahoma (Latto and Berg, p. 2, 2020). In their report for the National Hurricane Center, Andy Latto and Robbie Berg (2020) observed that, “The 44.29-inch peak rainfall total makes Imelda the 7th-wettest tropical cyclone…to impact the United States, the fifth wettest in the contiguous United States, and the fourth wettest in the state of Texas since 1940” (p. 5). While Jefferson County sustained the worst of the event, Harris County and Houston still experienced extreme flooding and two of five total flood-related deaths in Texas (p.5). The storm was declared a federal disaster by President Trump on October 1st, 2019.
Imelda prompted the collaboration of Harris County and Houston City governments. Immediately following the storm, Houston’s mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, in cooperation with the Greater Houston Community Foundation (GHCF), set up an emergency fund to aid non-profits in their services to affected people. This fund was necessary and timely. A survey administered by GHCF immediately following the storm reported that of “2076 homes in Harris County [that] were damaged as a result of Tropical Storm Imelda…1,054 of those homes do not have flood insurance” (Greater Houston Community Foundation, 2019). Interestingly, a finding reported in the GHCF’s 2019 Imelda survey revealed that nearly half of the respondents were renters. The flooding had affected 1339 homeowners and 702 renters in Harris County, as reported in the survey as of October 21st, 2019 (Greater Houston Community Foundation, 2019). These numbers and the demographics they represent are highly relevant when considering legislation passed during the 87th session.
Passed during the 87th legislature in 2021, House Bill 531 (effective January 1st, 2022) requires landlords to inform renters of the previous flood history for any rental property in a 100-year flood zone (HB 531). Previously in 2019, Senate Bill 339 and its companion House Bill 3815 created the legal requirement for property sellers to inform prospective buyers of the home’s location in a 100-year flood plain. HB 531 adds rental owners and expands the disclosure requirement to the 500-year zone. Despite the straightforward appearance of this bill, it has critics among groups promoting housing equality. In Houston Public Media’s (HPM) review of incoming laws in late 2021, the bill was viewed as both potentially positive and potentially negative. HPM reported that the bill places the responsibility of insurance on the inhabitant of the property, i.e., the renter, and the landlord has no responsibility beyond informing the tenant of the 100-year zone location and notifying the tenant that renter’s insurance does not cover floods (Fogel, et al, 2021). This incurs an extra cost to the tenant, as they must pay for both renter’s insurance and a flood insurance policy.
While Imelda had less visible impact on subsequent acts of government, it serves as a sharp reminder of increased volatility in Texas weather patterns over the last seven years. According to Bedient (2022), despite the billions in damages and floodwater intrusion into the 500-year zone, research on the acceleration of weather conditions places Imelda within the bounds of “normal” weather patterns. He states that in Houston, the damage from the storm was overshadowed by that of Harvey, and it was ultimately viewed by weather experts as simply “another one” in an expected series of unusual and harsh storms ( Bedient,2022). Although experts were not surprised by Imelda, it demonstrated the ferocity of the predicted new normal for the area.
Analysis and Conclusions
Although Imelda shocked and devastated parts of Texas, flooded 500-year zones, and even exceeded Harvey in terms of short-term rainfall, it seems to have had relatively little impact on the 2021 legislative session. Senator Creighton’s response to this omission made clear that legislators inevitably focus on the most pressing agenda items. Beyond the overarching issues that have the potential to change legislative priorities under emergency conditions, are shifts in the immediate needs of constituents, which can lessen the urgency of flood mitigation efforts
( Creighton, 2022). Creighton (2022) illustrated this point by stating that, “every blue-sky day, there’s an issue …that takes money away from continuing to solve the flood mitigation problems, because it’s been a week. It’s been a year. It’s been three years [since the last flood disaster]. It’s not on everyone’s mind.”
Texas has gone through several major focus-shifting disasters since 2015. At the end of the 86th session, legislators were already forming new plans for the next session and deciding agendas (Creighton, 2022). However, many of those agendas were adjusted with the global COVID-19 crisis, and the shutdown interrupted much of the usual state process as well as rearranging budgetary priorities (Creighton, 2022). According to Creighton (2022), the pandemic is a prime example of “when an issue is controlling us instead of our preferences on what priorities might be,” and in his experience, after the struggles through 2020, the public’s concern with flooding has been eclipsed by the pandemic.
In addition to the pandemic and the challenges it presented to Texas legislators, in the middle of February 2021, an unprecedented deep freeze (winter storm Uri) brought the state to a standstill as millions of Texans lost power and water. Creighton cites this, along with the pandemic, as two major reasons for the shift in attention. He observed that “elected officials get distracted very easily, depending on the hot button issues of the day” as the immediate demands of the of the moment supersede longer-term goals (Creighton, 2022). This, along with his statement regarding the memory of the public for flood issues, provides an interesting insight into the challenge of flood legislation; with so much competition of needs and so many demands, can significant proactive measures sustain the necessary momentum to reach fruition?
Senator Creighton offered the following explanation of the public’s role in legislative priorities:
The fascinating thing about Texas is that we are usually either in a drought or a flood.… So, we’ve been really looking into flood mitigation solutions at sort of an unprecedented level because of…the recent and consistent severity [of storms in the last 7 years]. The public…does not have a short memory on flooding events. And so, when the public stays motivated…[and] loud and channels the urgency towards the elected officials to continue to keep the issue of flooding as a top priority, the elected officials listen and respond. The consistency of the floods has caused people to not just forget about it once it’s happened; and because they don’t forget about it, and they stay motivated ( Creighton, 2022).
That said, Texas is a diverse state, and the interests of its people are diffused across a plethora of non-flood related issues. Poll data from the University of Texas in the year following hurricane Harvey showed a systematic decrease in urgency regarding hurricane recovery across the state as time progressed.
Figure 2 shows the ranking of hurricane recovery as a state priority. Recovery was the third priority for respondents one month after the flood yet fell to sixteenth place by the one-year mark (University of Texas & Texas Tribune, 2018). In the relatively quiet year following Harvey, the urgency of hurricane flooding rapidly abated.
Yet the frequency, devastation, and cost of flood events will continue to pressure state lawmakers to invest in statewide mitigation strategies ( Creighton, 2022). While Creighton (2022) accepts that “blue sky days” derail long-term planning, Bedient notes that mild periods will be fewer and farther apart owing the changed weather cycle. The “blue sky days” referred to by Creighton are becoming punctuated by more extreme events, focusing the public mind on high-priority flood initiatives. This, coupled with Creighton’s statement that public priorities ultimately drive the actions of elected officials, suggests that flood-affected residents may be increasingly likely to keep their representatives on-task (Creighton, 2022). Naturally, this depends on new, salient issues not redirecting public attention and budgetary priorities, something that will be challenging as federal and state partisan agenda and election cycles present ongoing barriers to long-term proactive planning.
The overall source of motivation noted throughout this research has been reactivity; as events happened, alterations to plans and budgets have responded after the fact. However, the investigation has also shown some movement towards the greater anticipation of and planning for floods by local governments as well as at the state level. Paramount here is the increasing need for more inter-governmental collaboration in the flood planning process, something that has long been the responsibility of local government agencies. The willingness of Texas citizens to cede some aspects of local power to the state appears to have increased with the volume of flood events and is a noteworthy phenomenon in such a historically fractured state. For example, voter results from the 2019 constitutional amendment election show that most Texans supported the funding of the FIF from the state rainy day fund. Not surprisingly, Jefferson County, which was hit hardest by Imelda two months prior, offered overwhelming support for the proposition: of 11,816 total votes, only 1,273 opposed the FIF (Texas Election Results, 2020). In addition, the results by county show that even the counties furthest from obvious flood hazards voted in favor of the fund (Texas Election Results, 2020). The FIF was passed with a statewide majority in November 2019, suggesting that although other priorities superseded flooding for the public, lawmakers were able to remind the voters of its importance at the ballot box.
While funding flood mitigation efforts is essential, organizational hurdles also impact the coordination and implementation of remediation strategies. Departments within municipalities may be reluctant to work together or share research. Especially in Houston, which has over 100 independent Municipal Utility Districts operating in the city, communication and decision-making is hindered by the sheer numbers of competing interests. Flooding and its relation to law-making in Texas is a multiforked issue that requires substantial communication between numerous governmental agencies.
As previously noted, voters may be increasingly acceptant of flood intervention measures from state government. In Creighton’s words, “There’s been an increase in the scale of the bills that we’ve addressed… [They are] larger statewide policies that address major flooding solutions” (Creighton, 2022). He further noted, “the funding has been at a heightened level.” The senator also expressed an expectation for this level of involvement to continue; “One of the things that has come out of these huge damaging floods is that legislators and organizations are now more in tune with flooding.” This “in tune” relationship may foster proactive efforts, as “departments are interested and aware of the long-term nature of the problems” (Bedient, 2022).
While the increase in awareness is reassuring, it also creates intra- and inter-governmental challenges. Although Texas has seen an increase in federal funds, there is a hurdle to their proactive use due to their partisan allocation. The Republican-led Texas General Land Office dispenses federal aid for counties and municipalities. However, the office has apparently snubbed many larger and more diverse areas in favor of less needy Republican counties. Following Harvey, Federal emergency funds for Texas were granted with a HUD recommendation that the 20 worst affected counties receive priority—typically large coastal areas with diverse demographics and Democratic Party majorities (Despart, 2022). Acting within its rights, the GLO added 29 less impacted counties to the HUD list that are farther inland and with much smaller, whiter, and Republican voting populations (Despart, 2022).
Figure 3 below shows the distribution of funding between the HUD counties and the GLO counties using data from the GLO and the 2020 census (Despart, 2022). The payment of 1.2 billion dollars ultimately showed extraordinary favoritism.
About 800 million dollars of the fund was allocated to Harris County and around 400 million to the GLO counties, with less densely populated areas receiving substantially more money per resident than larger, diverse counties (Despart, 2022). Indeed, despite its centrality to the issue, Harris County was completely excluded from an initial payment of funds by the GLO: only after an extreme outcry was it granted nine percent of the 1-billion-dollar payout granted in 2021 (Despart, 2022). The partisan and political nature of fund granting, as practiced by the GLO, is undoubtedly a deterrent to proactivity and trust within intragovernmental agencies.
While political boundaries are a significant hinderance to proactively addressing the “long term” issues identified by Bedient (2022), some anticipatory initiatives to flood mitigation can be found at both the local and statewide level. On April 26th, 2022, Houston Community College (HCC) announced its plan for a $30 million flood disaster training facility (McGee, 2022). This facility is a true collaboration of state, national, and local powers and shows foresight for preparation, while also being consistent with Texas’ desire to address public needs through private enterprise. The HCC initiative may be indicative of a policy shift in Houston; one that demonstrates a general admission of evermore frequent flood events and a willingness to prepare for them proactively. That said, the political and organizational barriers to statewide proactive policymaking remain high, and Texas has a history of reactive and incomplete initiatives when it comes to flood preparedness. The challenge for Texas will be how to deliver coordinated and funded proactive measures in the face of organizational, political, and partisan divides across state and local governments.
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“C-11 Project Brays.” (n.d.) Harris County Flood Control District, http://www.hcfcd.org/Activity/Active-Projects/Brays-Bayou/C-11-Project-Brays.
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