Getting Ready for the Next Big Storm

In the immediate aftermath of Houston’s worst natural disaster, Hurricane Harvey, the priorities were clear: Rescue, shelter, debris removal, urgent disaster assistance.

But after getting a good start on those challenges, I knew I needed to quickly turn my attention to the prevention and mitigation of flooding.

Recovery from Hurricane Harvey and preventing future disasters are both about building forward, not just building back. We must not only repair the damage and brace for the next disaster; we must strengthen the resilience of the city’s economy, people, communities and physical infrastructure.

Working with City Council, Harris County, city departments and more, we are building a stronger, safer Houston.

One of my first acts was to appoint former Shell CEO Marvin Odum as the city’s new Chief Resiliency Officer to oversee our work going forward. I re-named our infrastructure program, ReBuild Houston, to Build Houston Forward, with plans to accelerate the repair and rehabilitation of drainage and streets, with a greater focus on neighborhoods.

City Council approved new construction standards in the 100-year and 500-year floodplains. New structures in the 100- and 500-year floodplains will have to be elevated 2 feet above the 500-year flood elevation.

The city has a close working relationship with Harris County. I supported the county’s $2.5 billion flood control bond project approved by voters last year. Many of those voters were Houston residents and many of the county’s projects will benefit Houstonians. One example is Project Brays. The city has taken out a $43 million loan from the Texas Water Development Board, which it will advance to the Harris County Flood Control District for widening Brays Bayou and replacing bridges. Those funds will be re-paid when the federal government provides its share of the project.

Photograph illustrating rebuilding of infrastructure in the watershed

The city will use an expected hazard mitigation grant of more than $250 million on four key projects that will prevent flooding. Two of those projects were just awarded funding: turning the former Inwood golf course into a detention basin and adding more gates to Lake Houston to protect Kingwood—these gates will allow for a much quicker release of water from Lake Houston when heavy rains are expected. The other two projects are: improvement to the North Canal to reduce downtown flood risks from Buffalo and White Oak Bayous and a detention basin project in northwest Houston in cooperation with TIRZ 17.

Before Hurricane Harvey hit, I asked Flood Czar Stephen Costello to put together a Redevelopment and Drainage Task Force to review storm water regulations and building codes and identify changes needed to mitigate redevelopment impacts on surrounding properties and drainage system. The Task Force made 11 recommendations for changes and City Council passed a resolution of support for these revisions to the Infrastructure Design Manual and Building Code, including an end to detention credits for redevelopment and accommodating natural drainage patterns.

Not all flood prevention work comes in major projects; sometimes it’s as simple as clearing out a drainage ditch. I have created the Storm Water Action Team—SWAT—to reduce drainage problems that are not directly attributed to overflow from the bayous that are under the control of the Harris County Flood Control District. Approximately 100 deferred maintenance projects spread throughout the city have been initially identified for inclusion in the SWAT program. An initial round of funding of $10 million was approved by City Council; the funding for this fiscal year is $17 million. The work encompasses everything from replacing sewer inlets and grates to regrading ditches and resizing culverts to minor erosion repairs and regular mowing. Two hundred projects have been completed or are planned.

Here are a few other things we are doing at the City of Houston:

  • The City established a partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, underwritten by Shell Oil Company, accelerating the path to a Houston that can even more confidently grow and thrive in the 21st century.
  • Recognizing Houston’s exposure to the impacts of a changing climate, my administration has launched Houston’s Climate Action Plan. This initiative, with technical advice from the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC), will convene stakeholders from across the community to develop cost-effective energy efficiency, renewable energy and transportation measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • We are teaming with our congressional delegation, the county and the Greater Houston Partnership to create more persuasive power for our region’s advocacy voice in Washington, DC.
  • The City has won permission from FEMA for the Corps of Engineers to include the removal of the mouth bar in the San Jacinto River (sediment deposited in the middle of the river that exacerbates flooding) as part of its current dredging project on the River. Dredging is underway.

These are a few examples of what we are doing right now to make Houston stronger, more resilient and more sustainable. We will continue to create and implement more projects and programs as we Build Houston Forward.

Working together, neighbor helping neighbor, Houston will emerge better than it was before.Throughout Houston’s history, we have faced challenges and we have built a city that is even better and more resilient. This time is no different. Working together, neighbor helping neighbor, Houston will emerge better than it was before.

(This blog post was updated on August 19, 2019.)