When I was nine years old, my family was forced to evacuate Kemah ahead of Hurricane Carla. We returned to find Kemah pretty much wiped off the face of the map. Twice in my adult lifetime my homes have been flooded. So, since childhood and throughout my life I have been acutely aware of the risk of flood waters and the stress and disruption of having your home flooded. It is something that no one should ever have to go through.
I began studying the flooding issue seriously when I was the mayor of Kemah in the early 2000’s. Governor Rick Perry appointed me to commissions that studied the aftermaths of Hurricanes Rita and Ike. In 2006 I chaired a regional task force that assisted in re-writing the evacuation plans for our region. The National Hurricane Association recognized the work I did on that task force with their Outstanding Achievement Award and Governor Perry issued a special proclamation commending me for my work.
Over the years I have met with flood experts, attended dozens of seminars, meetings and classes on the issue, and read hundreds of technical papers and studies. Most importantly, however, I have visited about twenty neighborhoods in Houston that chronically flood. Those visits have given me the opportunity to talk to residents about their flood experiences. Those visits have taught me two things.
First, the dynamics of flooding in each area are unique and it is impossible to understand those dynamics without putting on your jeans and boots and getting out and walking the ditches, crawling down in storm sewers, and getting firsthand accounts of what happened during floods.
Second, there are no easy answers to Houston’s flooding problems. There is no one solution. Our topology and climate present significant challenges when attempting to address flooding. It will require a multi-phased approach and consistent, disciplined attention to the problem over many years.
It is important to understand the responsibility for flood control is divided between the City, the County and federal government through the Corps of Engineers. The County and the Corps are responsible for what is referred to as “riverine” flooding. That is when rain falls so heavily that the bayous’ or rivers’ banks are over topped and floodwaters inundate surrounding neighborhoods.
The other type of flooding occurs when ditches and culverts between the neighborhoods and the bayous and rivers are inadequate to get the flood waters to the bayous or rivers before they back up into homes and businesses. This type of flooding is the City’s responsibility. Historically about half the flooding comes from each of these fundamental causes.*
Below are seven proposals to improve flood mitigation. These proposals are specific to the City of Houston’s responsibilities. You can click on each for a detailed discussion.
I am sure others will have additional ideas about how to address flooding in our City and I would welcome any feedback or input you have.
But here is the bottom line. We have no choice. The future of Houston depends on us getting on top of this problem. Companies and individuals are simply not going to invest in Houston if we cannot protect homes and businesses from chronic flooding. This is truly an existential threat to the prosperity of our City and our region.
*The one exception to this general assignment of responsibility for flooding is Lake Houston. Lake Houston is owned by the City and although technically part of the riverine system, the City nonetheless retains responsibility for flooding related to the Lake by virtue of this ownership.