Flooding in Houston

A tow driver pulls a car out of flood waters on a feeder road on State Highway 249, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2017, after Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area. 

AUSTIN — Massive floods have swamped Houston before, but Hurricane Harvey is prompting policy makers and residents to assess the environmental and economic impact of natural disasters anew.

There’s talk of buyouts for Houston property owners to return developed land to a more water-absorbent natural state, and other proposals will come thick and fast as the nation’s as fourth-largest city dries out.

“I’m hearing and seeing in newspapers that people are talking about a new normal,” said Mary Anne Piacentini, executive director of the Katy Prairie Conservancy in Houston. “It should be a game changer.”

Harvey is the third big flood that’s soaked Houston in three consecutive years, but this time the high water wasn’t confined to Harris County; state disaster declarations went to more than five dozen counties that were threatened by severe flooding, storm surge and high winds.

But as the water-logged counties dry out and the billions of federal dollars earmarked for rebuilding Texas begin to flow, people who remember the proposals to build new reservoirs to contain flood waters, or a dike to protect the Houston Ship Channel refineries, question whether the momentum will last.

“It’s a combination of will and money, both of which dissipate quickly in the wake of a storm,” said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus. “Those things have a pretty short shelf life.”

Still, the combined impact of Harvey, which made landfall in Port Aransas and Port O’Connor as a Category 4 Hurricane on Aug. 25, along with the two previous floods, may have been a critical wake-up call.

Rottinghaus said Harvey is compelling local elected officials such as Houston’s mayor to speak “boldly.”

Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, earlier this week called for a one-year property tax rate hike to help clear debris and make repairs. 

The funds would help replace dollars lost to lower property tax valuations on flood-damaged houses. 

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, noted that Houston has taken previous floods to heart by moving essential operations at the Texas Medical Center above the first floor after Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 and building the massive Sims Bayou flood-control project.

“Sims used to flood; it didn’t this time,” Coleman said. “That was a lesson learned. We are learning, slowly.”

Coleman acknowledges the importance of protecting the area’s critical refineries and the gasoline they produce, but said that while the proposed “Ike Dike” to fend off storm surge isn’t a bad idea, it’s not the only idea. 

Coleman also advocates mitigation efforts such as buying out property owners instead of re-insuring “the same place five times,” in areas that flood repeatedly.

Lisa Gonzalez, president of the Houston Area Research Center, also advocates buyouts, along with strengthening the region’s “green infrastructure,” such as the Katy Prairie, which can quickly absorb flood waters more quickly than developed land. 

Gonzalez said there’s a “false dichotomy” development and conservation measures that can bolster flood-control.

“If we set this up right we can do a lot of good things,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said the fact Harvey affected so many counties, and not just Harris County, which contains Houston, could spur a brooder consensus for action than past disasters such as Hurricane Ike did in 2008.

“Ike was viewed as more of a coastal event,” Gonzalez said. “In Houston we don’t always think of ourselves as a coastal community.”

But, Gonzalez said, “there’s not anyone in the region that hasn’t been changed by Harvey some way.”

She advocates assessing floodplain development, then getting the information to local and county officials who will be governing about 10 million residents by mid-century, up from about 7 million in the greater Houston area now.

“This is not an insurmountable problem,” Gonzalez said. “It’s going to take resources.”

Of course, “there’s only so much money,” Coleman said.

Rottinghaus noted that flood mitigation hasn’t received as much attention from state lawmakers in the past as items such as education.

“This is a long-term problem,” Rottinghaus said. “With a little bit of political will and a whole lot of money it is something that can be fixed.”

The next regular legislative session doesn’t begin until 2019. 

“The political will is there now,” Rottinghaus said, “but will it be there in 18 months?” 

John Austin covers the Texas Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jaustin@cnhi.com.