Inside Texas' Revamped Statewide Flood Mitigation Plan

It's a wishlist of projects with an overarching goal of mitigating flooding across the most disaster-prone state in the nation.
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Paul Morris checks on neighbor's homes in a flooded district of Orange as Texas slowly moves toward recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey on September 7th, 2017.

Paul Morris checks on neighbor's homes in a flooded district of Orange as Texas slowly moves toward recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey on September 7th, 2017.

During the Texas legislature's first session since Hurricane Harvey slammed into the state, killing dozens, lawmakers approved a variety of cutting-edge legislation to bolster storm recovery, flood control, and emergency response.

Perhaps most notably, lawmakers passed legislation that would create a statewide flood plan. Much like Texas' State Water Plan, it will be a wish list of projects compiled on a regional basis every five years but with an overarching goal of mitigating flooding across the most disaster-prone state in the nation.

Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, said it appears that few, if any, states have such plans, though he said recent research indicates that at least a dozen states help communities pay for flood-control projects in one way or another. It's always a positive when states "step up and own part of the flood risk management problems happening in their own state," he said.

Communities with projects that make the list—think detention ponds and dam repairs—may be eligible for financial assistance from the state in the form of grants and low-interest loans though lawmakers opted to let voters decide whether to bankroll the plan. A ballot measure this November calls for filling a special flood infrastructure account with $3.26 billion from the state's rainy day fund.

University of Maryland research engineering professor Gerald Galloway, a former United States Army Corps of Engineers district commander who contributed to a retrospective Harvey report ordered by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, said it's a big deal for any state to invest its own money in such initiatives rather than looking solely to the federal government for help, which most states do.

"What I have watched is that, over the last year or two years, Texas has looked the demon in the eyes and said, 'We recognize that these (storms) are big deals,'" he said. "Texas is following the first of the principles: Learn what your problem is and start developing plans to deal with it. It's much better than saying. 'Let's talk some more about it.' There's an awful lot of that going on around the country."

At the same time, Berginnis suggested other states are much farther ahead when it comes to managing flooding.

For example, he said, Illinois pays for floodplain mapping to identify high-risk areas—an initiative the federal government typically handles. Minnesota does the same thing, Berginnis said, while also offering a program that gives communities grants to use as local matching money to help draw down federal funds or to do projects on their own.

Still, the Lone Star State appears to be moving in that direction.

For the first time in recent memory, lawmakers this year opted to help Harvey-hit communities cover some of the local matching funds they must send to the federal government before it will release billions more dollars to repair storm-battered government facilities, and harden public and private structures so they can better withstand future storms.

Harvey was the second-costliest tropical cyclone in U.S. history, behind Hurricane Katrina.

The federal government typically requires communities to pay for a certain percentage of major projects—no matter the type. After disasters, communities often look to their states for help with that local match.

About two-thirds of states cover some or all of local matching funds after disasters, said Daniel Craig, a former recovery director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency who now serves as chief operating officer at Tidal Basin, a private disaster recovery consultancy.

Houston-area officials lobbied aggressively for local match assistance on behalf of all 55 Harvey-impacted counties, noting that $1.3 billion from the state would help draw down $11 billion in federal money.

"This is our one big ask," said Bill Kelly, director of government relations for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

In the end, lawmakers opted to dole out less than half that amount—$600 million. While it was less than what they asked for, Kelly said they are more than grateful for the assistance.

Texas also made progress in another area: Locking down contracts for debris removal before storms hit so local officials don't have to find contractors in the midst of a natural disaster. A bill that sailed through the Texas Capitol this year would do just that.

"There's been a huge emphasis on that, and it's great to see Texas adding that as kind of a priority," Craig said. "Recovery doesn't start until debris is taken off the streets."

The passage of so many measures supporting flood control efforts is exciting to Roy Sedwick, the executive director of the Texas Floodplain Management Association, who has advocated for such policies for years with limited success.

"This is the first time we've seen some really real, good, positive moves toward making some big changes," he said.

Still, experts note that there are some cutting-edge policies Texas passed on this session that could make a big difference in flood preparedness.

For one, lawmakers declined to enact stricter building codes in flood-prone areas, such as requiring minimum building elevations or restricting construction altogether. It's a measure the Texas General Land Office, which oversees the state's coastline, pushed ahead of the legislative session, calling the state's current building codes "weak and uneven."

A bill that would have required Texas to adopt more up-to-date municipal building code standards—something Florida, Virginia, and Louisiana have already done—failed to pass.

Craig, the former FEMA official, said Florida completely overhauled its state building codes in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 to make homes and buildings more resistant to hurricanes. He described it as "one of the most sweeping packages a state has ever done as far as resiliency and mitigation." It's likely a tough sell in pro-business Texas, though, he said.

Lawmakers did move to increase public awareness about flood risks, passing legislation that requires sellers of residential properties to tell would-be buyers if the property has flooded or is located in any kind of flood-prone area. Previously they only had to disclose if the home was in a 100-year floodplain. (A similar bill that would have imposed the same requirements on landlords didn't pass.)

Galloway, the former Army Corps district commander, noted that Republican-dominated Texas also has declined to openly address the overarching issue that figures prominently in many other states' plans: The looming threat of climate change. The term was noticeably absent from the Harvey report Galloway worked on for Abbott, which instead emphasized the need for "future-proofing."

"Creating a climate change preparedness plan—that would be a startling one for Texas," Galloway said. "I think it's important for people to acknowledge that there are changes. We are having bigger storms and we are having longer storms, and you need to have a plan that deals with that."

Longtime Texas environmental attorney Jim Blackburn, who teaches environmental engineering at Rice University, said he'll be watching closely to see if projects that end up in the state flood plan account for the impacts of climate change.

"If that's not where they start, I think we're going to be in trouble from the beginning because we'll be solving for the wrong storms," he said. "All of the infrastructure we're building right now—for example, based on the 100-year flood maps—is obsolete and nobody at the state level seems to be concerned about that."

At least a half-dozen bills filed this year by Democratic state lawmakers that would have required the state to plan for climate change didn't even receive public hearings during the legislative session—the first big step in a bill becoming law.

"The U.S. Department of Defense has conducted a study on climate change threats—why shouldn't Texas do the same?" state Representative Mary González of Clint said in a statement when she filed a bill that would require Texas A&M University to study the impacts of global warming on the state. "As the second largest state in the country, we need to do our part to keep Texans safe and protected."

This story originally appeared in New America's digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.

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