Don’t blame Mother Nature for flooding. Blame City Council.

The disasters are predictable. Why aren’t we preventing them?

By Cynthia Hand Neely and Ed Browne, Residents Against Flooding

April 19, 2016 Updated: April 20, 2016 12:37pm

Photo: Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle920x920
Meital Harari pushes water out the back door at her Meyerland home, Monday, April 18. (For more photos from the Tax Day flood, scroll through the gallery.)

Man-made, preventable flooding has surged dirty, sewage-ridden water through Houston living rooms three times now in seven years, yet city government fails to prevent these recurring emergencies.

Really? If losing homes, livelihoods, retirement savings, health and sanity (and at least one life) aren’t reasons enough to make emergency detention and drainage improvements, what in the world does it take?

Right now, too many real-estate developments do not detain storm water run-off from their new construction, and instead allow it to flow downstream into other neighborhoods, into people’s homes. This new development is  responsible for unnecessary flooding of neighborhoods that previously weren’t flood plains, weren’t prone to flooding. That new development is also responsible for flood insurance rising 100 to 200 percent (before the Tax Day flood) in these non-flood plains.

City government is allowing this to happen. Developers use loopholes and grandfathering to avoid doing what the city’s laws require them to do. Is it ethical to allow a new office building to flood an entire neighborhood even if a loophole makes it legal?

Photo: Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronic920x1240le
Emergency personnel carry a woman from a rescue boat as people are evacuated from Arbor Court Apartments in the Greenspoint area Monday, April 18, 2016, in Houston.

And why on earth would a developer be allowed to use tax money (yours and mine) to build the stormwater detention required by law as part of a profit-making project? New development on the north side of I-10 and Gessner is using the already-stressed Conrad Sauer detention basin for a spiffy retail/residential complex under construction. The deal is an interesting card trick: They are making a few improvements to the basin, adding a little drainage near it and — especially important — are going to make the basin look pretty with trails and landscape for their future tenants/residents. They’ll get paid back $23 million (taxpayer dollars) for doing this. So they really didn’t pay for anything.

For seven years Houston homeowners have begged and pleaded with the mayor (previous and present) and City Council members to treat man-made flooding as urgent, as if it were a deadly fire to put out in a hurry. Yet despite hundreds of emails, calls, meetings, petitions from homeowners’ associations (at least 18), Super Neighborhoods, civic associations, and person-after-exhausted-person speaking at City Hall, there is more talk about bike trails and recycling than critical, focused action to address our flooding.

Photo: Venkat Ramamurthy, Reader-submitte3 920x1240d Photo
Rain floods streets in Spring Shadows neighborhood near Gessner and Kempwood in northwest Houston.

Years ago the city signed a contract promising several detention basins in the Memorial City TIRZ 17 area. (“TIRZ” stands for Tax Increment Redevelopment Zone. It’s an arrangement in which any growth in property taxes is reinvested directly into the area). This city contract is yet to be honored, and we are told it is not “legally” binding. (But isn’t it morally binding? People are losing everything — three major floods in those six years!)

A capital improvement budget, including plans for detention and drainage projects, for the TIRZ 17 area, was submitted to Houston’s chief development officer, Andy Icken. And there it’s languished for almost a year, never presented it to the City for approval. Had Icken not “pocket vetoed” the budget, we would be a year closer to getting some relief.

Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chro4 920x1240nicle
A Waugh Street exit sign is submerged on Memorial Drive, flooded by the over flowing Buffalo Bayou, Monday, April 18, 2016, in Houston.

At City Council Tuesday, the mayor made it appear that the budget delay was TIRZ 17 board member John Rickel’s fault. Not so. Mr. Rickel (the neighborhood representative for homes south of I-10) and the whole board passed the budget and handed it off to the city.

Underhanded, unethical things are being done to keep big developers happy while homeowners suffer needlessly. That’s why a nonprofit group called Residents Against Flooding was formed in 2009: to show the Houston-area public that  the cause of our troubles isn’t Mother Nature, but rather our city government’s failure to act.

After being ignored, Residents Against Flooding was forced to raise funds for a lawsuit. This is not for money or for damages but to get the City of Houston to protect its citizens. We expect the new mayor to wail that the city doesn’t have the money to address the problem. But for years, there has been money in the TIRZ 17 budget that could have been used toward our crisis. Please see that the TIRZ uses that money to build our detention basins!

And it should be noted that the problems weren’t addressed when the city’s finances were better. Incumbent council members, such as District A’s Brenda Stardig, have had ample opportunities to address the problems.

Stardig recently ignored pleas of hundreds of her district’s homeowners, as well as petitions from the Spring Branch West Super Neighborhood and Spring Branch Civic Association, to keep their choice of neighborhood rep on the TIRZ 17 board. Instead, last week Mayor Turner put his own “neighborhood” choice on the board with Ms. Stardig’s blessing.

The Mayor’s choice does not live in the TIRZ 17 area, is not affected by it, has never flooded. What kind of neighborhood representative is that? When Mayor Turner ran for office, one of his campaign promises was to address flooding. Yet after only three months in office, he is already letting us down.

We need your support to keep fighting the good fight, or more and more of our homes are going to flood — again, and again, and again.

Cynthia Hand Neely and Ed Browne are members of Residents Against Flooding. You can email them at drainage.coalition@gmail.com.

Other Gray Matters

Flooding? Don’t blame dense urban development. David Crossley, Houston Tomorrow

How policy fills Houston living rooms with water David Crossley, Houston Tomorrow

Disaster by design: Houston can’t keep developing this way John S. Jacob, for the Houston Chronicle

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