Thank you for the opportunity to update you on not only what I will do about flooding but what is underway now and has been underway for some time. Unlike my opponents who can only talk about what they will do, as the Mayor of the City of Houston for the past three-plus years, please allow me to talk about what I have done.
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.
The city will use an expected hazard mitigation grant of more than $250 million on four key projects that will prevent flooding: improvement to the North Canal to reduce downtown flood risks from Buffalo and White Oak Bayous; a detention basin project in northwest Houston in cooperation with TIRZ 17; 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.
Speaking of Lake Houston, dredging of the notorious mouthbar on the San Jacinto River is expected to begin by late July, according to the local U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office. It took months of negotiations between local, state and federal officials but it is finally happening. Nearly half a million cubic yards of sand and sediment deposited in the river during Hurricane Harvey will be dredged, which should reduce flooding in the Lake Houston/Kingwood area.
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 has been approved so that work can begin on 22 of these projects, two in each City Council district. The work encompasses everything from replacing sewer inlets and grates to regrading ditches and resizing culverts to minor erosion repairs and regular mowing.
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. Just today, FEMA announced it will reimburse the City of Houston for more than $6.2 million worth of city vehicles and equipment damaged and destroyed during Hurricane Harvey. This funding required a City match of $692,000.
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.