No, this isn’t a prediction of another rain event – though the chances seem likely with a boiling Gulf. Instead, the Harris County Commissioners Court will shower us with reasons we should support a $2.5 billion bond issue, which they promise will brace Houston for floods of the future.
Before we go any further, let me throw out the question we’d all like to ask: Why wasn’t this done in 2001 after Tropical Storm Allison wickedly twisted in and out of Houston? Were the 30,000 people left homeless, the $8.5 billion in damage and the 23 deaths not enough to prompt Harris County Judge Robert Eckels and Lee Brown, Houston’s mayor at the time, to realize we may need better infrastructure to drain our ever-growing aquarium?
We can’t change the past, so let’s at least applaud County Judge Ed Emmett and the Commissioners Court for proposing an idea. Then again, after three years of consistent floods – Memorial Day 2015, Tax Day 2016 and Harvey 2017 – let’s not go overboard with the praise. In those three events, we’ve had 1.65 trillion gallons of water dumped on Harris County.
The $2.5 billion bond issue being proposed by the county may or may not make sense. Raise your hand if your high school or college education gave you the tools to intelligently discuss flood remediation. The reality is not many of us know enough to offer an intelligent opinion one way or the other.
And Harris County may have us over another barrel. If you, or I, or anyone else seriously challenges the county over this plan, the first question they’d ask is: “Well, what do you suggest we do?” That question would be followed by the echoes of gurgling crickets.
In other words, any opponent to this bond issue would be labeled an antagonist for the sake of needling our elected officials, which nobody does in this country, right? Right?
I’m certainly in no position to argue for or against the $2.5 billion bond, which the Houston Chronicle says will cost each Harris County home about $5 a year for 15 years. But I do have some questions that received some intriguing answers.
First, why are we holding this vote on Aug. 25, 2018? The obvious answer is the symbolism of the vote. Harris County Commissioners opted for emotion over logic when they chose this date. Obviously, that’s the anniversary of the first rains of Harvey.
What an Aug. 25 Election Day means is that very few people will vote on the bond. About nine weeks later, our nation will go to the polls for some of the most heated midterm elections in a generation. Why not hold the vote on Nov. 6 when millions of people will actually vote?
When I have local political questions, I turn to Heights resident and Rice professor Dr. Robert Stein, who knows as much about local politics as anyone around. Here’s what he said:
“I am… pondering the same questions,” he wrote to me. “Hard to anticipate much interest in an August bond election. I would not expect turnout to exceed 10 percent, but the lead-up to the November midterm election and the city’s recent experience with late season hurricanes adds an element of uncertainty that is hard to measure.”
My opinion, for what it’s worth: The county should have done as much as possible to get the highest turnout for this vote. They gamed the system by calling this special election date, and that doesn’t make sense to me. They’ll argue they needed to vote sooner, but this isn’t a 2-month project; it’s a decade long effort to improve our city.
Another question focuses solely on our area of Houston. If you visit the Harris County Flood Control District’s website, you can find the details of every single project they’ve included in this $2.5 billion bond. Of course, it’s all a proposal right now, but it’s interesting to note that there are no major projects planned in this immediate area.
Along White Oak Bayou, between Shepherd and Houston Avenue, the bond money will repair 29 different spots that were broken by recent flooding. Another 12 repairs will happen along the same bayou in the Ella and TC Jester Boulevard areas.
Immediately to our north, there are plans for a retention basin in the Inwood Forest community, and the hope is that basin will alleviate some of the flooding further south.
Our community was largely spared from Harvey. There were parts of Timbergrove that washed out, and south of the Heights near I-10 were under water. But when folks in our area go to vote in August, we’ll be making decisions that should help our friends to the west, northeast and south. Is there nothing more that should be done to protect our neighborhoods?
And that led to my next question to Dr. Stein. Surely there won’t be any opposition to this bond, will there? His answer was fascinating:
“One thought is that voters don’t see the need for flood abatement and prefer the money be spent on other infrastructure projects – roads come to mind – leading some voters to oppose the bond solely on the basis of opportunity costs,” he said. “Recall that only 10 percent of households had any serious flooding, many fully recovered. Voters may not be certain/confident that the proposed projects provide protection from future flooding, and those who were harmed by Harvey get little from the bond for recovery.”
And here’s my last question: Does any of this really matter? If our city and county continue to allow concrete to be poured over dirt, and as long as we continue pushing water from one neighborhood to the next without any plan to manage our growth, does it really matter if we widen a bayou here our build a pond there?
Our city adds more concrete every day, and if our leaders don’t address the lack of permeable ground, a $2.5 billion bond likely won’t help much at all.