Build, Flood, Repeat: Buyouts Needed with Increasing Gulf Coast Climate Risk

After Harvey, more people have asked whether we are going to stay on the path of build, flood, repeat? The Houston region has had thousands of properties go through this pattern at least twice in the last few years. With growing climate risk, one could argue it is time to beat a retreat from flood prone areas. Tax payers and flood insurance policy holders continue to subsidize this repetitive process and the federal, state and local government have been slow to do much about to reduce this risk in the Houston region.

With Harvey, buyouts have been discussed a bit more than in the past. There appears to Harvey_flooding_(36527844190)be a greater appetite for such an approach to mitigate flood risk. After Hurricane Sandy, the state of New York and New Jersey, spent a combined $700 million to buyout about 2,000 homes. Since 1980 the County and City have bought out about 3,000 homes, with both federal and local dollars. After the Tax Day floods last year, Harris County received about $11 million to buyout 60 homes.

It is estimated 136,000 structures flooded with Hurricane Harvey. Many of them for the first time. Fortunately, the region is realizing that it can’t practically and affordably protect homes and businesses from floods. Harris County is looking to buyout some of the repeat flooders. Many parts of the region that have flooded time and time again are being placed on a list for buyouts. Areas that seem to be receiving the greatest focus include Greenspoint, Meyerland and neighborhoods around Ellington Air Base in south Houston.

Last week, Harris County submitted a property buyout application to FEMA for $17 million. This may cover about 104 homes. This was in addition to the $20 million the Commissioners Court approved to buyout about 200 homes with Harris County dollars. It is shy of the $2.5 billion estimated by Harris County Judge Emmett required to buy out about 3,000 homes in highly flood prone areas.

hurricane harveyNo matter the number of buyouts, there are both positives and negatives to buyouts. First, buyouts can provide significant benefit by removing areas from flood prone areas and thereby lessen overall flood recovery costs. A recent report finds that since 1998 the federal government has paid $3 billion to Houston for flood losses.  Further, by removing these properties, more permeable land and green space becomes available. This green space can better absorb water and potentially reduce flood risk.

However, the other side of the argument, is that these buyouts can also ruin neighborhoods. There are communities that have had the same families for generations and buyouts would significantly change this community network. This is particularly a problem in low income communities that are largely dependent on these networks for their livelihood and well-being. Further, these buyouts are voluntary, so it is not necessarily the case that all residences will be vacated. City services would still have to be provided to these areas, which can be expensive if properties are spread out. Finally, buyouts may also reduce the tax base of a community. A buyout will require these families or businesses to move elsewhere and it may not necessarily be within the same town or city. In Texas, where we are highly dependent on property taxes for revenue, loss of communities due to buyouts, if significantly large, may have a negative impact on tax revenue.

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Regardless of these pluses and minuses, the truth is that properties that have flooded multiple times and should be bought out will not have the opportunity. The cost is too high to do a full-scale buyout of all flood-prone areas.

Further, in a place like Houston, it really could flood anywhere, as we have seen in many of our storms in the last few years. Harris County Flood Control is starting to be more forthright in the fact that there is not a whole lot that can be done to completely mitigate risk. On the Harris County Springs Flood 2016 site it recommends that residences and businesses should take individual precautions and buy flood insurance. In other words, we are going to flood again, we can’t prevent the flooding no matter what we do and so you better take responsibility to mitigate your own risk.  Unfortunately, this 2016 message did not get out. According to the National Flood Insurance Program, only 15% of Harris County structures have flood insurance.

Rice FASIf the 2017 $60 million Capital Improvement Project (CIP) budget is any indicator resources really are not being put toward any significant upgrades or improvements to infrastructure. $25 million was to build new infrastructure and $12 million for rehab projects of existing infrastructure. We are faced with a $20 billion problem just in the Harris County region, the CIP and other existing funding sources are not going to solve the problem.

To conclude, the city and county will attempt to do what it can to mitigate risk. The resources are few and not adequate to completely reduce flood risk. No one has the financial appetite to do so. The recommendation is to buy flood insurance, no matter where you live in the Gulf Coast. By living in this region, you have chosen to live in flood prone marshland and coastal prairie. To reduce your risk, “Know your Risk.” Resources are available, they are not great, but they are better than buying a property and then realizing you live in flood pool on the back of a three sided reservoir.

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Need help with buyouts and other resources?

Specific to Harvey, if you are interested in learning how to get a buy out, you can check out the Harris County Web Site. In general, if you have experienced flooding due to the recent storms, FEMA’s site provides details on how to participate in buy-out programs.




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Gavin Dillingham

Program Director for Clean Energy Policy at HARC a sustainability research institute in The Woodlands, TX. Work on climate adaptation and investment strategies for resilient infrastructure.

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