Last August, Harris County voters did an extraordinary thing. Not only did voters approve an unprecedented $2.5 billion bond package for flood mitigation, they embraced equity as a guiding principle for how the county will invest in flood infrastructure moving forward.
Like last year’s Commissioners Court, which unanimously passed the equity language included in the bond, voters understood that not every community is starting from the same position when it comes to resiliency, recovery or rebuilding. And despite uneven starting positions, we must end at the same destination: a strong, resilient Harris County, where every neighborhood has the same level of protection from storms and flooding and the ability to recover and rebuild.
Equity is key to achieving this goal. For decades, federal funding for flood control projects has come with strings attached and been based on a formula that weights property value over people when determining what projects will be funded. Under this matrix, an area with higher property values and fewer people would be selected over an area with more people living in less expensive homes, even if there is a dangerous, higher risk of flooding.
Let that sink in.
Because we’ve had to rely so heavily on these federal dollars, our flood control investments have largely been based on the principle of property over people.
When people learn about the federal benefit/cost ratio used by the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies to fund critical infrastructure projects, it shocks the conscience.
Why is inequality built into a federal funding formula that should prioritize protecting people over property?
Why should wealth determine who is protected?
Families like those living in the Halls Bayou watershed, which includes northeast neighborhoods around Aldine, East Little York/Homestead, Mesa/Tidwell, Eastex-Jensen and others, deserve answers to these questions. Harris County Flood Control District has identified flooding as a “persistent hazard” for people along Halls Bayou; it can flood with just six inches of rain. The persistent, chronic flooding has left thousands of these families locked in a cycle of vulnerability, struggling to recover from one flood and bracing for the next. But the watershed has never qualified for desperately needed federal dollars because of the discriminatory effect of the federal formula and will only now receive protection because of the flood bond.
When inequality guides the process for how flood control projects are prioritized and funded, it creates gross disparities in our infrastructure, undermines flood risk reduction strategies and hinders resiliency. This became achingly clear in Harvey’s aftermath, especially for people living in underserved, vulnerable areas that have been passed over repeatedly for flood mitigation funding despite experiencing multiple floods that predate Harvey’s devastating rainfall.
And it’s not just about what happens during a flood, it’s about the ability to recover and rebound afterward. Let’s be clear — recovery is a challenge for any family impacted by flooding. But every credible report done after Harvey has found that low-income communities are struggling to recover at a much slower pace than their wealthier neighbors. Harvey may not have discriminated against rich or poor, but it exacerbated the underlying inequality that existed long before Harvey ever made landfall.
After Harvey, recognizing that discriminatory investments in infrastructure had left many communities vulnerable, there was consensus that we had to take action to ensure an adequate level of flood protection for all of Harris County. The Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium urged an equity framework, noting that “some of our most vulnerable populations live in the most flood-prone areas.” The hard-working folks at the Flood Control District shared their frustration with the benefit/cost ratio, which effectively prevented many needed flood control improvements in high-risk flood areas because the property values didn’t stack high enough to warrant protection from rising waters.
Last year, every member of Commissioners Court decried the formula, agreeing it was unfair that so many poor neighborhoods were left out. That’s why the $2.5 billion bond proposal put before the voters required equity guidelines be established to offset the decades of harm done by inequitable flood control funding at the federal level. The voters approved, overwhelmingly.
So, it’s more than a little perplexing to hear from the critics-come-lately who are using divisive, class-baiting rhetoric to launch a sideways attack on the equity framework currently being developed by the Flood Control District with stakeholder input. Over the past few weeks, there have been cynical and misleading attacks on a process that is not finalized, and neighborhoods are being needlessly pitted against one another. Those who suggest equity has never been a part of this process are woefully uninformed.
Equity isn’t about bumping any project off the list — all projects will be completed — it’s about making sure that every project makes it on the list. It’s about recognizing that while natural disasters may not discriminate, public policy often can and does. It’s about righting past harms and preparing for future storms. It’s about committing to a process for flood mitigation that leaves no one out or behind because we’re all in this together.