EDITORIAL: Prioritize Flood Control Projects for Vulnerable Communities

The Houston Chronicle | March 12, 2021

All of our residents deserve a safe, strong and resilient Harris County for themselves and their children, regardless of their wealth or their zip code. Mother nature does not discriminate — but unfortunately, our investments to strengthen and protect our county from flooding has.

Time and time again, after every storm, hurricane and flood, the poorest neighborhoods are those hardest hit, yet receive the least amount of resources to recover, rebuild and be protected from the next flood. Harris County was supposed to be on track to stop this vicious cycle when it comes to flooding, but as we found out at Commissioners Court this week, we are failing.

Flooding events like Hurricane Harvey always fall disproportionately on people of color and low-income communities, and these effects are compounded by the lack of recovery and rebuilding resources. We cannot continue to sacrifice these communities to the next disaster.

Two years ago, the voters of Harris County made a choice to correct course by voting to protect people over property in our flood mitigation efforts through a $2.5 billion bond. This bond package embraced equity as a guiding principle for the county’s investments in our flood infrastructure. While federal funding for disaster recovery continued to use outdated formulas that give preference to wealthier neighborhoods, the county would use a new directive for our funding, focusing on people and neighborhoods with the highest risk of flooding to ensure all communities are equally protected from flooding moving forward.

Our equity prioritization framework was meant to ensure that historically neglected communities would no longer be discriminated against and that our community’s future would not hinge upon outdated federal formulas. While this would by no means correct all of the inequities and discrimination built-in to disaster protection and recovery, this was meant to be a critical, ground-breaking first step toward addressing them.

On Tuesday, we learned that we are once again failing our residents who are most in need. Despite the fact that Greens and Halls Bayous contain some of our most socially vulnerable neighborhoods that are at high-risk of flooding, the Harris County Flood Control District presented us with a plan that showed projects in these areas facing a critical budget shortfall. The vast bulk of this funding should have come from federal dollars allocated to the State of Texas to mitigate future disasters in jurisdictions like Harris County. But where our budget currently stands, without any guarantee of these federal grants, our most critical projects in vulnerable areas are missing more than half of the necessary funding.

A project that is less than half completed will not provide protection from the next hurricane.

The map presented at Commissioners Court on Tuesday does not represent the equity principles that Harris County residents voted for. It represents the dangerous, inequitable funding formulas of the past, where people in poor neighborhoods are sacrificed in favor of protecting the property of wealthier neighborhoods. It represents the blood that will be on our hands if we refuse to truly change our practices.

Environmental justice is more than just a buzzword. Environmental justice in action means changing our practices and being intentional about correcting inequity. It means recognizing that not everyone is starting from the same position and consequently, we must adjust to meet every neighborhood’s specific need so that we end at the same destination.

Our county has an obligation to honor the equity prioritization framework we established to ensure all communities are equally protected from future flooding events. An obligation to step up for the communities we are currently leaving in the red. An obligation to invest in our most vulnerable neighborhoods and stop perpetuating the cycle of discrimination and neglect. An obligation to respect the will of the voters who supported this shift towards equity.

That is why at Commissioner’s Court on Tuesday, we instructed Harris County Flood Control and the Budget Management Office to come back with a plan that follows our equity prioritization guidelines.
We cannot offer our most vulnerable communities a project that is half-funded. We all deserve to be equally protected from the next storm. That is the only way for us to create the safe, strong and resilient Harris County that we all deserve.

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