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Post-Hurricane Harvey, Harris County working to become ‘model of resilience’

On August 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey moved into Texas as a Category 4 storm. Over a four day period, 1 trillion gallons of water fell across Harris County alone, a southeastern portion of the state, covering its 1,800 square miles with an average of 33 inches of standing water. As streets turned into rivers, 60,049 residents were rescued, many from their homes, and more than 120,000 structures and 300,000 vehicles were flooded.

The Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed 36 flood related deaths.

Harvey was a storm the likes of which the county had never seen, for both the breadth and depth of rainfall. The after-action report would later praise the pre-positioning of county, state, and federal assets as being beneficial during the initial response operations, while noting that more training and adherence to state guidelines for the ordering of resources was needed.

“The goal of Harris County’s Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management (OHSEM) is to be a national model of best practices in emergency planning, preparation, response, and recovery,” County Judge Ed Emmett wrote in the after-action report, released in June. “Working toward that goal is a team of dedicated emergency management professionals and county employees who improve our region’s emergency management capabilities when it makes the greatest difference — when our lives are free from disaster…Planning and practice pays off, but real events test how ready we truly are.”

Emmett noted, “Hurricane Harvey, a powerful Category 4 hurricane, was the second most costly tropical storm in our nation’s history. It was also the nation’s most devastating flood event. This historic storm yielded unprecedented flooding across southeast Texas with various agencies coordinating relief efforts for the public and for their own employees and volunteers. Hurricane Harvey’s test of our flood response plans highlighted remarkable successes and areas for improvement.”

In the year following the storm, Emmett and other county officials kicked preparedness efforts into full gear, working towards implementing lessons-learned and preparing for the next inevitable disruptive event. The goal: Becoming a model of resilience.

“Harvey changed lives,” Emmett said at a May 30, 2018 press conference. “There are homes still abandoned, people still cleaning up, remnants of Harvey these many months later. It changed my life, changed the lives of county government, so resilience is now job one…just as we endured and survived Harvey together, we must prepare for the future together.”

At the press conference, joined by Harris County Flood Control District Executive Director Russ Poppe, Emmett announced details of a $2.5 billion bond issue designed to help mitigate future catastrophic flooding, and kicked off a series of 23 community engagement meetings to solicit input from each county watershed. By August, an additional 38 projects were added as a result of community input. Currently, 237 potential projects across the county are candidates for bond funding.

Now, county residents are preparing to vote on this proposal. The vote takes place on August 25: The one-year anniversary of Harvey’s landfall in Texas. Early voting started on August 8.

“Beginning today and continuing until Aug. 25, voters will have a chance to decide what I believe is the most important local election in my lifetime – the Harris County Flood Control District’s $2.5 billion bond proposal for hundreds of flood mitigation projects across the county,” explained Emmett in a press release from his office. “The list includes projects to improve bayou and channel conveyance of storm water, to build storm water detention basins, to preserve the floodplain, and to buy out flood-prone homes. Importantly, bond funds would be used to provide the local match needed to attract larger amounts of federal money for flood risk reduction projects, and to partner with Harris County and other entities to improve subdivision drainage.”

If approved, by voters, the bonds will be sold in increments over at least 10-15 years, as needed for each project’s phases. Projects will be authorized individually for funding by Commissioners Court, based on recommendations by the Flood Control District. According to county estimates, property taxes for homeowners should increase no more than 1.4% if the bond proposal is passed.

Today days before early voting commenced, Emmett joined other Houston and Harris County officials to encourage voters to approve the bond proposal, stressing that it would enable leaders to better protect their communities from future storms and disruptions.

“There’s nothing partisan, there’s nothing philosophical about making our community safer…This transcends anything about politics,” Emmett said. “This is about making our community safe, and making our community resilient.”

To see an interactive map of the proposed projects, visit http://www.harriscountyfemt.org/cb