Even after Hurricane Harvey, the best efforts by Harris County officials to purchase the most flood-prone homes won’t make a dent in the larger problem — worsening flooding, and a buyout program that can’t keep up.
By Lisa Song, Al Shaw and Neena Satija
Experts see buyouts as a cornerstone of disaster recovery, a way to take the most chronically flooded homes and turn them into open space so they can improve drainage and lower flood risk for the surrounding area.
It’s hard to find another county in America that has accomplished more buyouts than Harris County. Since 1985, the Harris County Flood Control District — the main entity managing buyouts in the Houston area — has spent $342 million to purchase about 3,100 properties. But thanks to a decadeslong trend of increased flooding in Houston, caused by a combination of urban sprawl, lax building regulations and intense rainstorms linked to climate change, buyouts haven’t kept up with the destruction.
Flood control experts disagree on the best way to prevent future flood damage. Some say engineering solutions, like widening bayous and building detention basins to hold excess water during storms, can do the trick. Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, said many floodplain managers prefer buyouts.
Buyouts offer a permanent solution, while engineered solutions require costly maintenance and perpetuate development in risky areas, he said. Engineered solutions “have a certain design limit, and mother nature has proven time and time again that she can design a bigger storm.”