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When The Next Harvey Hits Houston, Will We Be Ready?

In May, Gov. Greg Abbott signed off on Harris County's request to hold an August emergency special election to approve as much as $2.5B in bonds to finance major flood-control projects. 


The vote by Harris County Commissioners Court to ask for the bond vote, which was unanimous, is the latest official action to line up funding for a plethora of flood-related projects

The region has had a history of reluctance to spend on such infrastructure. Compared to the size of its half-trillion-dollar economy, the Houston area lags other water-threatened areas such as South Florida, The Atlantic reported. So the question now is whether the new wave of spending will help Houston be ready for the next time a Harvey-class storm arrives.

"With the caveat that every storm is different, I would say yes, Houston would be better prepared," for the next storm like Hurricane Harvey, Walter P. Moore Senior Principal and Director of Civil Engineering Charlie Penland said.

Penland is speaking on a panel about Houston's flood preparedness at Bisnow's Houston State of the Market event June 5. 

"Would there still be widespread flooding?" Penland said. "Probably. Would it be significant? Probably. Would those in Minneapolis, New York and LA tell us we should know better and be more like them? Definitely," Penland said.

"But the reality there would be the success stories, like at the Texas Medical Center and Sims Bayou, where the actions taken would prove to be money well spent."

The exact wording of the bond referendum has yet to be released by the commissioners, but they will probably schedule the vote for Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Harvey's landfall.

Walter P. Moore Senior Principal and Director of Civil Engineering Charlie Penland

In the letter requesting an emergency special election, the commissioners said “Congress has appropriated and the various federal agencies [such as HUD and FEMA] are beginning to make available to us significant funds, and that “taking advantage of these programs requires additional capital” in the form of “matching funds.” 

These include, the governor pointed out, funds for buyouts and elevations of flood-prone properties; drainage and reservoir projects that reduce future flooding; and projects that lessen the frequency or severity of flooding, such as dams, retention basins, levees, floodwalls, seawalls, jetties, sand dunes and large-scale channeling of waterways.

More specifically, the Houston Chronicle reports, a sizable chunk of the bond funding could match for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' completion of four bayou widening and straightening projects now underway.

They are steps in the right direction, but Houston won't ever be completely immune from flooding risk.

"Harvey was a storm of such magnitude that to prevent devastating flooding would cost more than anyone would be willing to spend," Penland said.

"But we will be better prepared and it won’t be as bad as it could have been.  We're taking steps to make things better.  Some are bold steps, some are pragmatic. But we are getting more prepared."

Penland will be a speaker at Bisnow's Houston State of the Market event June 5 at the Westin Memorial City. He will be part of a panel of engineers, developers, city officials and Harvey heroes (including Jeff Lindner) discussing how stormwater can be better controlled.