How About We Don’t Sell People Homes in Areas That Keep Flooding, and Other Crazy Ideas for Houstonians To Discuss Amongst Themselves

The headline suggestion in a 6-page policy paper published last week under the banner of Rice University’s Baker Institute comes in item 2 of a helpfully numbered list of 15 things Houston might want to do or think about to make future never-seen-this-before flooding events a little less catastrophic: Author Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney, pioneering Houston-area naturalist, and longtime let’s-not-flood advocate, proposes a “fair but extensive home buyout and removal program” targeted at homes that have been flooded 3 or more times since Tropical Storm Allison in 2001: “It is unlikely we can develop strategies to protect them from severe rainfall events that are much more frequent than labels such as ‘100-year’ or even ‘500-year’ rainfall events suggest,’ he writes.

Among the less radical proposals put forward in his list is the suggestion to map and categorize the Houston region by its propensity to flood: “safe” areas that didn’t flood — and should therefore become “the backbone of the Houston of Tomorrow” — “transitional” areas (only “single-event” flooding); and “buyout” areas — which can be targeted for parks and “future green infrastructure.”

Other ideas and issues from the paper that Blackburn hopes will “initiate a conversation” are summarized here:


  • Repair and clean out the accumulated silt from Barker and Addicks reservoirs, and go ahead and build that third reservoir northwest of Addicks that’s been waiting for funding.
  • Harvey was very bad, but future storms could still be worse: Imagine a 25-ft. storm surge near Galveston Bay, exactly where floodwaters would be trying to drain. Bonus: Resulting floods in nearby chemical and refining plants could be expected to trigger “one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.”
  • “100 year floods” have become a joke. Until a more realistic remapping can occur, maybe we should consider the 500-year zones Houston’s official floodplain.
  • The areas designated as floodplains are too small because the rainfall amounts they’re based on are too small. FEMA should consider limiting new construction in these danger zones.
  • Market-based approaches — such as paying landowners to raise a “crop” of stored water — should be used to preserve native prairies and wetlands in the western and northwestern portions of Harris County. One such approach: the Texas Coastal Exchange trading system, developed by Rice’s SSPEED Center, which requires no government funding.
  • A special flooding abatement tax — with safeguards to prevent its use on other projects — would help provide funds needed for flood-damage reduction and planning projects.
  • We need better real-time flood warning and information tools to help us live with regular bouts of high water. People should be able to find rainfall intensity, bayou conditions, and which roads and intersections are flooded easily. For high-priority areas of the city, these should trigger local warning systems and flood gates automatically.
  • Growth patterns in the Houston region typically subsidize new development at the expense of downstream residents. Better and more stringent drainage regulations for new developments — perhaps modeled after those of Fort Bend County — would reduce runoff in older neighborhoods.
  • Foundations of all new and rebuilt homes should be elevated well above the crown of the street.
  • Information about precisely where and how many times flooding has occurred — and the accuracy of existing maps — should be more easily available. People should be informed if they are moving into an evacuation zone. Public elevation markers — like one removed years ago from NASA Road 1 (because it “interfered with land sales”) that show the expected height of surge flooding from Category 4 and 5 hurricanes — should be installed.
  • An “Ike Dike” would protect the region’s refining and chemical infrastructure against a future storm more catastrophic than Harvey — one that comes with an envisioned 20- to 25-ft. storm surge. But a less comprehensive “mid-bay solution” would cost much less ($3 billion), offer almost as much protection, and could be funded locally.
  • To ensure all flood-control work remains accountable and transparent, Houston needs to keep score. How about a continuously updated tally sheet, for each watershed, of the number of acres in the floodplain and floodway, the number and locations of flooded homes, the streets and intersections that flooded the worst, the number of cars that flooded, the dollar amount of flooding damages, all grandfathered permits and variances issued, and other metrics?
The City That Floods

25 Comment

  • Converting the 100-yr floodplain to greenspace is pretty ambitious. Just the area along Brays Bayou that’s on HCFCD’s flood plain map is about 10X the size of memorial park. If contiguous, it would be something like double the size of George Bush Park.
    The paper mentions that the buyout program could include 75,000 homes. At an average price of $250,000, that’s $19B just for the buyout. However, given that a lot of these homes are in pricy areas of the city (Memorial, Bellaire), that number could be low. It also doesn’t count the commercial property in those areas that would also need to be bought out. Plus another substantial sum to convert all that land to greenspace. $100B doesn’t seem to far-fetched an estimate.

  • Nothing in the article suggests converting the 100 year floodplain into greenspace. The 75,000 houses is Blackburn’s estimate of the total number of houses flooded during the storm, not the total number that need to be bought out. The proposed buyout, while described by Blackburn as “massive”, would be limited to only the houses that have flooded three or more times since TS Allison.
    The grand parkway will cost about 2 bil. Katy freeway expansion cost about 1.6 bil. While those projects get funded by the state and federal government, if there is 3.6 bil out there to build roads, there should be at least that amount available to make flood control improvements and buy people out of chronically flooding homes.

  • @Angostura I received a copy of this report from a colleague last week and had the same response. He was an ardent foe of the “drainage tax” and when I pointed out the amount of money that was supposed to raise was a pittance compared to what this study recommended, he walked away. Maybe since so many homes flooded by the Barker Reservoir releases were in such a heavily Republican area the Harris County Republicans will have a change of heart? Doubt it.

  • That was an interesting read. I have to wonder what will happen to my current neighborhood and the neighborhood where I grew up if the city and county actually get serious about flood control. I currently live on the 100-year flood plain near Brays Bayou, but my house has never flooded (knock on wood, it stays that way). Meanwhile, less than a mile from my house are houses that have flooded three times in three years. I grew up in Bear Creek, which did not flood during Allison. However, in the fall of 2002, my parents’ house took in water during some crazy rain event, and it has apparently flooded multiple times since then (they moved shortly after repairing the flood damage from 2002). The neighborhood was completely inundated by Harvey and the Addicks dam release, yet it still isn’t listed on a 100-year flood plain. The flood maps don’t seem to make any sense. A more finely-tuned process for identifying particularly flood-prone areas is definitely in order.

  • Two comments on two of the points:

    1. Better real-time flood warning and info tools: While out of the city (airports were closed), I checked the Harris County Flood Warning System website on my phone. The County has gauges that provide REAL TIME readings of the stream elevation as well as the rainfall. I don’t think it can get better than that – unless you have some kind of astral projection project in mind. (And, who knows how much astral projection will cost?)
    2. Flood abatement tax: Not to put a fine point on it but we already have a kissing cousin already going with the City’s “rain” tax that appears on every homeowner’s water bill. And, it theoretically has safeguards to prevent that money being drained (pardon the pun) to fund other things. So, not a ringing endorsement by viewing the rain tax in action.
    I think radical action is needed overall but I doubt anything tangible will really come of it after seeing proposals come and go over the last 30 years living here.

  • Market based pricing for flood insurance risk is the first step. The current program of federally subsidized insurance causes people to make poor choices.

  • I grew up off Fairbanks/West Little York area. TS Allison was the 3rd time Creekside Estates & WTW II had flooded which meant those homes wouldn’t be insured for future floods. Both of those neighborhoods are almost completely gone now, mainly just streets people use to cut through. Even with all the new construction/neighborhoods built near Breen Rd, nothing around has flooded since. The south side of WTW where Gulf Bank runs through, flooded twice in late 90’s along with Philippine St in Jersey Village. Neither of those areas have had a 3rd flood event; not Ike, Memorial Day flood, Tax Day flood or Harvey could flood them. A huge reason why has got to be because old Creekside Estates & WTW II hold so much of the water that would’ve flooded them out that costly 3rd time years ago. Sometimes you have to cut loose some fat for the overall good and I know it sounds heartless but I’ve seen it work. These very flood prone neighborhoods just have to be made into retention areas because it works.

  • I would like to see a study of the amount of water a given size lot with a raised pier and beam foundation vs a slab on grade foundation could absorb. I would guess the lot with the pier and beam foundation could soak up a greater amount of water at a faster rate.

    Seems to be a no brainer to me that all homes in the Houston area should be built on pier and beam. Not only are you building a much higher elevated structure, but you are also leaving a permiable surface under the structure as opposed to an impermeable concrete slab under the entire footprint.

  • This policy paper is embarrassing to read as a CFM (Certified Floodplain Manager) and PE (Professional Engineer).

    500-year storm is approximately 16 inches of rain in 24hrs. This corresponds to the 500-year floodplain lines on FEMA maps.

    We had more 30-45 inches of rain over 4 days across the region. Although over 4 days, there were intermittent burst of rainfall throughout the 4 day period that were extreme in nature.

    No one will plan and design around this scenario. No one will pay to plan around this scenario.

    The deluge of horribly cobbled together policy papers from people that have no expertise or ulterior motives will continue.

  • Courtney,

    The floodplain maps ONLY suggest risk from riverine flooding. Put another way, it only depicts flooding when bayous and creek rise out of their banks.

    Any other scenario is not covered by floodplain maps.

    The current maps were actually quite accurate in this event.

    Also, please never use a phrase reference some house didn’t flood during a past event. It means nothing. Allison affected very little of the city. If you live anywhere on the west or northwest side of town, Allison did no damage and is not a baseline for an extreme event. Allison primarily affected central and the northeast side of the city. Harvey was unique in that is blanketed the entire region.

    Wolf Bran Chili,

    You are right. There was so much real time monitoring available it was ridiculous. The only thing the FWS needed was a little more server capacity. Every time the website was mentioned on TV it went down from traffic overload.

    Some more gauge coverage in Fort Bend, Brazoria, Galveston, and Montgomery Counties would be nice. Harris County is fairly blanketed with gauges.

  • @Wolf Brand Chili the gauges worked great until they got too much internet traffic and you couldn’t log on.

    If the property values are low relative to repair costs buyouts may make sense; but in high value areas where we have generally established that 48″ above base flood elevation keeps the houses from flooding – why not let the market handle it or if we have to intervene use the buyout money to fund a land bank so those lots can be resold and returned to the tax base.

    Most of the other ideas seem fairly reasonable.

  • You don’t want water underneath your piem and beam house. While it might not be a disaster, flood waters underneath your pier and beam could cause cupping of the interior floors, mold, etc.

  • How about a commission to come up with building code requirements for developers to put in in drainage systems, flood control measures, where to place electronic equipment for high rises, etc similar to New York City?

  • @Angostura. Many homes that are in the floodplain could be safely rebuilt on an elevated pier and beam foundation. Elevating a home is certainly quite expensive, but cheaper than turning entire neighborhoods into greenspace.

  • Build canals everywhere. Become the American Amsterdam. Rather than a pierce elevated park we have a canal that can take on additional water from buffalo bayou. Canals throughout montrose midtown downtown and around Washington. Canals on the east end and through Eado. Canals near the med center to relieve brays bayou, and on and on and on again. Give water new dedicated places to go that we can call amenities, and make Houston a more interesting and attractive places to recruit new companies and tourists, because our canals are unique and cool places to hang out. The Dutch know water, so why not copy them.

    Then release a ton of GMO mosquitos to kill off the rest of them.

  • The Harris County FWS only tells you how much rain has fallen and when a bayou jumps its banks. That information is pretty meaningless when it comes to the impact on homes. For example, White Oak Bayou often come out of its banks without reaching any of the homes around it. The FWS could be expanded to predict when flood waters will enter the surrounding neighborhoods and provide specific warnings so people can evacuate before it is too late. Additional monitoring equipment could be placed in neighborhoods to help warn people about the extent of the flooding and where the flood waters are going.

  • Fatty Acid, if water underneath your pier and beam house causes floors to cup then there is not the proper ice and water shield membrane laid on the subfloor.

  • kjb434

    So… I guess since you have nothing material to suggest, you’re saying we all die in the end so what’s the point?

  • I think the county should have a drainage impairment tax. Build a house on piers with shale or gravel driveway and the tax is minimal. Pave over the entire lot, or worse, build an elevated slab foundation, you get taxed at a higher rate, and that money would be required to go to drainage improvements. It would incentivize smarter building practices and help fund solutions to the existing problems.

  • All this talk of lifting up the houses on pier and beam or stilts…but what about your car? Will you also build up an elevated driveway ramp? The coastal homes on stilts is built to assume that you will evacuate from that area in your vehicle, so they don’t have any accommodation for it – just wide open space down there for the seawater to roll through. Inside the city of Houston, you won’t be evacuating en mass, so thousands of cars would still flood in their garages or on the driveway, regardless of how high the house is situated. That is another regional economic catastrophe, factoring in insurance claims, replacements, and waste disposal.

  • What I’ve found to be true, anecdotally at least, is that most people who have never lived in a house with a pier and beam foundation have ZERO interest in them. They are disoriented, confused by, and even scared of, them. Some of them are a little creeped out by the thought of having empty space under their floorboards. (What’s that noise? Will I have to go down there at some point?!?!?). Despite some of the most beautiful and pricey homes being built in this way, some of these people still see it as antiquated and, even, a sign of shoddy construction not designed to last…

  • @Superdave
    You’re right. Unfortunately, over the last year I have seen several townhome developments built that were intentionally designed to sacrifice the garage in order to save the upper living spaces in the event of flooding. There are drainage grates built into the sides of the garage to allow the floodwaters to escape. Partially it sounds good in theory, but then begs the question – should you have torn down these 3 homes to build 20 townhomes designed to flood? So that’s a potential of up to 20-40 cars to flood vs. the previous 3-6.

  • @driftwood, Have you been talking to that one friend of mine who is absolutely freaked out about the thought of the crawlspace underneath pier-and-beam houses because that’s where John Wayne Gacy stashed his victims? She’s also unnerved by clowns, as it turns out.

  • Baseless phobias related to building methods are a real thing. Witness the reaction on Swamplot to the townhomes built in 5th Ward from cinder blocks. (And that’s why I wouldn’t buy one, because lots of other people are irrational in predictable ways and I eventually would want to sell the property to a mostly irrational market.) However, if that’s what’s available that’s new in a neighborhood, that’s what’s there. People will adjust.
    Regarding the suggestion that all new homes should be built on pier and beam…yeah, that’s also irrational. In flood-prone areas, yes that makes sense. In some places around town, that’s already standard practice. A few places really might benefit from homes on stilts. But let’s say that you’re in an area which is high and dry; that’s not an exceptional case by any means; your crawlspace wouldn’t get wet unless your lot floods, which isn’t going to happen if your home is properly designed and maintained. If your crawlspace gets wet when it rains then you’re going to have foundation issues related to soil expansion/contraction and quite possibly problems with humidity and mold. With new development, it’s a lot easier to simply increase the on-site stormwater detention requirements or to have high impact fees to fund regional stormwater detention and drainage. But new development, by and large, isn’t where there exists a policy failure. It *mostly* relates to old development policies and legacy development, legacy infrastructure, and legacy subsidence.

  • @driftwood
    You are totally right. I never really thought about that. I grew up in an old pier and beam house and so when I went house shopping slab foundations scared me…I knew how to crawl under a house or re-level. The thought of not being able to see my pipes in concrete was so foreign to me. I’m sure it’s the same way the other way around.