January 19, 2017

Flooding: Are We Doing Enough, Fast Enough?

We didn't need any reminders, but we got one.  Yesterday's flooding event has again brought the problem—a major problem—to the fore.  It affects all parts of the City, and indeed neighborhoods all throughout our region.  We've been steadily working at it, systematically prioritizing and addressing the areas of greatest need at a fairly consistent pace.  We've made some progress, but yesterday morning's deluge reminds us once again just how much work we have left to do.  Streets were impassable all over town and in some cases, thankfully few, flood-prone homes were hit for the second or even third time in less than two years.  According to the Harris County Flood Control District, Bellaire got more rain in a two hour period yesterday than we got in the Memorial Day flood of 2015, and our area was among the hardest hit anywhere in the County.

We know it's unacceptable for an entire city to shut down just because it rains, hurricanes and tropical storms excepted (by “city” I mean greater Houston; obviously it’s not just us).  But we also know the solution takes time.  And money.  It's reasonable to pose the question to ourselves as a community:  Are we doing enough, fast enough?  I take this opportunity to recap where we are with our drainage work, as we consider that pressing question.

First, a little perspective.  Flooding knows no jurisdictional boundaries.  It’s a regional problem requiring a regional solution.  Go for a drive along Brays Bayou and you’ll see the extensive work being done.  However, it’s slow-going work, and until it’s completed we’re going to continue having events like this.  In the meantime, we’re upgrading our local infrastructure both for the benefits we can get from it now and eventually to get the most out of the improving regional system it ties into.  But we also need to have realistic expectations:  This kind of flooding is the new normal, at least for the foreseeable future.  What we’re doing—and can do—locally won’t solve the problem without further regional progress, and it won’t happen overnight.

So what are we doing that is within our local control?  Over the past decade or so, we've invested more than $40 million in drainage improvements under the 2005 Rebuild Bellaire bond program (RBB), and prior to that, more than $22 million in 2000 Bellaire Millennium Renewal projects.  At this moment, the last two streets of RBB are under construction.  The completion of those final RBB projects will bring us to approximately 30% of our streets having been reconstructed with new drainage systems.

With RBB thus drawing to a close, Bellaire voters overwhelmingly approved the 2016 Better Bellaire bond package this past November, authorizing the next $24 million of funding for streets and drainage work (and also sidewalks) as the successor to RBB.  As with the prior bond programs, streets will be selected in order of relative priority as determined by engineering data and informed by the City Engineer's significant and comprehensive drainage study presented back in the fall.  Additionally, streets that were identified but not completed under RBB will remain high on the priority list.  Of course, we also learn from each storm event (such as yesterday's) and incorporate that data into our modeling.  Engineering and design work, followed soon by construction, will begin in the very near future.

Also, as I've previously written about, another source of funding not supported by bonds is our ongoing Pavement Management program.  While the primary purpose is to make pavement repairs and interim surface improvements to streets not yet scheduled for total reconstruction, the funding also allows us to do smaller, targeted drainage projects where we can.  For example, streets with excessive ponding or ineffective storm water inlets (even into the main arterials that were improved under RBB!) have been addressed in this manner.

One metric in which we've already seen some improvement is in the number of flooded homes in each major event.  While each event is unique, an overall reduction in that figure is a step in the right direction.  No doubt impassable streets are an inconvenience, but they are an inconvenience of limited duration and the streets are in fact designed to surface-flow storm water as an additional defense against structure flooding.  Better in the streets than in our homes.  (For the sake of completeness, the reduction in flooded homes is also attributable to our building code requirement since 2004 that new construction be built up at least one foot above base flood elevation.)

The foregoing provides a broad overview of the progress we've made, but it also illustrates how much time it takes to get the job done, and we've got a lot of work ahead of us.  Even as we continue to upgrade our drainage system within Bellaire, it won't do us much good without an adequate system downstream to receive our storm water along with all the other storm water combining with it from other areas.  As added regional capacity comes online through Project Brays and the Willow Waterhole Greenway, that should help our situation as well.  That Brays Bayou did not come out of its banks in our area this time, as it did in the Memorial Day flood of 2015, may be an encouraging sign.