August 27, 2018

One Year Later:  Bellaire is Still Bellaire

As we pause to reflect on the anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, we remember the devastating, life-changing personal losses; heroic, life-saving rescues, by first responders and civilians alike; the kindness and generosity of others far and wide; and a community that came together like we’ve never before seen.  Each of us has our own individual story to tell, and collectively we look back on our shared experiences both during and after the storm.  Taking stock of how far we’ve come in so short a time, through our ongoing recovery and planning for the future we’ve proven Bellaire is still Bellaire.

In reaffirming our AAA municipal bond rating last month, analysts from Standard & Poor’s acknowledged Harvey’s extensive impact on Bellaire, but concluded that our economic profile and creditworthiness remain very strong.  Citing our continued growth in both commercial and residential development, and solid budgetary performance and operating results, their renewed rating is reflective of just how well we’ve weathered the storm.  Of course our complete recovery is by no means done, but one year removed from Harvey things are definitely looking up.

The recovery has been at least as much a private as it’s been a governmental endeavor, as each affected property owner has had to confront the challenges unique to his or her own situation and make the decisions they deem best for themselves.  Most have rebuilt, some have moved away, and others have seized opportunities in a favorable market.  Yet none of us are truly isolated; even as we’ve had individual decisions to make we’ve all been in this together.  Neighbors helping neighbors has been a consistent theme throughout.

All the things that made us special before the storm still do.  Our development statistics demonstrate continued confidence and investment in Bellaire.  Through the end of July, home construction and remodeling permits are up more than 20% in 2018 over the same period last year, and the total new value generated is up nearly 30%.  And that’s not even including all of the rebuilding permits issued after Harvey and before the end of 2017.  Commercial activity has been steady, too.

As a community we’ve furthered our public investment, redoubling our commitment to improving our flood control infrastructure and drawing on lessons learned in Harvey and other recent storms.  Our Bonds for Better Bellaire 2016 program is well underway, with construction soon to begin on the next series of streets and drainage projects and with those to follow presently in design.  Consistent with the consensus recommendations of our citizen Flood Hazard Mitigation Task Force, we’re looking to accelerate the pace of that work in a successor 2019 bond program, by reallocating Capital Improvement Plan funds previously earmarked for lower-priority projects.  In the meantime, the proposed budget for the next fiscal year would provide for the engineering studies necessary to begin addressing the inadequate capacity of our north/south drainage systems, which is a primary contributor to flooding throughout the City.  And yes, we’re diligently pursuing all disaster recovery and mitigation grants for which we may be eligible.

Recognizing that our own infrastructure within Bellaire is only as good as the regional systems we tie into, much of our attention is also focused on improvements outside our direct control.  Project Brays is chief among them, and the channel widening is now progressing through our area into the final segment upstream of us.  Having taken that important first step in our partnership with TxDOT more than a year ago, we’re continuing to work with them on upgrading the 610 system, one of our major north/south drainage arterials.  We’re also in discussion with the City of Houston on potential mutually beneficial infrastructure projects.

Beyond the physical improvements are the regulatory aspects of disaster recovery and hazard mitigation.  Our post-Harvey analysis of structure flooding confirms the importance and efficacy of our elevation standards for building in the floodplain.  The Task Force supports maintaining that approach, but has also spent much of its time debating what to do about homes that were built prior to the current standard, trying to find the right balance in protecting people and property without being unduly punitive.  Their extensive discussion of the substantial damage (50%) rule may lead to possible changes in how we administer it going forward.  Since Harvey, Bellaire property owners have on the whole been proactive in remediating and repairing flood damage, but where necessary the City has stepped in to address substandard conditions, compassionately enforcing our regulations and helping to restore a sense of normalcy to our neighborhoods.

Even as we’re still recovering from the last one, we know we need to be prepared for the next.  Our public safety departments have been busy building upon what has worked for us in the past, while learning from what didn’t work so well.  In partnership with the Bellaire Police and Fire Foundation, we’ve purchased and outfitted a new police response boat, and are currently in the process of acquiring an inflatable rescue boat for the Fire Department.  Having admittedly pushed it too hard in the rescue effort during Harvey, we’ve made some modifications to our high water vehicle and are looking at some further upgrades to it as well.  Our new fire truck is also specially equipped to better get through flooded streets.  Most notable of all, perhaps, are the enhanced water rescue training opportunities for our first responders over the past year; several of our personnel are now certified as Swiftwater/Floodwater Search and Rescue Technicians, with others certified as boat operators.  

Harvey also tested our ability to manage and distribute important, timely information to the public during a major emergency event.  Our communications systems performed very well, but we also recognize there are some areas for improvement.  At the start of this year’s hurricane season we rolled out our new PrepareBellaire emergency alert system, which offers many advantages.  Among them is that it allows us to target notifications to specific locations and neighborhoods, a feature we’ve already put to good use.  We’ve updated our incident command roster following some personnel changes, and made some adjustments in our Emergency Operations Center as well.  We’re very confident in our preparedness for whatever may come our way.

Thinking back on the experience and over the course of the year since, one of the biggest takeaways for me, personally, is that disaster response and recovery is a team effort.  Not all heroes wear capes, or badges.  Those that do must sometimes look to the rest of us for a little help to get the job done.  Working with them, side by side, we’ve shown what it means to be a community.

Bellaire and our surrounding area were among the hardest hit, but we’re surely not alone.  We’ve helped each other out, and when it’s gotten to be too much we’ve helped each other up.  If there’s some good that came out of Harvey, it’s that it brought us closer together, not only in Bellaire but throughout our region.  We knew a year ago we’d emerge stronger than ever, and indeed we have.