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Ed Emmett Calls For Political Focus On Flood Protection For Harris County

The county Judge believes that calls to cut property taxes amount to support for decreased flood control funding

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett gives an update on area shelters in September 2017, one month after Hurricane Harvey struck Texas.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett thinks that politicians aren’t focused enough on protecting Houston against flooding.

Speaking at a Rice University meeting of flood experts, architects and city planners on Wednesday, Emmett said flood mitigation after Hurricane Harvey is the region’s “most important issue.” But he suggested that’s not what politicians are focused on. 

“Have you seen any television ads or heard any radio ads where people say:  ‘The most important thing we’ve got to do is solve the flooding problem in Houston, Harris County and this region?’ No. They’re talking about border security and all kind of other things that…nevermind,” the judge said, trailing off to laughter from the conference crowd.

As Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick continue their push for property tax relief, Emmett said calls for lower property taxes amount to calls to decrease flood control funding. He reiterated his previous suggestion that officials build a more regional approach to flood planning. Emmett said the 1,000 or so municipal utility districts (MUD in the unincorporated parts of Harris County should be part of that effort.

Wednesday’s event was organized by Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters ( SSPEED ) center. Phil Bedient, the center’s director, said future flood mitigation efforts should focus on the northwestern and western edges of the Houston region, where the “intense growth” that contributed to the city’s flooding problems is now stretching.

“We’re not going to be able to stop that growth, nor should we,” Bedient said. “Let’s become a really smart city on flood control.”

“The community is saying we are tired of getting flooded,” said Stephen Costello, Houston’s “flood czar.”

Stephen Costello, Houston’s “flood czar”, speaks at a Rice University conference of flood experts on Wednesday.

Costello said the city still wishes Texas leaders would tap the state’s “rainy day fund,” an idea Governor Abbott has pushed back against.

“That’s fallen on deaf ears,” Costello said.

Meanwhile, Houston officials are seeking out federal funding for flood control projects that Costello said would build “resilience.” Under one such project, the city would consolidate its 39 wastewater treatment plants into just 12 facilities, abandoning some that flooded during Harvey.

Still, Costello noted that federal flood hazard mitigation grants are competitive, and he expressed frustration with how slowly federal dollars move into local hands.

“Resilience is sort of an afterthought when you’re dealing with the federal government,” he said.

Rice University professor and environmental attorney Jim Blackburn told Wednesday’s crowd that efforts to protect Houston against flooding have to factor in climate change, even if some officials and politicians are hesitant to broach the subject.

“Denial of climate change is going to kill people,” he said.

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Travis Bubenik

Energy/Environment Reporter & Afternoon News Anchor

Travis Bubenik reports on the tangled intersections of energy and the environment in Houston and across Texas. A Houston native and proud Longhorn, he returned to the Bayou City after serving as the Morning Edition Host & Reporter for Marfa Public Radio in Far West Texas. Bubenik was previously the...

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