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The Greens Bayou watershed in north and east Harris County covers 212 square miles and is dense with households. It floods regularly, but it has long been shortchanged on flood control spending.
Juan Antonio Sorto, a longtime East Houston resident, drove his SUV toward a bridge over Greens Bayou. The bridge marks the border where the city of Houston ends and unincorporated Harris County begins.
"This is where the family got swept away," Sorto said.
On Sunday, August 27, 2017, at the height of Hurricane Harvey, a family of seven tried to drive across the bridge when their van slipped backwards into the floodwaters. Six members of the family, Belia and Manuel Saldivar and four of their great-grandchildren, drowned.
The Saldivars' horrific deaths were part of the widespread devastation that struck East Houston during Harvey.
Sorto's neighborhood saw some of the worst flooding. Standing outside his house, after returning from his drive to the bridge, Sorto said, "(Of) 200-plus residential homes, four homes were the only ones that actually survived the flooding per se of Hurricane Harvey. Mine was one of them, and I came within an inch of actually the water going inside my house."
Sorto pointed to the high-water mark of Harvey on the side of his house. An open vent lay barely an inch above it.
"One of the things that really stood out to me from the flood is that while I felt blessed to have not been flooded, I still felt a sense of guilt that still haunts me, to be honest with you, because you see the rest of my neighbors, you know, a lot of them have not been able to recover," Sorto said.
Robert Ramos, Sorto's neighbor from across the street, pointed to a boarded-up house just down the block that didn't fare nearly as well.
"That house on the end?" Ramos said. "That house sunk.”
Sorto and Ramos' East Houston neighborhood is in the Greens Bayou watershed, an area of land where Greens, Halls, Garners, and Reinhardt Bayous converge. It's also home to 540,000 people. The region is low-to-moderate income and is majority Hispanic and Black.
James Burford has lived in East Houston for nearly half a century. His home is still gutted from ongoing repairs after multiple storms damaged it. "Allison, Ike, Alicia, Uri, which was the ice storm, all of those disasters affected me one way or the other," Burford said.
But the major storms are only part of Burford's problem. "The drainage system is not, it’s not adequate enough to deal with just a regular hard rain," he said.
As often and as badly as the region floods, Burford said it doesn't get the same attention from government as wealthier areas of Harris County.
"This area had been totally neglected for years and years and years, because there's no excuse for the continuing flooding that we have now," Burford said. "Some things are just nature, or that God made, you can’t do anything about that. But some of the flooding that we’ve incurred, it's unnecessary."
County Commissioner Rodney Ellis agrees. The watershed sits in his precinct, Harris County Precinct 1. He's long been frustrated by what he considers the area's unfair treatment when it comes to doling out infrastructure funding, especially flood control infrastructure.
"The cost/benefit ratio is a method that determines the future reduction risk benefits of a hazard mitigation project and compares those benefits to its costs," Ellis said. "If you take out all of that convoluted explanation, it means that historically, we’ve funded projects in areas where the property was most valuable, even if more people lived in areas that were more prone to flooding and those areas flooded on a more regular basis."
I’ve covered Harris County Commissioners Court when it meets every other week for the past five years. Since Democrats took the majority on the court in 2019, I’ve watched Ellis advocate for what he refers to as equity in flood control infrastructure funding.
"I don’t think residents, somebody’s ZIP code in any area surrounding the bayou ought to determine whether or not you get relief from the government or not," Ellis said. "You ought to use some version of worst-first or look at how vulnerable somebody is in this area where people don’t have access to transportation to get out. You want to do as much as you can to mitigate damages everywhere, but in particular, when it’s in neighborhoods where people have the least among us."
Juan Antonio Sorto is skeptical. So far, he hasn't seen much progress.
"I met Rodney Ellis," Sorto said. "I met a lot of these politicians, because I am pretty much actively engaged in civic associations, such as the super neighborhood, in the super neighborhood alliance, per se. (East Houston is Super Neighborhood Number 49). And you know, we haven’t seen any of that funding come over here."
According to the Harris County Flood Control District, there are more than $115.7 million worth of flood control projects in the works for Greens Bayou. One of the major efforts to control flooding there is building stormwater detention basins. So far, six are either finished or under construction.
But to get closer to its goal of making the area more flood resilient, the county says it needs a lot more money. The Texas General Land Office (GLO) awarded Harris County $750 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) but gave Houston nothing, far short of what each had expected.
"The state shortchanged the county significantly," Commissioner Ellis said. "The plans that we had developed in conjunction with the city were in anticipation of $2 billion that would impact the region. A lot of what we do, obviously, is connected to what the city does. So that means that when we found out, we will get $750 million, we got to recalculate."
Part of the difficulty, Ellis said, is that the county and the city have different responsibilities when it comes to managing flooding.
"Our job is primarily to get the water from the bayous to the Gulf. The city’s responsibility is to get the water primarily from the neighborhoods to the bayous," Ellis said.
Black and Hispanic residents filed a complaint with HUD under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, alleging discrimination in its awarding of federal flood relief dollars. The Biden administration agreed, but the GLO disputes the finding, saying that more than two-thirds of the beneficiaries of such funding were Black and Hispanic.
Further, "Harris County is the only entity that has yet to send a draft of its (method of distribution) to the GLO," said Brittany Eck, a spokesperson for the GLO, "Harris County has had more than a year and a half to develop a plan, which could include significant funding for the Greens and Halls Bayou watershed neighborhoods."
Until Harris County submits its plan and gets it approved, HUD won't release any of the money. That leaves East Houston residents like James Burford stuck in the middle. "It’s been a failure, basically, from all levels of government," Burford said.
If that weren't enough, the region may also suffer the aftereffects of a standoff over Harris County's Fiscal Year 2023 budget and tax rates. From mid-September through the end of October, Republican Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey boycotted commissioners court meetings in order to deny the Democratic majority the necessary four-member quorum in order to vote on tax and budget matters. As a result, commissioners had no choice under state law but to adopt revenue rates capped at last year's levels, also known as the "no new revenue rate," and a budget with sharp cuts to all departments, including the Harris County Flood Control District.
Tina Petersen, executive director of the Flood Control District, explained what the cuts would mean to the Greens Bayou watershed, as well as to the smaller Halls Bayou watershed to its south.
"Both Greens and Halls certainly have a number of maintenance needs that need to be addressed," Petersen said. "And some of those are going to be on hold as a result of the budget cuts."
Until they get better drainage, East Houston streets will continue to flood every time they experience a heavy rain, let alone a major storm. And the situation is likely to get worse, because in addition to everything else, the region is undergoing a boom in private development.
"We were, once upon a time, the forgotten child of the city and the county. Now we’re getting all this exposure, not by the city, the county, but by developers themselves," Juan Antonio Sorto said.
The main attraction for developers is cheap land, and the result is likely to be devastating for long-time residents. "This is still considered very much a low-income neighborhood. The poverty rate, I believe, is like 26 or so percent," Sorto said. "Most of the homes that are being built here, they’re over $200,000. And all of that started happening the minute after Hurricane Harvey."
Sorto, a freshly minted Ph.D. in urban planning and environmental policy from Texas Southern University, is convinced that development will only lead to more people being hurt when the waters inevitably rise again.
"How frequent are the floods now?" Sorto said. "They’ve been very frequent, but now they’re about to be exacerbated, in my opinion, because of that new development that’s happening."
CORRECTION (Nov. 23, 2022): An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the HUD grant is being held by the GLO. The funds are being held by HUD pending the submission and approval of its plan for spending the money. The GLO’s role, as mandated by HUD, is to ensure all of HUD’s rules are followed.