Houston Passes ‘Historic’ Flood Reforms on Hurricane Harvey Anniversary

The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Port Arthur, Texas.
The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Port Arthur, Texas.
Photo: AP

A year has passed since Hurricane Harvey bore down in the Southeast, pummeling Texas and Louisiana with 27 trillion gallons of water. Since then, some cities and communities have come a long way to ensure they’re better protected for next storm.

Over the weekend, voters in Harris County, Texas—home to Houston, which saw some of the worst flooding during the event—elected to approve $2.5 billion in bonds that’ll help finance flood control projects in the region starting in 2020. Thanks to proposition A, taxpayers will see a tiny increase in property taxes over the next 10 to 15 years to cover the bonds’ interest. Federal dollars will match the bonds, bringing in another $3 billion—amounting to a whopping $5.5 billion to go toward flood control projects.

These projects include mapping floodplains, offering voluntary buyouts to homeowners in floodplains, and improving early warning flood systems. Most importantly, perhaps, is the work on watersheds Harvey left damaged. Projects to widen bayous and study watersheds like the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs will help create better flow paths for rainwater—and keep flood waters away from residential areas.


The 85-15 vote in favor of the bipartisan proposition came on August 25, the anniversary of the Category 4 storm striking Houston.

“A lot of politicians say this next November election is the most important election of our lives,” said Texas Representative Sarah Davis, a Republican, per ABC. “But in my opinion, this election today is the most important of our lives, because we didn’t vote for a person or party. We voted for each other. We voted to save our communities.”

Hurricane Harvey was the largest rain event in the modern history of the United States. It cost the U.S. $125 billion in damage—and more than 75 lives in Texas. The storm damaged at least 15,000 homes, yet those impacted have been without federal housing aid since June. (No wonder homelessness has grown more urgent since then.)

The official ballot includes language around transparency, public participation, and the “equitable expenditure of funds,” which is making some call this measure “historic.” There’s always a concern among housing advocates that low-income communities or communities of color will be ignored and miss the dollars they need to rebuild and prepare for natural disasters. Proposition A aims to avoid this issue.


Still, states like Texas and Louisiana have a long way to go before they’re ready to handle another Hurricane Harvey. For one, toxic Superfund sites hit by the storm still need some cleanup and maintenance. The Environmental Protection Agency got started on cleaning up one Superfund site in April, but there’s been no update on the other 12 sites the hurricane damaged.

And new flood control projects can only go so far toward remedying the systemic flooding problem Houston faces, a challenge a ProPublica investigation captured years before Harvey hit. Wild population growth and developers’ habits of paving over ever inch of land they can are to blame. Without the wild prairies to absorb rainfall, floodwaters instead rush into residential neighborhoods. 


The end of August and beginning of September is usually the worst part of hurricane season for this region. The Southeast could use a hurricane-free summer after all that Hurricane Harvey wrought last year.

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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Houston is famous as being the city with no zoning. Due to little to no planning, Houston’s ability to deal with rapid rainfall is almost non-existent. A large portion of the destroyed homes were built inside a zone that was designed to flood when water had to be released to prevent dam failures. When the flood controls were first designed decades ago, the land was nothing but rice farms. But years of unregulated growth added thousands of acres of suburban housing inside the planned overflow area. To be sure, 40 to 50 inches of rain in a few days will be bad in any location, but Houston’s zoning and construction over the last 20 years made it much worse than it needed to be.

But fret not, we’re all paying for the rebuilding effort, so that the next time Houston gets hit by a tropical storm, we can pay again. God forbid we instead pay to relocate, and better yet, require zoning laws that prevent building in potential flood zones.



Meanwhile, Puerto Rico just recently restored electrical service nearly a year after the fact.