Harris Co. Passes New Guidelines for Prioritizing Flood Projects

By Urban Reform Staff | Aug 28, 2019

This week, Harris County Commissioners Court approved a new set of guidelines, called “Harris Thrives” aimed at flood control projects included in last year’s $2.5 billion bond.

The big issue with Harris Thrives is a new tool called the Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) that County Judge Lina Hidalgo proposed as a way to prioritize the 238 flood control projects in that bond.

“Not based on whether you have a friend downtown…who’s the loudest and most politically connected,” she said of the new formula. However, the formula seems to be exactly what she says she’s hoping to move from, a tool for the politically-connected to benefit.

Instead of just focusing on flood risk factors like clogged drains or proximity to a bayou, the SVI tool looks at a neighborhood’s socioeconomic factors, including income, poverty level, housing quality, rates of car ownership, and density.

Commissioners Jack Cable and Steve Radack voiced concern over the fact that so many of the metrics in the new tool were subjective rather than objective and dealt with numerous factors while deemphasizing the actual flood risk.

Cagle said the tool, “doesn’t deal with the science of where the water is going.”

When pressed to explain the calculation of the SVI and how it actually works, Matt Zeve, Deputy Executive Director of the Harris County Flood Control District struggled to answer the question saying that it was a formula created by the CDC and they just obtained the publicly available data. But even that raised concern.

Cagle asked Zeve what the most recent data available was that they were basing the changes on and Zeve confirmed that the latest data they had was from 2016.

Houston Council Member Greg Travis testified in opposition to the plan saying that despite the repeated flooding in his district and the lack of the city, county, or state to fix the issue, the county’s new tool would drop nearly half of the planned flood control projects in his district to the end of the list.

“When we talk about equity, I want to make sure we do talk about equity…out of the 12 projects that we had for Buffalo Bayou, 6 are at the bottom of the list because of this new formula,” Travis said, “it looks somebody decided these are the projects we want, let’s figure out how we can make them the top of the list and put others at the bottom.”

Hidalgo reassured the public that all 238 projects previously discussed would be completed, but the timeline would shift according to the SVI.

Despite the concerns and seemingly rushed process, the court moved forward on voting on the measure and it passed 3-2.

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