Added Costs

Houston finally moves on a flood program that could have saved residents millions

At City Hall, some call it spin, and some call it fact.

The spin is that Houston homeowners are about to get a substantial decrease in rates on their flood insurance premiums. The fact is that Houstonians could have been banking on that savings for up to nine years, if city bureaucrats had not been damming up the works.

The City of Houston is finally applying to join the Community Rating System program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That will slash flood insurance bills for homeowners and business operators by up to 45 percent.

That part of the National Flood Insurance Program has been available to Houston for almost a decade. Residents of neighboring cities such as Pasadena and Friendswood have reaped the benefits since October 1991, and eight other Houston-area municipalities have been on board for years.

Houston hasn't, even though flooding has always been a critical issue here. Drawing floodplain maps is an often contentious and complicated matter involving warring jurisdictions and the interests of developers. The responsibility -- some say blame -- for the delays in the flood insurance program can be traced to the Public Works Department.

Hilda Garza Scott, the deputy Public Works director for capital projects, oversees the application for the FEMA program. While it has languished, she has been diligent about approving other city projects, including those involving her husband.

The Houston Press reported that Scott signed requests for more than $2 million in contracts with TSC Engineering in the 14 months after her husband, Richard, left the Public Works Department and began working for TSC (see "Marriage Contract," by Bob Burtman, April 22, 1999).

Hilda Scott's actions prompted Internet gadfly Brenda Flores to file an ethics complaint with the city. The city's Office of Inspector General investigated Hilda Scott's dealings, which are now the subject of an investigation by the Harris County district attorney's office.

Asked whether Scott's troubles had distracted her from attending to the aging application, Public Works information officer Wes Johnson replied, "I can't answer that." Scott declined to return calls for comment.

The Community Rating System program allots special credits to residents for municipal projects and activities that FEMA believes will reduce or eliminate exposure to floods. These include public education and information projects, mapping and regulation of flood-prone areas and actions to reduce or prevent flood damage. The more special credits given to an area, the lower the premiums charged to residents for flood insurance. Discounts on every policy written can range from 5 percent to 45 percent.

A FEMA representative says the average annual premium nationally is $350 for $120,000 coverage against flooding. Rates can vary widely depending on the type of structure and its location. But by all indications, many more Houstonians will need the coverage, which is required by federally regulated lenders for loans involving property within floodplains.

The agency announced last week that new floodplain maps will add an additional 59,000 residents into floodplains along Braes and White Oak bayous, as well as Clear Creek. The new maps also removed almost 25,000 residents from the floodplains.

As many residents have learned in the years that the FEMA application has been languishing, living outside a floodplain is no guarantee that they won't come home one day to find their belongings floating in their living rooms.

Meanwhile, the application has been floating around various city offices. Public Works engineer Mark Kosmoski says the paperwork involved has made the file six inches thick but that it will soon be forwarded to Mayor Lee Brown for signature. He believes FEMA should reduce rates by at least 5 percent to 10 percent, and possibly more.

Houston's entry would make it the largest city involved in the program, which now includes Dallas and Austin, among the 38 Texas cities enrolled. No new staff positions will be required.

Officials say approval of the application is already assured by FEMA.

Kosmoski, whose boss is Hilda Scott, says he wasn't aware of the program until a month ago. And he didn't even know he was handling the application until the Houston Presscalled the department last week to check on its status.

"I've had it for a year, and I didn't know I had it," Kosmoski says. "It was given to four different individuals, and it wasn't done. I have it now, and it is going to get done."

 
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