Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously Tuesday to apply for millions in funding allowing the county to buy out more than 100 homes in Houston and Harris County that repeatedly flood.
The commissioners' approval gives the Harris County Flood Control District the green light to submit an application to the state asking for more than $17 million in FEMA grant money — funneled through the Texas Water Development Board — to buy 104 homes. Harris County would contribute approximately $3 million in additional funding. The costs cover demolishing and purchasing the homes, assisting families in relocating to higher ground and restoring the land so it can be used for stormwater storage.
The 104 homes — 63 in Harris County, 39 in Houston, one in Humble and one in La Porte — are all in 100-year floodplains and have flooded repeatedly, leading the Harris County Flood Control District to conclude there's really no other way to stop the homes from flooding other than by demolishing them for good. In its application submitted to the water development board and FEMA, the homes are described as being "hopelessly deep" in the floodplains. (Officials declined to identify the locations of the homes or neighborhoods, saying the information was sensitive, but provided a map showing locations of more than 3,000 buyouts in the past.)
"Channel improvements, detention basins and no action were all considered," officials wrote. "Channel improvements and detention basins would not be effective since these areas are so deep within the mapped floodplain. No action would allow the families to continue to be in harm's way."
Even though the action comes right on the heels of Hurricane Harvey's disastrous flooding, the flood control district had already planned to apply for buyout funds for this batch of homes before Harvey hit — so homeowners who were banking on a buyout after Harvey shouldn't fret, as the county is taking applications now. It has so far received more than a thousand applications through its website alone, spokeswoman Karen Hastings said.
Russ Poppe, executive director of the flood control district, said that given the huge volume of interest in buyouts following Harvey, the district is working with FEMA to develop an expedited buyout program so that officials don't have to wait another year to submit applications for another batch. Poppe said more than nine months could pass between when commissioners approve the application and when homeowners even get the offer from the county for the buyout.
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"We're hoping for a special circumstance in working with FEMA, because the grant applications made today at Commissioners Court are just that: They're applications. They still have to be approved and go through a process with the state and with FEMA, and that process takes time. So what we're advocating for, at least in response to Hurricane Harvey, is something much more expedited — that way we can address the growing need how versus later."
Poppe said that people whose homes flooded this time around shouldn't worry about choosing between a buyout months down the road or repairs now, saying both are possible, despite the chance of double-dipping FEMA funds. FEMA spokesman Bob Howard also told the Houston Press that FEMA's top priority right now is getting people into safe and sanitary living conditions as soon as possible, and that a potential buyout wouldn't get in the way of FEMA housing assistance.
"It's definitely not one or the other — they can still apply for assistance to get their feet back on the ground," Poppe said. "We know we have a lot of homes — some that may qualify; some may not — and we don't want to hold anybody back from making necessary repairs to their homes now. That's why it's important to still apply, let us know that they're interested, and that way we can still get them in the queue."
Those interested in a buyout can complete a survey and submit a "notice of voluntary interest" to the Harris County Flood Control District here, and can learn more about eligibility requirements here.