The full scope of the damage from Monday night’s flood began to sink in Wednesday as the official death toll in across the Houston area rose to seven. Down in the neighborhoods along Brays Bayou in southwest Houston, residents were still slogging through knee-deep water that drenched the area when the bayou swelled past its banks.
Rodi Franco with the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, which is raising money to help nearby homeowners who suffered serious damage in the flood, says the Willow Meadows neighborhood was hit particularly hard. “It was literally an ocean there yesterday where 610 turns,” she told the Houston Press Wednesday. And at Wednesday’s Houston City Council meeting, Councilman Larry Green, whose District K encompasses many of the neighborhoods most ravaged by flood, hinted at just how bad the damage there might be. In the Westbury neighborhood alone, he said, officials had already identified 237 homes that sustained structural damage.
Green was indignant that a flood control project along Brays Bayou wasn’t further along by the time Monday’s storm hit. “We know that on Meyerland, Willowbend, South Braeswood, those areas continue to flood,” he said. “We don’t have that mitigation on Brays Bayou because [the project] has essentially stopped, because federal funding has stopped.”
Green was referring to the Brays Bayou Flood Damage Reduction Project, better known as Project Brays, a joint decades-long project by the Harris County Flood Control District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to widen the bayou, replace or modify bridges along the channel and develop stormwater detention sites so water won’t flood into the surrounding neighborhoods during the sort of torrential rains seen Monday night. Under an agreement that dates back to the late ‘90s, construction and design costs for the project are split 50/50 between Harris County and the feds (the county pays in full for many other costs involved in the project, such as buying up any right-of-ways). Per that agreement, Harris County spends the money up front and invoices the feds every year for reimbursement. And every year Congress must approve how much it’s willing to kick back to local infrastructure projects like Project Brays. Any part of the federal share that doesn’t get covered rolls over, like a running tab.
Under an ambitious timeline laid out in 2007, channel improvements would have made it all the way out to Fondren Road by last year. For reasons that weren’t entirely clear Wednesday (Harris County Flood Control District officials haven’t returned our calls), that timetable appears to have been radically altered. According to a project update the flood control district posted last summer, work won’t even reach Buffalo Speedway until the first quarter of 2016. As for the areas hit hard by this week’s flooding, improvements along that stretch of bayou aren’t even on the timetable.
Councilman Green says that’s because the project has been hindered by a shortfall in federal funding for years. Green’s office says it was told by HCFCD that future phases of Project Brays were effectively put on hold because federal funding had dried up and the county wasn’t being adequately reimbursed.
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Green expressed his outrage at Wednesday’s council meeting:
“I implore our federal representatives to stop playing partisan politics when it comes to infrastructure investment. … The damage that has been done along South Braeswood is unconscionable. And it happens year after year. We’re about to head into hurricane season, and what are we to tell our residents? It is ridiculous that we have not had serious infrastructure funding for the City of Houston. If you say you support the City of Houston, if you say you support Harris County, then bring the funding down so we can go move forward with Project Brays.”
Mayor Annise Parker responded with an apparent jab at Sen. Ted Cruz, who joined Parker and Gov. Greg Abbott at a press conference Tuesday and promised to help secure federal aid to respond to the disaster in Texas (this is the same Ted Cruz, mind you, who criticized and voted against a federal aid package to help victims of 2013’s Hurricane Sandy).
“The only thing I’ll say is there’s some irony in some of the public officials who were standing in front of the TV cameras yesterday who actively worked against that funding,” Parker said.