More than 41 million Americans live near a flood zone, according to FEMA. However, the first maps illustrating flood zones didn’t roll off the presses until the early 1970s. As many government agencies have learned, keeping up with who is currently in a flood zone is a moving target thanks to climate change.
For most of us, flood insurance takes care of any potential disasters. However, homes passed down from generation to generation in many low-income neighborhoods have become a hot topic. Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, it’s an issue the city of Houston is still trying to work out.
When James Burford’s home was built, he says the Houston flood plains had not yet been mapped. Inside his home, the walls and ceilings were covered in black mold. His daughter’s room was covered, which is why they had to leave. The move wasn’t easy.
“I’m a disabled veteran. I do have some sort of medical issues that I have to deal with, and it's not good for someone that has gone through what I’ve gone through,” Burford said. “Which tends to frustrate me more because I feel like, you know, having this property here, serving my country as I have, and then being treated this way by the city of Houston and by the state of Texas, you know, I feel like that's a great injustice.”
Burford isn’t alone. Many of the homes along greens bayou often flood.
“This is a predominantly an area of color; is it is a relatively poor area, and therefore, I think this area has been overlooked, you know, of flooding that occurred, and I think we have become expendable,” Burford said.
“We have we have an African American mayor, who comes from an underserved community called Acres Homes, and he has been committed since he walked in here in 2016 to make change for the city to focus on underserved communities,” said Stephen Costello, who is with the city of Houston.
Harris County Flood Control District says they are working on solutions, and among them include potential voluntary buyouts.
“It’s a challenge because you have to find available property. You have to get the infrastructure in place, not just wastewater,” said Alan Black, who represents the district. “There’s got to be grocery stores. There has to be a network to help people move into a particular area.”
It’s a problem not exclusive to Houston.
“You know, some places in America, and many in both New Orleans and in Houston, you can only build single-family homes on a two-acre lot, right, as opposed to building a series of townhomes, for instance,” said Jesse Keenan is a professor at Tulane University. “That significantly increases density, it increases the supply of housing and decreases the cost burden on people when you increase supply. This is a challenge for the entire country. We need to produce a lot more housing."
While Tulane experts say buyouts and affordable housing are the solutions, one Rice University professor says those buyouts, at least for now, can be avoided through engineering.
“They’ve got an inadequate drainage system to begin with. It doesn't have anywhere to flow,” Jim Blackburn said. “There are culverts that are stopped up, and then, there's no big projects that come in and really handle those big storms that we're getting more often.”
Blackburn is the co-director of the severe storm prevention, education, and evacuation with FEMA’s Disaster Center.
“And so, if a project costs $5 million and if you're protecting $10 million houses, then that's $10 million in benefits and $5 million in cost. So, we've seen example after example of where lower-income areas have trouble qualifying for the federal programs,” Blackburn explained.
Blackburn says all of that is about to change, thanks in part to the Water Resources Development Act of 2020. The bill opens a kind of loophole for the Army Corps of Engineers to help economically disadvantaged communities through 10 pilot programs.
The Harris County flood district hopes to be one of the first in the nation to tackle the problems in northeast Houston.
For Blackburn, that could fulfill a simple dream.
“I would love to come home, you know,” he said. “I’ve been in this neighborhood for half of my life.”