In 2010, Stephen Costello, Annise Parker, Brenda Stardig, and other politicians sold the rain tax as a mechanism to improve drainage and reduce flooding in Houston. On the weekend of April 15, 2016, the city experienced the second catastrophic flood in the last year. Many families in the Meyerland area were just getting back into their newly repaired homes when the Tax Day flood hit our community. Social media and our local media outlets filled our screens with tragic stories and pictures. And, the City of Houston and Mayor Sylvester Turner decided to respond to this tragedy with a surreal gut punch – Stephen Costello will serve as the city’s Flood Czar.
Just when we thought we had said adios to Costello, he returns to fix a problem that he claimed to solve with the rain tax. Costello, et al. led the most disingenuous and fraudulent political campaign ever seen around these parts – and that is saying something. Thankfully, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the rain tax ballot language was fraudulent.
Remember this guy from the Prop1 campaign?
Houston floods. It always has and always will. Much of Houston’s history is timed by flooding events. Just think about your lifetime. Alicia. Ike. Allison. Memorial Day. Now, Tax Day.
Meteorologists and hydrologists often refer to the one hundred year floodplain, which is a flood event that has a one percent possibility of occurring in any given year. So, why are we experiencing one hundred year flood events with such frequency? There is an answer. Of course, the deceitful rain tax campaign never told you this information.
The Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) is a governmental entity and you pay a tax for it. This county agency is responsible for flood mitigation in our area. So, Harris County is responsible for maintaining our streams and bayous NOT the city.
Houston is broken into different watersheds and the study of the different watersheds is key to understanding Houston flooding. The most studied watershed in our region is the Brays watershed. I say this because of the work of Dr. Philip B. Bedient from Rice who sought to correctly identify the watersheds and build an alert system for the Texas Medical Center, which is in the Brays watershed.
The study of a watershed system is a detailed analysis of the drainage system of a particular watershed. The variables of how a watershed system works includes rainfall amounts over the watershed, barriers to drainage, drainage capacity of a system, and saturation.
The idea and thought behind a flood alert system was to give people notice of an impending flood event. The damage done to the Texas Medical Center in Tropical Storm Allison was enormous, think billions. Dr. Bedient had an alert system in place that day; but, because of the newness and the late hour when Tropical Storm Allison overwhelmed the watershed, it was not successful in preventing the massive damage that occurred. Many of the flood gates were left open. While there was a lot of finger pointing by the political and TMC administrative types, the system did work as designed. The system Bedient designed knew that the Texas Medical Center was going to flood before it occurred. Notice of an impending flood can save billions in damage. Dr. Bedient’s revolution was a turning point in our flood history.
His model is now used by Harris County emergency management types to warn and deploy forces when flooding is likely. Dr. Bedient’s work ultimately developed into the Harris County Flood Warning System.
I became interested in Dr. Bedient’s work after Tropical Storm Allison. As the Immediate Past President of the Braeswood Place Homeowners Association, I sought answers and solutions for the over 400 homeowners in Braeswood who experienced flooding during Allison. At that time, I convinced myself that surely an engineering fix was available. Although I was right, I had no idea at the time that the answer was almost incalculable in terms of cost. Neal Meyer wrote about this recently in his post in Blog Houston and was entirely correct.
I remember finding Dr. Bedient’s office and I told him where I lived and my interest. He knew my neighborhood well because of his detailed analysis of the Brays watershed. It was above the Harris Gully where he mounted cameras to actually see the major drainage outlet for the TMC. Dr. Bedient pointed out the barriers we had protecting Braeswood Place. One example is the railroad track that trapped water to our west but flooded Bellaire. Another example is the low bridge on 288, which acts as a dam backing water up into the Texas Medical Center – a design flaw by TxDOT. During the Tax Day flood, 288 flooded again. The flooding generally starts at the bayou and the bridge design flaw shuts down 288 rather quickly during flood events along Brays and cuts off access to the Texas Medical Center from 288. The system where you live will have unique characteristics too.
The most important thing I learned from Dr. Bedient is that the floodplain will change as the watershed is built out. It’s going to rise and flood faster the more impervious surfaces are built in a watershed. I remember Dr. Bedient saying that Brays Bayou itself was built to move the water out for a one hundred year storm assuming 40% of the watershed was built out, which was done in the 1950’s. Now, 95% of the watershed is built out, which means that the base flood elevation is rising and people who once thought they were out of the floodplain are now in it. A calculation is made after each flood and a new determination is made as to the new location of the floodplain; but, this does not mean new flood maps are drawn after each new determination. These are often contentious and political fights. The City of Houston wants people to rebuild in Meyerland and Braeswood Place because there are a lot of property tax dollars from those neighborhoods flowing into city coffers.
The latest flood impacted two new or little known watersheds, Cypress Creek and Little Cypress Creek. Over four inches an hour will overwhelm our watersheds. People who have never experienced flooding before were left wondering how this happened. It happened because the watershed was overwhelmed and the new impervious surface coverage is exasperating the problem. Think about an overflowing bathtub and not draining fast enough.
Many of the homes affected by the rise of Cypress Creek and Little Cypress Creek did not exist ten years ago. The most studied watershed is Brays followed by Buffalo Bayou. Buffalo Bayou was dealt with years ago with the construction of the Barker and Addicks reservoirs. Make no mistake, the flooding would have been disastrous if these two reservoirs did not exist. Both the Addicks and Barker dams do their job and have done so for years.
I always find it interesting how the media and politicians react to flooding. While Stephen Costello is the father of the rain tax, he needed help in this quest. Council Member Brenda Stardig made the motion for the City of Houston enabling legislation for Prop1. Meyerland has seen disastrous flooding twice since Prop1 was created. Many Meyerland residents who flooded in Allison believed Costello’s nonsense. Also, the ballot language was misleading – the Texas Supreme Court concurs. More importantly, Harris County is in charge of flood control. The city, at most, is responsible for water in their streets. It is clear that the rain tax was nothing more than a money grab for contractors and city folks, which is why I and a number of other folks fought hard to stop Prop1. Now, the Prop1 funds are being used for everything but flood control, mostly city salaries.
People need to understand that Costello and his engineering company represent developers and businesses who are building out the watershed. This, of course, is making flooding worse in Meyerland. Costello’s job is to go into city hall and convince city engineers, who may be paid with rain tax funds, that his client’s projects will not cause flooding. So, when you think of Stephen Costello as the Flood Czar, you are looking at the guy who has caused a lot of the flooding problems. To make the point clear, Costello has made a living of not mitigating for his client’s projects. Mitigation is expensive and if you hire the Flood Czar, you get the benefit of his graft and corruption in the city engineering department. The displaced water winds up in the homes in Meyerland or maybe your home if it floods. Costello needs to use his position to advocate for the suspension of the Prop1 tax for all homeowners whose homes have flooded since the rain tax was enacted. I would argue that the city should suspend the property taxes of flood victims altogether until they are back in their homes. When you see the Flood Czar ask him about this.
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