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A year after the floods, Texas mulls lessons of Hurricane Harvey

Residents evacuate an apartment complex in west Houston where high water coming from the Addicks Reservoir flooded the area after Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 30, 2017. Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

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Aug. 25 marks the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey dumping trillions of gallons of water on southeast Texas. It’s also when voters in Harris County — the Greater Houston area — will head to the polls to vote on a $2.5 billion bond package for flood-risk reduction projects across the county. Some residents never saw Harvey coming, and officials are trying to remedy that before another storm hits.

Mary Pat Donlon and her family live in Twin Lakes, an upscale neighborhood on the edge of the Addicks Reservoir. Seventy years ago, this part of Texas was prairie. No houses. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built this reservoir 20 miles upstream from central Houston to prevent the city from flooding. Nowadays, there are dozens of subdivisions here. Donlon said she and her husband talked about flood concerns, briefly, when they bought their house, but it didn’t go much further.

“We looked at the documentation — we weren’t in the 100-year floodplain, we weren’t in the 500-year floodplain — so we really did not think there was a significant risk,” she said as painters work to cover the walls upstairs.

Turns out there was a significant risk. After Harvey, officials decided to release water from the reservoir to alleviate the risk of wider regional flooding. The Donlons ended up with a foot of water in their home. They’re now part of a class-action lawsuit for damages sustained. Mary Pat said they’re lucky in a way because they had flood insurance, even though they weren’t legally required to. She said they’re going to keep it.

“When I got the renewal again for the flood insurance, it still has us not in a floodplain,” she said. “It hadn’t changed” 

Her insurance premium hadn’t changed, either.

Most residents did not have flood insurance, though, and will have to pay for any repairs themselves.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the Houston area needs to rethink the way it develops and should even commission newer flood maps to reflect current floodplain realities. New building codes for development within the floodplain will require homes be raised 5 to 10 feet above current levels, but that won’t apply to neighborhoods like Twin Lakes that are outside the official floodplain.

Emmett said if voters approve the bond measure, the county could afford things like wider bayous, perhaps a new reservoir and other flood mitigation infrastructure.

“There are improvements you can make, maybe one drainage ditch that if you do certain things to it, you can save a lot of people some grief,” he explained.

The $2.5 billion bond package Houston voters will consider would be in addition to another $5 billion in federal funding for reconstruction and flood control that was approved by Congress late last year.

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