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At least a decade to complete flood control projects from bond, Emmett says

September 30, 2018

More than 230 infrastructure projects are part of the $2.5 billion bond passed by Harris County voters a year to the day after Hurricane Harvey dumped 27 trillion gallons of water on southeast Texas — killing 50 people in the area and swamping more than 200,000 homes. The list won’t be completed anytime soon, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

“My guess is we’re looking at 10 to 11 years,” Emmett on Thursday told members of the Houston West Chamber of Commerce.

Some of the effort, like buying out homes in the flood plain, are already ongoing while other flood control projects, such as widening Brays Bayou, are more of a challenge, Emmett said.

“It’s not just the widening of the channel,” he said. “There are 32 bridges over Brays Bayou and a lot of them need to be replaced. But we can’t close too many bridges at the same time because that makes a mess of traffic.”

The plan for the $2.5 billion bond began after Emmett saw piles of debris on the streets in front of homes gutted by Hurricane Harvey.

“I realized those piles of debris were really not ‘piles of debris,’ they were peoples’ lives,” he said. “We all said, ‘Okay, we’re not going to let this happen again if at all possible.’ That’s when we came up with the idea.”

Although local leaders generally agree with the idea of dusting off a 1940s-era plan by the Army Corps of Engineers to create a third reservoir in far northwest Harris County, Harris County officials say it’s not as simple as digging a hole. Rather than merely stopping flood water from pouring into the Addicks Reservoir, a future reservoir in the region must stop the water from going into Cypress Creek in the first place, Emmett said.

“There are 300,000 people who live along the creek who didn’t live there when the third reservoir plan was first envisioned,” he said.

Harris County officials decided on the $2.5 billion amount because he would be sufficient to “kick start” upgrading Harris County’s flood-related infrastructure and put the county in line for more federal money, officials said.

“It $2.5 billion enough? No it’s not,” Emmett said. “If we really wanted to be resilient, we’d be talking about $30 billion.”

A much large flood control bond may still be needed in the future, he said.

The bond election was in August, although Texas counties are only allowed to hold them during regular election days. Emmett said Gov. Greg Abbott made the August 2018 bond possible because he made an emergency declaration, allowing the special election to go forward. There are multiple reasons why the bond election was held in August, Emmett said.

Although only about 150,000 of Harris County’s 2.3 million registered voters cast a ballot in the special election, 85 percent of those who did supported the flood control project. Emmett said the numbers would likely have increased if the measure had been included on the regular November.

If the $2.5 billion bond election had occurred during the November election, it may have been ignored in favor of campaigns for high political office like governor and lieutenant governor, Emmett said.

“The bond would have been on the very bottom of the ballot,” Emmett said. “This very, very important bond election was going to be overwhelmed.”

Even then, some political scientists tried to dissuade Harris County officials from holding the special election by arguing more supporters back bond projects in general elections rather than special elections. But Emmett was confident that Houston-area media would “play up” the timing of it. He said they would be “paying attention” to the one year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey.

Timing is everything while trying to grab the public’s attentional, Emmett said. The New York investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed on Sept. 15, 2008 - a major element of the international financial crisis of that year. Meanwhile, Harris County area residents were just starting to clean up from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ike.

“Nobody talked about us anymore. Nobody came to see how we were doing after Ike,” Emmett said. “We were kind of a footnote to history.”

A local reporter recently asked if Harris County is in a better position now than before Hurricane Harvey. Emmett told him the area is actually worse off.

“People don’t want to hear that — but that’s the reality. Harvey damaged the infrastructure,” Emmett said. “But we’re moving as rapidly as we can.”

mike.glenn@chron.com

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