On May 21 at 10 a.m., over 300 people joined in a Zoom teleconference to hear U.S. District 2 Congressional Rep. Dan Crenshaw conduct what he called a “Coffee Break with Dan.” Crenshaw hosted the event from the lakeside dining area of the Cedar Restaurant on the shores of Lake Houston.
It was a particularly appropriate location for the subject at hand: flood mitigation updates and preparing for the fast-approaching rainy months and an active hurricane season.
Joining him was Russ Poppe, executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD). Justin Lurie of Atascocita was the moderator for the questions-and-answers portion of the meeting and asked questions that had been previously submitted as people registered to join in the conference.
In his opening update, Crenshaw summarized the current state of ongoing flood-mitigation efforts.
“We have not forgotten Harvey even though it was 996 days ago, and we all know that we’re going to be in hurricane season pretty soon.” he said.
“Behind me is Lake Houston and the Lake Houston spillway. Nearly 1,000 days ago, this entire area — Huffman, Crosby, Atascocita, Humble and Kingwood — were all flooded. Since then we have worked diligently with FEMA to repair schools and replace infrastructure that was damaged. We’ve not only repaired them, we have made them more resilient for future flooding. Look at Kingwood High School. We got $40 million approved to flood proof the school. In Huffman we were able to elevate many of the facilities to make them more resilient,” Crenshaw said.
He explained how the Army Corps of Engineers, under the direction and funding from FEMA, has spent nearly $80 million removing sediment from the San Jacinto River. He pointed out that the project is now being completed with state and local funds to continue to remove sediment from the “mouth bar,” an obstructive sandbar located at the confluence of the river and Lake Houston.
Crenshaw explained the status of the Lake Houston Dam spillway expansion.
“On April 15, a three-year project was kicked off to increase the capacity of the structure. During Harvey it was only able to release 10,000 cubic feet-per-second of water which was not enough. The new dam gates will allow a greater release rate while keeping the residents below the dam safe from future risks as well,” he said.
Crenshaw summarized the overall flood control projects covered by the HCFCD bond issue, including retention projects in the Champions area of District 2 and the land at Raveneau Country Club. He addressed the issue of why it is taking so long to do all of these District 2 projects.
“This is all a floodplain that is interconnected. It takes longer than people would like to study where the projects should be and where the cost benefit should be allocated but it is happening,” he said.
Poppe updated the meeting on the specific details of Lake Houston area HCFCD projects. However, he focused on the coming months and the approaching hurricane season more than anything else.
“We do have a lot going on and there are a lot of partnerships to report, but I want to mention that this hurricane season is looking to be fairly active. Right now, we are looking at around 16 main storms that are being forecast and eight of those becoming hurricanes,” Poppe said. He emphasized that residents should take advantage of two online resources to help prepare for the storms.
Poppe highlighted readyharris.org to help put together individualized plans. “We are in this together and we need our residents to have a plan, so when these disasters happen they have a solid plan and can execute it,” he said.
Poppe explained how the HCFCD web site (hcfcd.org) can help residents to know their own individual risk. He said when on the website, residents should click on the Floodplain tab and fill in their address in the box provided. In that way they can determine if they are within the 100-year floodplain.
“It is important to know your risk. After you figure out if you are inside the floodplain or not, I would advocate that you look at getting flood insurance,” he said. Poppe pointed out that the in last five years, the flood data indicates that 60% of the homes impacted from flooding were outside the map of the 100-year floodplain.
Poppe announced a flood alert service is available. He said that the HCFCD flood warning system now has almost 300 gauges that measure real-time rainfall as well as the bayou levels across all of the Harris County watersheds.
“You can actually sign up for customizable alerts. Go to the HCFCD website for details, ” he said, and explained that residents can look up the rain gauges online for homes, schools, commuting locations and offices.
Following the updates and Poppe’s recommendations, Crenshaw turned the meeting over to Lurie to ask some of the questions that had been selected from those submitted.
“We received scores of questions and have selected a few that are similar that are for the theme of the meeting,” Lurie said. The first question was from a constituent named Hannah.
“Flood mitigation: who is responsible for what? How do federal and state and local agencies work together?” she asked.
Crenshaw answered, “It’s a great question and is often the source of a lot of confusion. In general, local agencies are responsible for building those links to community. Local government knows best and is right there next to the problem. You don’t want people in Washington micro-managing exactly what your plan is going to be down to the local level.”
Crenshaw explained the state gets involved as issues go across county lines and the federal government gets involved when the issues become national in scope or are so big as to require federal help like the Army Corps of Engineers, other resources, federal approvals and permitting to meet federal requirements.
The questions went on for nearly an hour, covering mainly San Jacinto River drainage issues but also some tax-related issues and agency responsibility questions. The last question, from a constituent named Christine, was about the mouth-bar situation Crenshaw had described earlier. “The mouth bar: shouldn’t we be seeing improvements?” she asked.
Crenshaw explained that the mouth bar was determined to have existed before Harvey and therefore it was not clear about how FEMA could take responsibility and spend its Harvey recovery money to resolve the issue. As a result, local funding resources had been found to be able to get the sediment removal underway. In addition, a study to address the whole inter-related drainage situation was in progress.
“The study should be completed soon. There is a lot more to it than just the mouth bar,” Crenshaw said, and added that on April 14 a sedimentation study was funded to study the West Fork of the San Jacinto River and its confluence into the lake to see if there is a way to address the sediment issue upstream before it gets to the lake.
As the meeting ended, Crenshaw expressed his appreciation to those who participated. He noted the teleconference ended up being larger than expected and said he will keep using Zoom in the future, even when people can come to the meetings in person. He closed with a recommendation for everyone.
“Remember to help out your local businesses … Texas is leading the nation on that,” he said.