After four sleepless days fighting to keep her home dry during Hurricane Harvey, after losing her car, after nearly getting electrocuted by a fallen electric box as she waded through brown muck in what wound up being the third flood to hit her property in three years, Maurine Howard wants out.
“I can’t go through this again,” she said. “I don’t have it in me.” The 2015 flood was minor enough she mopped it up with towels, but her house flooded badly last year when a city water pipe under her patio burst open during heavy rains. Then Harvey destroyed the entire first floor.
Howard, a longtime nonprofit director who calls herself a “mouthy person,” left a message with the mayor’s office demanding that the government buy her house.
If only it were that easy.
Experts see buyouts as a cornerstone of disaster recovery, a way to take the most chronically flooded homes and turn them into open space so they can improve drainage and lower flood risk for the surrounding area.
It’s hard to find another county in America that has accomplished more buyouts than Harris County. Since 1985, the Harris County Flood Control District — the main entity managing buyouts in the Houston area — has spent $342 million to purchase about 3,100 properties. But thanks to a decades-long trend of increased flooding in Houston, caused by a combination of urban sprawl, lax building regulations and intense rainstorms linked to climate change, buyouts haven’t kept up with the destruction.
At the rate Harris County has been going, it would take more than three decades to acquire the 3,300-or-so homes on the district’s priority buyout list — a drop in the bucket compared to the number of properties that flooded these past three years alone. Hurricane Harvey damaged at least 69,000 properties in the county, according to preliminary figures that are likely an underestimate. Devastating floods also hit the county in 2015 and 2016.