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March 19, 2024

Houston, Texas: Disaster Recovery and Mitigation Lessons Learned Following a Natural Disaster

By Peter B. Kahn, Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Policy Development and Calvin Johnson, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Research, Evaluation, and Monitoring

Calvin Johnson (left) and Peter B. Kahn (right).Calvin Johnson, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Research, Evaluation, and Monitoring (left) and Peter B. Kahn, Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Policy Development (right).

On August 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall near Rockport, Texas. Although the city of Houston was not in the eyewall of the hurricane, the storm stalled over the city dumping unprecedented and prolonged rainfall over several days. Some areas around Houston received more than 50 inches of rain from the storm, causing widespread, catastrophic flooding. The flooding affected homes, businesses, and infrastructure, leading to significant property damage and displacement of residents.

Because more than 6 years have passed since that devastating storm and recovery efforts and improvements are well underway, Houston serves as an excellent example of best practices for action following a natural disaster.

Representatives from Japan's Policy Research Institute for Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism reached out to HUD to learn about disaster recovery efforts in the Houston area following Hurricane Harvey. The Japanese researchers arrived in Houston on February 13, 2024, accompanied by staff from the Office of Policy Development and Research's (PD&R's) Office of Research, Evaluation, and Monitoring and Office of Policy Development.

Local HUD officials in the Houston Field Office and HUD's Region 6 Regional Office crafted a 2-day agenda during which local officials briefed the researchers on the impact of Hurricane Harvey on Harris County and the city of Houston and delivered presentations on post-disaster housing and flood mitigation efforts, climate action plans, and advances in the area's flood control district.

The first day began with greetings from HUD officials and a brief review of HUD’s Learning Agenda from Peter Kahn and Calvin Johnson. The presentation summarized the process of building the Learning Agenda and dove deeper into the agenda’s questions on climate and disaster mitigation. Following PD&R’s presentation, Aaron Gagné from HUD’s Office of Disaster Recovery described how HUD provisions funding to support the unmet needs of the most vulnerable community members in its disaster recovery efforts. Although HUD administers funding to communities for disaster mitigation and recovery, local communities set their own recovery priorities and direct the use of the funds they receive. Additional speakers discussed how federal disaster relief funding flows from state allocations to counties and cities. Next, speakers representing Harris County summarized Harvey’s impact on the county, how the storm influenced the county’s housing and flood mitigation efforts, and information about the county’s Climate Action Plan and flood control district. Perhaps surprisingly, the Harris County Judge (as presiding officer of the Commissioners Court) plays a critical role in deciding all administrative, legislative, and judicial questions regarding Harris County’s disaster mitigation and response efforts. The presenters stressed the need for cooperation and partnerships for successful disaster recovery.

After the presentations, we took to the road to experience some of the recovery efforts firsthand. Our first stop was a site adjacent to Buffalo Bayou that is part of the county’s Flood Warning System. Here, the group learned about the county’s system for remotely monitoring rainfall and channel status using overhead sensors. Next, we visited Buffalo Bayou Park, where we learned about restoration work for the channel that runs through Houston and walked through the thoughtful green space that complements the channel. We then traveled to the South Belt Stormwater Detention Basin, the wet-bottom detention basin created in response to Harvey. We learned that the county exercised eminent domain to create the basin, which temporarily stores excess stormwater. Our guides stressed the importance of federal and local partnerships to create these interventions.

Our last stop of the day was Houston’s Cloverleaf neighborhood, where the group saw how the city used Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Mitigation funds to improve the community’s internal drainage systems.

Each of the day's stops emphasized the tremendous effort required to plan, fund, and execute the substantial reforms needed to mitigate the impacts of subsequent natural disasters.

On the second day, the group visited Houston City Hall, where the attendees met with representatives from the mayor's office. Presentations by the mayor's team included briefings from the city's Office of Emergency Management as well as discussions about recovery from Harvey, steps that the city has introduced to increase the city's resilience, and other innovative measures the city has taken.

The Office of Emergency Management highlighted its Emergency Operations Center, where leaders from all city departments gather to coordinate emergency responses. Our group also learned about the preparation guides that the city created to educate residents about the importance of having action plans and emergency preparedness kits as well as remaining informed by following local news or city-based alert services. The recovery presentation emphasized that residents need to understand floodplain regulations and the need for flood insurance. Our group also learned about efforts to change city zoning regulations to require more stringent standards for flood insurance as well as partnerships with Harris County to update local standards to allow the city to share flood maps with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Finally, Mayor John Whitmire met with the Japanese delegation and answered general questions about the city of Houston.

The program gave participants a deeper understanding of the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey on the city of Houston along with a comprehensive review of the federal, state and local resources needed to rebound from the disaster. Along the way, we learned about the value of the CDBG, CDBG Disaster Recovery and CDBG Mitigation programs and their applicable uses.

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