On Tropical Storm Imelda and Houston-area priorities

A Houston METRO bus submerged in water at Bush Intercontinental Airport. Image credit: Aimee Gardner

This past week, God (or Mother Nature, or whatever you believe in) paid Houston and southeast Texas yet another visit, this time in the form of Tropical Storm Imelda. Here are some of the reactions of folks around town:

“I’m beyond annoyed that all the billions of dollars Houstonians pay in taxes for flooding improvements results in the mess we saw today. We REALLY need to start holding top elected officials accountable for flooding as our #1 priority.”

Those were the words of a friend of mine who votes Democrat. For my liberty-minded friends and Republicans who think I’ve sold out and started hanging out with the wrong crowd, I’ll tell you that I met this guy 12 years ago fighting the City of Houston on a property rights battle which few if any of you got involved with.

Here is what politico Marc Campos had, in part, to say:

Go look at the ballot language on the Metro bonds. It is about spending a few bil on more roads and not a [naughty language – Neal] word about easing flooding. Stick that up your climate change arse!

Then there’s Keir Murray, who wrote:

People who assume the Houston area’s continued growth is a foregone conclusion should take a hard look at the four 500-year flood events we’ve had in four years. This is a huge threat to the health and vitality of this community.

Over the past twenty years, Houston has been hit by Tropical Storm Allison (2001), Hurricane Ike (2008), the Memorial Day floods (2015), the Tax Day floods (2016), Hurricane Harvey (2017), and now Tropical Storm Imelda. The political reaction has resulted in some billions in federal money steered towards Houston for flooding, a $2.5 billion bond referendum passed by Harris County, and a rain tax drainage fee passed by the City of Houston. New building ordinances by both the Harris County commissioners court and Houston City Council aimed at requiring elevation of property in flood-prone areas have also been voted on and pushed through.

Admittedly, Tropical Storm Imelda caught us off guard. Much like Allison in 2001, Imelda passed over Houston and southeast Texas, dumped a chunk of rain on us, and then a day later she decided to spin back around and pay us a second visit. It was during that second visit that Imelda turned into a mid-level disaster. Widespread flooding occurred yet again. We were fortunate that Imelda, like Harvey, was a rain storm and not a wind hurricane.

Unlike Hurricane Harvey, where the Houston-area political classes fared reasonably well (with some exceptions) under a severe situation, the reaction of the powers-that-be during Imelda  resembled an episode of the Keystone Cops. I walked out onto Westheimer around 2:00 pm in the wake of Imelda and beheld a jammed-up Westheimer that went on for as far as I could see. Lights were out at every single intersection. Several intersections were still out at 9:00 pm that evening when I went out for a walk to get some exercise. As is usual in such situations, most ordinary people just blew off whatever the ever huffing and puffing political classes had to say, and simply muddled on through with their day. And yet, there seems to be a sense out there that, two years after Harvey hit Texas, very little in the form of progress on tackling flooding has been accomplished.

I agree with the likes of my Democrat friend, Mr. Campos, and Mr. Murray. It is our generation’s turn as Houstonians to confront God (or Mother Nature) and battle on with the natural world. We chose to live here, after all. Fortunately, our ancestors have done much. We folks in the wealthy part of the world don’t die by the untold thousands anymore when a natural disaster strikes, but Nature still has the power to turn our lives upside down when you wake up one day and find 2-3 feet of water in your house. That is the challenge we face.

Oh, and as for that METRO bond referendum Mr. Campos was referring to? METRO decided to shut down operations agency-wide during Imelda. Something, perhaps, about the rail lines not being operable when the water gets above a few inches and watching some buses float away in Imelda’s wake. Don’t vote to let them go on a spending spree via that bond election. Their ridership is down and they don’t have any money, hence the need to demand billions in borrowing authority. METRO’s major projects in this bond referendum are still moving around (like the Gessner Road BRT project proposal). The agency has not advertised a single word in their massive taxpayer-funded media campaign on what their ridership is projected to be on a single proposed project, nor how they expect to add to agency ridership without having to prop up all of these projects with more tax monies while keeping current operations going. And, the rail extensions are going to add to their growing list of high-cost / low-ridership disasters. Plus, as Imelda showed, you can’t count on METRO when you’re in a pinch.

Houston, we do have a problem, and there are more important things to attend to.