Juan Antonio Sorto

East Houston at the height of flooding during Hurricane Harvey

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The Greens Bayou watershed in North and East Harris County covers 212 square miles and is dense with households. It floods regularly, but has long been short of flood control spending.

Juan Antonio Sorto, a longtime resident of East Houston, drove his SUV toward a bridge on Greens Bayou. The bridge marks the boundary where the city of Houston ends and the unincorporated Harris County begins.

“That’s where the family was taken,” Sorto said.

On Sunday, August 27, 2017, during the height of Hurricane Harvey, a family of seven attempted to cross the bridge when their pickup truck slid backwards in floodwaters. Six family members, Belia and Manuel Saldivar and four of their great-grandchildren, drowned.

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Andrew Schneider/Houston Public Media

The bridge over Greens Bayou where the Saldivar family lost their lives on August 27, 2017

The horrific deaths of the Saldivars were part of the widespread devastation that gripped East Houston during Harvey.

The neighborhood of Sorto experienced some of the worst flooding. Standing outside his house after returning from his journey to the bridge, Sorto said: “(Of) more than 200 residences, four are the only ones to have survived the flooding. in itself of Hurricane Harvey. Mine was one of them, and I came within an inch of the water entering my house.”

Sorto pointed to Harvey’s high water mark on the side of his house. An open vent was barely an inch above.

“One of the things that really stuck with me about the flood is that although I felt blessed that I hadn’t been flooded, I still felt a sense of guilt that still haunts me, to be honest with you, because you see the rest of my neighbors, you know, a lot of them couldn’t recover,” Sorto said.

Andrew Schneider/Houston Public Media

Juan Antonio Sorto, showing the high water mark from Hurricane Harvey over his house

Robert Ramos, Sorto’s neighbor across the street, pointed to a gated house just down the block that didn’t fare as well.

“That house at the end? said Ramos. “This house sank.”

The East Houston neighborhood of Sorto and Ramos is within the Greens Bayou watershed, an area of ​​land where Greens, Halls, Garners, and Reinhardt Bayous converge. It is also home to 540,000 people. The area is low to moderate income and is predominantly Hispanic and Black.

James Burford has lived in East Houston for nearly half a century. Her home is still gutted of ongoing repairs after several storms damaged it. “Allison, Ike, Alicia, Uri, who was the ice storm, all of those disasters affected me in some way,” Burford said.

But major storms are only part of Burford’s problem. “The drainage system is not, it is not sufficient to cope with regular driving rain,” he said.

Andrew Schneider/Houston Public Media

James Burford, pointing out the flood damage inside his home from Hurricane Harvey

As often and as badly as the area floods, Burford said it doesn’t receive the same government attention as wealthier areas of Harris County.

“This area has been totally neglected for years and years and years because there is no excuse for the continuous flooding that we have now,” Burford said. “Something is just natural, or that God created, you can’t do anything about it. But some of the flooding we’ve had is unnecessary.”

County Commissioner Rodney Ellis agrees. The watershed is in his neighborhood, Harris County Precinct 1. He has long been frustrated with what he sees as unfair treatment of the area in infrastructure funding, especially flood control infrastructure.

“Cost-benefit ratio is a method that determines the future risk reduction benefits of a risk mitigation project and compares those benefits to its costs,” Ellis said.

“If you take out that whole convoluted explanation, that means that historically we’ve funded projects in areas where the property was most valuable, even though more people lived in more flood-prone areas and those areas were flooded more regularly.”

I have covered the Harris County Commissioners Court when it meets every two weeks for the past five years. Since the Democrats won a majority in court in 2019, I’ve seen Ellis champion what he calls fairness in flood control infrastructure funding.

“I don’t think residents, someone’s zip code in any area surrounding the bayou should determine whether or not you get government assistance or not,” Ellis said. “You should first use a version of the worst or look at how vulnerable someone is in this area where people don’t have access to transport to get out. You want to do everything you can to mitigate the damage everywhere , but in especially, when it is in the neighborhoods where people have the least of us.”

Juan Antonio Sorto is skeptical. So far, he hasn’t seen much progress.

“I met Rodney Ellis,” Sorto said. “I’ve met a lot of these politicians, because I’m pretty actively involved in civic associations, like the super neighborhood, in the super neighborhood alliance, per se. (East Houston is super neighborhood number 49). And you know, we haven’t seen any of that funding come here.”

According to the Harris County Flood Control District, there are more than $115.7 million in flood control projects underway for Greens Bayou. One of the main efforts to control flooding is the construction of stormwater retention ponds. So far, six are either completed or under construction.

Harris County Flood Control District

Active projects in the Greens and Halls Bayou watersheds

But to get closer to its goal of making the area more flood-resistant, the county says it needs a lot more money. The Texas General Land Office (GLO) gave Harris County $750 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), but gave Houston nothing, well below what each had intended.

“The state has aggrieved the county significantly,” Commissioner Ellis said. “The plans that we had developed in conjunction with the city called for $2 billion that would impact the region. A lot of what we do, obviously, is tied to what the city does. So that means when we found out, we’ll get $750 million, we have to recalculate.”

Part of the difficulty, Ellis said, is that the county and the city have different flood management responsibilities.

“Our job is primarily to get water from the bayous to the gulf. The city’s responsibility is to get water primarily from the neighborhoods to the bayous,” Ellis said.

Black and Hispanic residents filed a lawsuit with HUD under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging discrimination in the allocation of federal flood relief dollars. The Biden administration agreed, but the GLO disputes the conclusion, saying more than two-thirds of the recipients of that funding were black and Hispanic.

Additionally, “Harris County is the only entity that has not yet sent a draft of its (distribution method) to the GLO,” said GLO spokesperson Brittany Eck, “Harris County has had over a year and a half to develop a plan, which could include significant funding for the Greens and Halls Bayou watershed neighborhoods.

Until Harris County submits its plan and has it approved, the state will not release any money. That leaves East Houston residents like James Burford stuck in the middle. “It’s been a failure, basically, at every level of government,” Burford said.

If that’s not enough, the area could also suffer the aftermath of a stalemate over Harris County’s fiscal year 2023 budget and tax rates. From mid-September to late October, Republican commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey boycotted commissioner court meetings in order to deprive the Democratic majority of the four-member quorum needed to vote on tax and budget issues. As a result, the commissioners had no choice under state law but to adopt capped revenue rates at last year’s levels, also known as “no new rates.” revenue,” and a budget with drastic cuts across all departments, including the Harris County Flood Control District. .

Tina Petersen, executive director of the flood control district, explained what the cuts would mean for the Greens Bayou watershed, as well as the smaller Halls Bayou watershed to the south.

“Greens and halls certainly have a number of maintenance needs that need to be met,” Petersen said. “And some of them are going to be put on hold because of the budget cuts.”

Until they are better drained, the streets of East Houston will continue to flood whenever there is heavy rain, let alone a major storm. And the situation is likely to get worse, because on top of everything else, the region is experiencing a boom in private development.

“We were, once upon a time, the forgotten child of the city and the county. Now we’re getting all this exposure, not by the city, the county, but by the developers themselves,” Juan Antonio said. Sorto.

Andrew Schneider/Houston Public Media

New homes in East Houston, directly across from Hilliard Elementary School, which was flooded in Hurricane Harvey

The main attraction for developers is cheap land, and the result is likely to be devastating for long-time residents. “This is still considered a low-income neighborhood. The poverty rate, I believe, is around 26 percent,” Sorto said. “Most of the homes that are built here are over $200,000. And all of that started happening the minute after Hurricane Harvey.”

Sorto, a freshly struck doctorate. in Urban Planning and Environmental Policy from Texas Southern University, is convinced that development will only hurt more people when the waters inevitably rise again.

“How frequent are the floods now? Sorto said. “They’ve been very frequent, but now they’re about to be exacerbated, in my opinion, because of this new development that’s happening.”