Emmett: ‘Flood prevention and flood mitigation are job 1’

Harris County judge headlines SSPEED Center’s Harvey conference

“People like you have got to get involved,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett ’71 told more than 200 flooding experts, engineers, civic leaders and government officials who gathered at Rice University Feb. 21-22 to discuss what Houston and Harris County can do to prevent a repeat of Hurricane Harvey’s catastrophic flooding.

Emmett, the county’s highest elected officeholder, opened the conference, “Urban Flooding and Infrastructure: Moving Forward From Harvey,” which was sponsored by Rice’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center and held in the BioScience Research Collaborative.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett spoke with the news media Feb. 21 after an address about flooding at the SSPEED Center’s conference on Hurricane Harvey (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University).

“We’re not going to prevent the rain from falling again,” Emmett said. “We don’t have any control over that. But what can we do to mitigate it? What can we do to make people safer?”

Emmett recapped a 15-point plan he offered in late 2017 and said the time has come for action.

“Pretty soon we have to make a decision and move forward,” he said. “We have to say, at all levels, flood prevention and flood mitigation are job one — the most important issue we’re facing.”

Emmett’s plan includes creating a regional, multicounty flooding authority, building a new reservoir northwest of Houston and revising the region’s flood plain maps. He also called for changes to state law to give Harris County a source of revenue for flood control other than property taxes.

“There’s a sense of urgency, but we can’t do it piecemeal,” he said. “It all has to be done in a comprehensive way. And if we do it right, then hopefully, Harris County and the surrounding region will become the global model for living and working in a flood-prone area.”

Emmett said it’s unclear exactly what funding the region will receive from the most recent federal funding bill, but he credited Houston-area U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, with including “very creative” language that will ensure that Houston receives some of the money.

“He put in language, for some of this money, that says it has to be spent in an area that flooded three times over a last certain number of months, and it’s located adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico,” Emmett said.

SSPEED Center's Harvey conference headerWith regard to a new reservoir, Emmett said, “I pose the question: Can we improve Addicks and Barker enough to handle the overflow and instead use that third reservoir to protect the Cypress Creek watershed itself? We need to discuss that.”

He also called for protecting the Katy Prairie. “We just have to do it, set it aside and say, ‘We’re not going to touch it.’ Nature preserves are cool right now, and if we just go in with that position — we’re going to set that aside — then we won’t have to deal with it later on.”

Emmett also had choice words for elected state officials who are campaigning to lower property taxes.

“Every one of them’s running an ad saying, ‘We’re going to lower your property taxes,'” he said. “The state doesn’t even have a property tax. What they’re saying is, ‘We’re going to drive down the revenue available to counties, and cities, but at least cities get sales tax.

“Harris County only gets property tax. We don’t get any sales tax revenue. How much sales tax is collected in unincorporated Harris County? Billions. Where does it go? The state of Texas.”

Emmett explained that unincorporated Harris County has an urban population of 1.7 million — enough to be the second-largest incorporated city in the state of Texas. He described the combination of state laws that prevents these communities from either being annexed into Houston or incorporating to form their own cities, which could collect sales taxes.

“All we get is property tax,” Emmett said of the county. “Every flood-control project that Harris County undertakes is funded exclusively … from the property tax. So, when somebody at the state level tells you that they’re going to lower your property tax, what they’re telling you is, ‘We’re not going to build any more flood-control projects.’

“We’ve got to push back on that,” he said.

Emmett was one of more than 30 experts and local leaders who gave presentations to an audience that included staff members from the offices of U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and Ted Poe, R-Texas. Engaging Houston and empowering its success is one of the goals of Rice’s Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade.

Among the other speakers at the conference were Houston “flood czar” Stephen Costello, Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, SSPEED Center Co-Directors Phil Bedient and Jim Blackburn, Harris County Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator Bill Wheeler, meteorologist Eric Berger and former National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read.

A complete program and list of speakers is available here.

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.