Hurricane HarveyA year before Harvey, Houston-area flood control chief saw no "looming issues"

By Kiah Collier and Neena Satija

Published 8 September 2017

Experts say the flooding in the Houston region could have wreaked far less havoc if local officials had made different decisions over the last several decades. But the former head of a key flood control agency strongly disagreed with that take in an interview last year.

As the Houston region begins its recovery from the worst rainfall to ever befall a major metropolitan area in modern U.S. history, many flooded-out residents are asking whether local officials could have done anything to mitigate the damage wreaked by Hurricane Harvey. 

The short answer from scientists and experts: Yes.

While Houston — nicknamed the “Bayou City” — is naturally flood prone, hydrologists, environmental engineers, and federal officials told The Texas Tribune and ProPublica last year that unchecked development over the decades has heightened flooding risks. They also say the Houston region must start planning for more intense and frequent rainfall events and move away from looking at the past to predict what might happen in the future.

In recent years, some local officials have attempted to strengthen rules to protect from catastrophic flooding, but their efforts have been shot down by politically powerful developers. And then there are the local officials who completely deny it’s a problem. 

One of them was Mike Talbott, the longtime head of the powerful Harris County Flood Control District, who — during his 18 years on the job — made many key decisions about how the Houston area should cope with its nagging flooding problems. In an interview last year shortly before his retirement — and after two major, back-to-back floods in Houston — Talbott told us he strongly disagreed with nearly everything scientists and experts had told us.

Stephen Costello, the city of Houston’s new “flood czar” appeared more receptive to alternative solutions, like more green space, but conceded that he had little money or manpower — and said he hoped to pursue smaller, quick-hit projects.    

Below are edited and condensed versions of our interviews with them last year, shortly after the Tax Day Flood of April 2016. 

Texas Tribune: You have seen a lot of pretty big floods and disasters in your time. What is your worst case scenario? Is there anything you are really scared of?
Mike Talbott: Not really. We don’t have any looming issues, like a New Orleans, or something that’s built below sea level. The big issue is just the extreme rainfall events that we get occasionally. Houston and Harris Country have an incredible drainage system, but it floods occasionally. And it’s just the big rains that we are mostly concerned about.