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Hurricane HarveyHouston's “flood czar” says Harvey has brought the city to a decision point on flood control

By Neena Satija and Kiah Collier

Published 14 September 2017

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s record floods, the city of Houston is poised to receive billions — maybe even tens of billions — of recovery dollars in the coming years that may cover significant improvements to the city’s woefully inadequate drainage system as well as other projects to reduce flooding. Stephen Costello, Houston’s chief resilience officer, expects to play a big role in how Houston spends it Hurricane Harvey recovery dollars.

When we caught up with Houston’s newly-appointed “flood czar” last year, he told us he had no money and no staff.

That’s still largely the case, Stephen Costello told us in an interview on Tuesday at his Houston City Hall office. He now has one paid staff member.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s record floods, the city of Houston is poised to receive billions — maybe even tens of billions — of recovery dollars in the coming years that may cover significant improvements to the city’s woefully inadequate drainage system as well as other projects to reduce flooding. And Costello said on Tuesday that he expects to play a key role in deciding how that money will be spent. 

Over 60 percent of our infrastructure is beyond its useful life,” he said. “So that’s what we’re dealing with right now.”

He said at least some of the money should be used to buy up entire neighborhoods that border bayous and have inadequate flood protection and then to turn those areas into green space. That would be a big change: previous buyout programs have had little success because of inadequate funding and opposition from homeowners who don’t want to move.

Costello said repeatedly on Tuesday that the city will have to “get creative” to find the extra money to pay for all the flood control upgrades that are needed in a city where, according to Costello, more than half of the homes that have flooded in recent years weren’t in a designated flood plain. And he added that development rules will have to change to help prevent more damage from flooding. 

Below is an edited and condensed version of our interview. 

Texas Tribune: Last year at a meeting you told residents angry about flooding that ‘I don’t have any money, I don’t have any staff.’ Has that changed?
Costello
: My former chief of staff when I was a city council member has joined me, back in January. So we’ve doubled our size [laughs]. So that’s a good thing. But we still don’t have money. We interface internally with the departments who do have money for flooding and drainage. And we’re out seeking additional monies whether it’s with federal dollars or state dollars.