MANAGED RETREATTexas Flooding Brings New Urgency to Houston Home Buyout Program

By Jake Bittle

Published 14 May 2024

The San Jacinto River is a national hotspot for ‘managed retreat,’ but recent floods show how far local officials still have to go.

As a series of monster rainstorms lashed southeast Texas last week, thousands of homes flooded in low-lying neighborhoods around Houston. The storms dropped multiple months’ worth of rainfall on Houston in the span of a few days, overtopping rivers and creeks that wind through the city and forcing officials to divert millions of gallons of water from reservoirs. Elsewhere in the state, the rain and winds killed at least three people, including a 4-year-old boy who was swept away by flooding water.

Much of the deepest flooding happened in the San Jacinto River, a serpentine waterway that winds along Houston’s eastern edge and empties into the Gulf of Mexico. This area happens to be the site of perhaps the country’s longest-running experiment in the adaptation policy known as “managed retreat,” which involves moving homeowners away from neighborhoods that will become increasingly vulnerable to disaster as climate change worsens. Harris County has spent millions of dollars buying out and demolishing at-risk homes along the river over the past decade. But the past week’s flooding has demonstrated that even this nation-leading program hasn’t been able to keep pace with escalating disaster.

“This is basically the largest and the deepest river within the county, and the floodplain is so deep that really we can’t do projects to fix these areas,” said James Wade, who leads the home buyouts for the Harris County Flood Control District. “We’re trying to get contiguous ownership in these areas so that we can basically convert it back to nature.”

It’s been slow going: Wade says the county has purchased about 600 flood-prone homes along the waterway over the past 30 years, almost all of which would have flooded during the recent storm if they hadn’t been bought out and demolished. There are still more than 1,600 vulnerable homes that the county is trying to purchase, but it has struggled to secure the necessary funds and get property owners on board.

Harris County was one of the first local governments in the United States to buy out flood-prone homes with money provided by FEMA, the federal disaster relief agency. The county has acquired more than 4,000 homes in dozens of subdivisions around Houston since the turn of the century, creating what are essentially miniature ghost towns around the city and its suburbs.