MANAGED RETREATThe Government Wants to Buy Their Flood-Prone Homes. But These Texans Aren’t Moving.

By Emily Foxhall

Published 23 May 2024

The recent floods in Harris County, Texas, show why home buyout programs can be important. These programs involve the government buying, and demolishing, houses in flood-prone zones, that is, areas which typically flood first and worse. The Harris County flood control district wants to buy properties along the San Jacinto River that have flooded repeatedly. Some residents aren’t leaving.

After the floodwaters earlier this month just about swallowed two of the six homes that 60-year-old Tom Madigan owns on the San Jacinto River, he didn’t think twice about whether to fix them. He hired people to help, and they got to work stripping the walls, pulling up flooring and throwing out water-logged furniture.

What Madigan didn’t know: The Harris County Flood Control District wants to buy his properties as part of an effort to get people out of dangerously flood-prone areas.

Back-to-back storms drenched southeast Texas in late April and early May, causing flash flooding and pushing rivers out of their banks and into low-lying neighborhoods. Officials across the region urged people in vulnerable areas to evacuate.

Like Madigan’s, some places that were inundated along the San Jacinto in Harris County have flooded repeatedly. And for nearly 30 years, the flood control district has been trying to clear out homes around the river by paying property owners to move, then returning the lots to nature.

The recent floods show why buyout programs can be important. These spots typically flood first and worse. Gov. Greg Abbott reported that hundreds of rescues took place in the state while the floods destroyed homes. A man drowned and a child was swept away into the floods. One Harris County resident described climbing on top of his motor home as the water rose before first responders rescued him.

But the disaster and its aftermath also illustrate why buyouts are complicated to carry out even in Harris County, home to Houston, which has one of the most robust buyout programs in the country. The flood control district has identified roughly 2,400 properties as current buyout candidates around the San Jacinto; the district and county have bought about 800 of them.

Nearly all of the district’s buyouts are voluntary. If an owner doesn’t want to sell, the district can’t force them out.