Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall in Texas on Aug. 25, 2017, caused extensive flooding in much of southeast Texas. The hurricane was responsible for $125 billion in damages in Texas and Louisiana.
Following the catastrophic flood caused by Hurricane Harvey hitting Texas, Harris County quickly approved local funds to buy and demolish some of the worst flooded homes. This action sped up disaster recovery and reduced future flood risks.
Ronnie Pitkin’s flooded home was among the properties the county bought. “We were at our wits end. We were devastated” after the hurricane, Pitkin said. The county’s speedy offer to buy his family’s home, located about 25 miles northeast of Houston, changed everything, he said.
The August 2017 hurricane flooded the inside of Pitkin’s 14-foot-high elevated home along the San Jacinto River, where he and his family had lived for 10 years. The riverfront home, perched on stilts, twisted in high, rushing floodwaters from the Hurricane Harvey and was substantially damaged.
Pitkin closed on the sale of his flooded home less than two months after the hurricane hit. The family quickly bought a new home in a low-risk flood area. The county also paid the family’s moving expenses and provided other relocation assistance through the special property buyout program it established after the hurricane.
Harris County commissioners approved spending $20 million in local funds to buy the most severely damaged properties, like Pitkin’s, deep in the county’s floodplain, where repeat flooding occurs. The county approved the funding in September 2017, a month after the hurricane had dropped more than 50 inches of rain on Harris County, causing unprecedented flooding.
Designated for buyouts in the county’s flood control program, the program authorized buyouts in unincorporated parts of the county. The properties had to be substantially damaged and have flood insurance to be eligible.
“People were desperate to get out of their houses. People were in an urgent situation,” said Shannon Watson, manager of the Harris County engineering department’s real property division, which handled the buyouts. The county decided it needed to act quickly and not wait for federal disaster buyout programs to get approved, she said.
The county paid pre-flood market values for the almost 200 homes and vacant lot properties, ensuring the properties would never flood again, eliminating the need for future flood insurance payouts, and potentially reducing loss of life from families living in flood-prone structures.
Homes and other structures bought were quickly demolished, and acquired properties became vacant land for flood control.
The county had significant damage to roads and infrastructure from the hurricane. It was more cost effective for them to buy and demolish homes in some areas rather than fix the roads, saving the county millions in infrastructure repair.
“We would still be there fighting the floods if the county had not bought us out,” said Pitkin’s wife, Candy. She and other property owners in the buyout praised the county for the speed and efficiency of the program and the excellent help county workers gave them.
“They went above and beyond to help us. They expedited everything,” said Ronnie Pitkin of the county employees managing the buyouts.
“They gave us a fair price for our home,” said Tracy Magness, who sold her elevated riverfront home to the county in the buyout. “We were happy,” she said, even though it meant leaving the home her family had enjoyed for 20 years.
Magness’s home along the San Jacinto River was near the Banana Bend area, where there was extreme flooding and devastation. The home was among those accessed by Grace Lane, a road which had flooded before and likely would again and would have cost the county millions of dollars to repair.
“The owners could not get to their houses” because of the ruined road, said Tom Faulkner, assistant manager of Harris County’s real property division, “We immediately mobilized to buy. Almost everybody wanted to go,” he said. “There was a lot of destruction out there.”
In addition to the Harris County engineering department’s buyout program, the Harris County Flood Control District operates a much larger property buyout program in the county supported mainly by federal grants and some local funds. The district has thousands of properties designated for buyouts.
- The Harris County Flood Control District has information available on buyouts,
- The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program is available after federally declared disasters; however, the state decides what projects get prioritized. Talk to your local officials if you are interested in pursuing a grant:
- Summary of FEMA Hazard Mitigation Assistance Grant Programs
- Property Owners and the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program