The government wants to buy their flood-prone homes. But these Texans aren't moving.

ByEmily Foxhall, The Texas Tribune
Tuesday, May 21, 2024
Tap for ABC13 Houston 24/7 Live Stream
Watch Eyewitness News and ABC13 originals around the clock

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas -- 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 inundated along the San Jacinto in Harris County have flooded repeatedly. For nearly 30 years, the flood control district has been trying to clear out homes around the river by paying property owners to move and then returning the lots to nature.

RELATED: 'Everybody's frustrated': No relief for some Walker County neighbors still flooded after 2.5 weeks

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 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.

Alessandra Jerolleman, director of research for the Center on Environment, Land, and Law at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, said buyouts make sense for some people who can't be protected from floods.

But buyouts might not provide lower-income people with enough money to move somewhere safer, she said, and they could lose important support, like child care from nearby family or neighbors.

"It's not as though it's a guarantee of reducing risks to that family," Jerolleman said.

People who live near the river and who have endured repeated floods explained that they've stayed because it's affordable and, most of the time, peaceful. Where else would they be able to buy anything like it? Some said they didn't think the government would offer them what they consider a fair price to sell their land. Some didn't know the buyout program existed.

Madigan started buying homes more than 15 years ago in the unincorporated River Terrace neighborhood because they were cheap. On Tuesday, the Houston firefighter drank a Heineken and grilled hamburgers for his work crew outside his most damaged house, which he rents to his brother. Sodden rugs baked in the sun on the driveway.

Madigan said he might have taken a buyout if it was a reasonable offer - but he doubted it would be. He said he needed to get the properties ready again for his renters. "I can't wait," he said.

Two blocks away, water had swept through a yellow house Madigan rents to a family with a teenage son. One of the workers fixing the property, 21-year-old Omar Reyna, watched the family throw out pretty much everything they had. Piecing together new laminate flooring with his dad, Reyna kept thinking about a trash bag of Teddy bears and stuffed toys he tossed out for them.

He wondered if the parents had been saving the toys for another kid they might have in the future.

"The faster we get it done, the faster they can come back in here," Reyna said.

RELATED: Neighborhoods in Liberty County feel left in the dark, with little to nothing after the flood

Some people choose to live with the risk of flooding

The San Jacinto is the largest river in the state's most populous county. For years before Harris County's first floodplain maps were drawn up in the mid-1980s, people built homes near its banks. Even today, people can still build in the vast floodplain if the houses are high enough and have enough stormwater detention.

James Wade, manager of the district's property acquisition department, said the flood control district tries to buy out homes in the deepest pockets of the floodplain. Engineers can't easily fix flooding problems in those places.

Buyouts are meant to get people out of flood zones before their property floods again, not to help in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. The process is slow: In some cases, it can take 18 months or longer to approve a buyout application, Wade said. The district pays owners the market value or pre-flood value for their house, determined by a third-party appraiser, plus moving expenses and a supplement to help them get into a house out of the floodplain, Wade said.

"It's a very equitable, fair program," Wade said, but some people still don't want to leave.

Those who stay learn to adapt. They build homes on stilts. They monitor the river level and watch for releases of water from the Lake Conroe dam upstream. Some know intimately the routine of rebuilding: gut the house, clean it, put it back together.

The floor of 49-year-old Sean Vincent's house in the Forest Cove neighborhood in northeast Houston is 15 feet above the ground. Three feet of water flooded it when Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017. This month, the floods reached five feet high on Vincent's property. He cleaned out his waterlogged ground-level shed with help from church members. On Tuesday, he was building new shelves for it.

But Vincent, who works in railroad traffic control, said he enjoys the space surrounded by tall trees and with room for his three kids most of the time.

"It's just really not a major part of our life," Vincent said of the flooding. "Yes, it's inconvenient. Yes, it's now happened to us twice in seven years. ... It's sort of a trade-off for us. And it is lovely out here."

"Where are you going to go?"

Then there are those who stay because they don't see anywhere else to go.

Jack St. John, 67, a retired long-haul truck driver, moved to Northshore 43 years ago and has had to clean up after two floods. He worries any time flooding threatens, but the neighborhood's advantages keep him there: He has no water bill because he has a well. His taxes are reasonable. The neighborhood has a fish fry in the spring and a barbecue in the fall.

"You know, when you leave, where are you going to go?" he asked. "What's it going to cost to buy into another place?"

Farther northeast, in the Idle Wild and Idle Glen neighborhoods, the floods forced some residents to sleep under tarps. On one largely forested street, boats were turned sideways or flipped upside down. A small building was lodged in the trees. A car was in the ditch.

For several years, Elvia Bethea, 68, has driven from her home in Humble to check on people and pets here, and pick up stray animals. On Tuesday, she and other volunteers gave John Gray, 50, bamboo yard torches to fight the many mosquitoes, plus two trays of chocolate-covered strawberries.

Gray said he couldn't afford to fix up his destroyed house. He earns a living printing labor law posters for businesses. His printers at home were destroyed.

RELATED: Residents in Conroe's River Plantation community rebuild after flooding for 2nd time this year

Gray said he had never heard of the buyout program but would consider taking one.

"Who do I call?" Gray asked. "I don't have a clue."

From the back of a white SUV, Bethea handed some hot dogs to Jose Tabores, 68, who lives on Gray's land in a trailer now filled with mud.

"I'm coming for dinner, remember!" Bethea teased him.

Nearby, 51-year-old Veronika Scheid had been sleeping in a wet tent. The flood washed the shipping crate she lived in down the road and into the trees - along with her and her neighbors' belongings.

At a low point, when Scheid was crying over all she lost, she found a pink-and-white beaded necklace with stitching in the shape of a "V," like her name. At the end was a charm shaped like a house.

She was grateful the person who owned the land where she stayed hadn't taken a buyout. Otherwise, she would have nowhere to go.

"At least we have this," Scheid said.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans - and engages with them - about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.