Elected official: Judge Ed Emmett

Location: Harris County, Texas

Story Map: Harris County After Hurricane Harvey: Harris County, Texas

Link to full interview video

Like many communities, Harris County, Texas has experienced severe flooding with frequencies that defy the label of “500-year flood.” A 500-year flood struck Harris County in May 2015, Memorial Day weekend in 2016, and most catastrophically, in August 2017 due to Hurricane Harvey. Areas of Harris County around Houston even reached the 1,000-year flood threshold. Although Hurricane Harvey tracked south of the county, parts of Harris County received approximately 50 inches of rain over a four-day period. This intense, persistent rainfall resulted in the flooding of 154,000 homes, 105,000 of which didn’t have flood insurance because they were not officially designated as residing in a floodplain.

Flooding in Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. (Source: urban.houstonian from Houston, TX, USA [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)])

Harvey was a turning point. “The rains from Harvey were totally different. There were areas flooded that had never flooded,” said Judge Ed Emmett, Harris County, Texas’ chief executive officer. He cooperates with county commissioners in overseeing a diverse constituency of over four million residents, including the entire Houston metropolitan area.

In response to the unprecedented flooding, in December 2017, Emmett and his fellow commissioners passed new building code regulations for all construction projects within the 100-year floodplain that require a permit. The regulations require homes and businesses located within the 100-year floodplain to be built two feet above the 500-year flood elevation to mitigate flooding to structures.

However, these impressive new building code regulations are just the first step, and the use of federal funds alone is likely not going to be sufficient to increase Harris County’s flood resilience. To help mitigate future flooding, the commission approved a $2.5 billion Flood Protection Bond Issue that appeared on the Aug. 25, 2018 ballot (precisely one year after Hurricane Harvey) in a special election. Emmett explained the decision, saying, “A lot of the projects we’re talking about – some of the buyouts [along creeks and tributaries], don’t meet the federal government’s cost-benefit analysis, so we’re going to have to use local funds.” On the list of priorities are building a third reservoir, conducting home buyouts in flood-prone areas, and preventing further building in the natural areas that act as a buffer to flooding. Additionally, 23 public engagement meetings were held (in each of the major watersheds) to find out what specific actions will improve each area the most. Since financial assistance from the state’s Rainy Day Fund is also not guaranteed, at least part of the cost of these projects is likely to be covered through the bond by the residents of Harris County.

Judge Emmett explains why a special election was held for the Flood Protection Bond Issue

Resilience Equation Presented by Judge Edward Emmett, Harris County, Texas at the 2018 ASFPM Annual National Conference in Phoenix

(2P + 2R) (PPR) = Resilience Equation.

(P1 P2 + R1 R2) (P3 P4 R3) = Resilience

P1 = Prevention: Prevent the disaster. We cannot prevent the event, but we can mitigate or reduce the impact. Minimizing the impact is the goal. The event is not the disaster – the impact on lives, property and the community is the disaster. Prevention can help reduce these impacts.

P2 = Preparation: Preparing for the disaster is important. Events will occur, and you need to know the risk and be prepared. Public announcements, pre-staged trained personnel, adequate resources and a plan are the critical components of preparation.

R1 = Response: Response to the event is critical. Following a well thought out plan is important, but the plan needs have flexibility to adjust to the unpredictability of each event. The key is to have trained dedicated staff that are empowered to make clear decisions in position “on the ground” during the event. Organizing responders geographically to meet critical needs.

R2 = Recovery: The most difficult portion of an event is recovery. Real recovery comes when lives and communities are back to normal and steps are being taken by all levels of government and the private sector to mitigate and prepare for the next event. Recovery make take years to complete, especially for the most vulnerable portions of the community.

P3 = Policies: Government and the private sector need to have policies in place to support P1, P2, R1, and R2. Policies on resiliency need to be throughout the community at all levels of government and business.

P4 = Prioritize: Policies need to be important to the elected officials and the community. They need to be supported with money and people. They need to be kept up-to-date to meet changing conditions. Need to correct potential issues before the event by learning from past mistakes.

R3 = Resources: Funds and staff need to be available to implement the policies, get training and have time for preparation. This means coordinating with the private sector as well. It also means support for implementation of mitigation projects before and after the event.

Another priority is assessing flood risk more accurately. According to Judge Emmett, two large reservoirs were built by the Army Corps of Engineers back in the 1940s. At the time of construction, they were 20 miles outside of town, where no one resided. However, current development encroached on these reservoirs, without regard for the location of tributaries and creeks. Currently, hundreds of thousands of people are now living in an area where no one (aside from cows) lived previously, and the exact boundaries of the 100-year floodplain are unknown.

After a crisis, there is temptation for an elected official to build a community back to the state it was in pre-crisis. However, going back to “business as usual,” while a popular and less controversial option, does not put a community in a better position to handle the next flood. By putting in place higher standards, Emmett took a political risk in order to make Harris County more resilient.

Emmett’s advice to other elected officials in flood-prone communities? Make flood control and resilience “job one” before disaster strikes. Flooding is never a high-priority issue until a flood hits a community, at which point it is too late to use long-term mitigation methods, which are more effective and less costly than short-term prevention or response.

Judge Emmett offers advice to others in flood-prone communities

Link to full interview video

Story Map: Harris County After Hurricane Harvey: Harris County, Texas


Story Map Cover

Take a story map guided tour through all the communities featured in Volume III's Success Stories. You can explore each communities’ timeline of flood events and responses, with an immersive narrative that includes photos, videos, and audio clips.


See more Success Stories from the Guide for Elected Officials