When we caught up with Houston’s newly-appointed “flood czar” last year, he told us he had no money and no staff.
That’s still largely the case, Stephen Costello told us in an interview on Tuesday at his Houston City Hall office. He now has one paid staff member.
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s record floods, the city of Houston is poised to receive billions — maybe even tens of billions — of recovery dollars in the coming years that may cover significant improvements to the city’s woefully inadequate drainage system as well as other projects to reduce flooding. And Costello said on Tuesday that he expects to play a key role in deciding how that money will be spent.
“Over 60 percent of our infrastructure is beyond its useful life,” he said. “So that’s what we’re dealing with right now.”
He said at least some of the money should be used to buy up entire neighborhoods that border bayous and have inadequate flood protection and then to turn those areas into green space. That would be a big change: previous buyout programs have had little success because of inadequate funding and opposition from homeowners who don’t want to move.
Costello said repeatedly on Tuesday that the city will have to “get creative” to find the extra money to pay for all the flood control upgrades that are needed in a city where, according to Costello, more than half of the homes that have flooded in recent years weren’t in a designated flood plain. And he added that development rules will have to change to help prevent more damage from flooding.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our interview.
TT: Last year at a meeting you told residents angry about flooding that ‘I don’t have any money, I don’t have any staff.’ Has that changed?
COSTELLO: My former chief of staff when I was a city council member has joined me, back in January. So we’ve doubled our size [laughs]. So that’s a good thing. But we still don’t have money. We interface internally with the departments who do have money for flooding and drainage. And we’re out seeking additional monies whether it’s with federal dollars or state dollars.
TT: So your staff has doubled in the last year from one person to two (including you). And you don’t have any extra money in your department. Will Harvey change your role or the scope of your role?
Maybe it’ll just make my job a little bigger. I think the real issue is that we need more funding. Everything is all about the dollar. I mean every engineering problem has a solution. And the real question is whether or not the public wants to pay for it.
TT: Last year you said you think they are willing to pay if they come to understand the issue and how much it’s going to cost to address it. Has Harvey helped with that?
COSTELLO: I don’t know. I’ll be candid with you.
I think they’re beginning to recognize that there is a risk that there’s always a possibility of flooding no matter where you are in the city of Houston, whereas I think people that didn’t flood prior to this event have always felt immune from flooding. And I think now they realize that the risk is everywhere.
TT: How has Harvey changed the public conversation around flooding?
COSTELLO: Usually a flooding event is an isolated event. It doesn’t impact the majority of the community. And they’re usually five or ten years apart. So people forget and they don’t really pay much attention to the need for infrastructure investment. The 2015 [the Memorial Day flood], 2016 [the Tax Day Flood] sort of changed that. The frequency of flooding got a little bit more common. And then we have a regional event like Harvey, so now everybody’s starting to talk about it. So that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing that we’re starting to talk about it. The real issue is: What are we going to do about it and where do we go moving forward?
TT: Last year you told us that there needs to be a discussion on development regulations in Houston. Has any progress been made on that front?
COSTELLO: We’re going to roll out [a task force] in October. And the mayor is really excited about it. It’s a group of probably a little over 50 people. There will be be a couple of developers, people that are representing some of the trade associations, engineers, landscape architects, bureaucrats like myself, as well as community people.
We want a dialogue between all the groups so that the development community can get a better understanding of what the community at large is thinking. And then we can have a frank discussion about these issues and we want to address it.
TT: Have you been able to secure any extra money for flood prevention as flood czar?
COSTELLO: We created the Stormwater Action Team, going into areas [where] we have known flooding problems and doing whatever maintenance-related type activities that we have to do. The mayor set aside $10 million [from the city’s General Fund] for that. We’ve about exhausted that money. And so we’re in the process of figuring out how we get additional funding. And that was prior to Hurricane Harvey.
TT: How much more money do you need for those maintenance projects?
We don’t know. Because we’re doing it on an ongoing basis. It could be in the tens of millions. It could be north of a hundred million dollars.
TT: It sounds like you came into this job and you said ‘We need more money.’ The county is spending something like $120 million per year on construction and maintenance of flood control projects. How much is the city spending now? How much does it need?
COSTELLO: We’re spending over $250 million per year on — we call it ‘street and drainage’ so it’s a combination of drainage and street and the reason why we combine the two is when you get an extreme event, the water travels down the street as well, so it’s part of the drainage system.
Several years ago public works had made an estimate that in order to stay ahead of the decaying infrastructure they need about $650 million a year … to spend on their street and drainage program.
TT: What I’m hearing you say is that this is a pretty dire situation.
COSTELLO: I wouldn’t say it’s a dire situation.
I mean, the the problem has existed for a very, very long time. And as a result of this biblical event — [which] is what I call it — it’s come to the forefront now. Our job, my job, is to make sure people don’t forget. I mean that’s why the mayor created this position, is to remind people that we have to keep continuing to invest in drainage infrastructure. And so the real issue is how how big are we going to get? Are we going to be kind of microscopic in terms of doing these piecewise improvements or are we going to go global and figure out area-wide, how do we want to change the way we do drainage and flood control?
TT: Separate and apart from the drainage projects that we’ve been really focusing on, you have this task force you mentioned and people talking about development regulations. Do you see a component of this recovery potentially resulting in changing those regulations, strengthening them?
COSTELLO: What I see with this event will be looking at areas that are subject to repetitive flooding and figuring out ways to buy them out. I think you’re going to see a pretty aggressive buyout program. The city has never been in the buyout business and (Harris County) flood control has been doing predominantly most of the buyout and their budget is less than $3 million for this year for buyouts, which is a fairly nominal amount of money.