Living in a Special Flood Hazard Area

Public Comment through March 5 on proposed changes to City floodplain regulations

And the Flood Czar’s Committee makes a Final Report

Feb. 19, 2018

The public has until March 5 to comment on proposed changes to Chapter 19, the section of the city code that regulates building in floodplains defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. These are the so-called 100-year and 500-year flood hazard areas that few people seem to understand, including members of the Houston City Council who met last Monday to hear about the proposed changes.

Actually there was a lot city council members didn’t seem to understand, including who was on the Flood Czar’s Drainage and Redevelopment Committee, how long they had been meeting, and what they were talking about. The Flood Czar himself, Steve Costello, officially known as the Chief Resilience Officer, addressed members of the Transportation, Technology, and Infrastructure committee and the Regulation and Neighborhood Affairs committee. Remarkably, Costello appears untarnished by the Houston Chronicle report that he and his engineering company helped develop plans for subdivisions behind the reservoir of Barker dam that they had to know would flood.

The city’s director of Public Works and Engineering also addressed the council members and made a presentation about the proposed changes. Carol Ellinger Haddock was appointed as director last month after serving as acting director since July 2017. The previous director had served about two months. Other administrative positions remain unfilled.

City council members angrily objected to the brief period for public comment on the changes proposed by Haddock. The draft changes already had been reviewed for comment by developers and builders. The public comment period, initially set to end on Feb. 19, has been extended to March 5.

Proposed changes to City of Houston floodplain ordinance known as Chapter 19. Image COH.

Houston’s current code only applies to property in the 100-year floodplain and requires buildings to be elevated one foot above the level of a 100-year flood. The proposed revisions would extend regulation of property to the 500-year floodplain and require elevation of structures to an undefined number of feet above the 500-year flood level. The changes would also prohibit adding a net amount of fill material to raise structures in the 500-year floodplain.

The public works and engineering department has nearly 4,000 employees and an annual budget of approximately $1.8 billion. The department’s responsibilities include “operation and maintenance of the City’s streets and drainage, production and distribution of water, collection and treatment of wastewater, and permitting and regulation of public and private construction,” including in floodplains.

Regulation of development in FEMA-designated floodplains is a requirement of the National Flood Insurance Program, a controversial program that provides taxpayer-subsidized flood insurance to people who own or rent property in official flood hazard areas. The program is due to expire on March 23 if Congress doesn’t renew it.

However, about half of flood insurance claims generally in Houston are for damages outside of officially-designated floodplains, according to research by Dr. Sam Brody of Texas A&M.

You can read about the proposed changes to Chapter 19 and learn how to make public comments here. Here is a draft of the plan presented to city council last Monday. Citizens are urged to send comments to their city council representatives or to the Public Works and Engineering Department at

Costello’s Redevelopment and Drainage Task Force has also issued its Final Report. You can read it here.