HOUSTON — The suburban Houston enclave of Meyerland has long presented a facade of prosperity and permanence.
Built half a century ago on what had been rice fields, it totals more than 2,000 spacious homes, many with swimming pools, all set amid unfurling green lawns. In 1955, Vice President Richard M. Nixon attended the development’s ribbon-cutting. Michael Dell, the billionaire computer entrepreneur, grew up here.
“Driving through Meyerland, it’s easy to envy those who are able to live in the neighborhood,” the Houston Press noted in a 2014 profile of the subdivision.
Three major floods later — in 2015, 2016 and now with Hurricane Harvey — the envy is dissipating, replaced by the once-
unthinkable idea that swaths of Meyerland ought to be abandoned and returned to nature.
Beating a retreat from a thriving neighborhood is a rarity in U.S. urban history, but after Harvey, the notion is compelling enough in flood-prone communities that it has drawn support from leading planners in Houston. And exhausted by repeated inundations, some residents say they would welcome a government program to buy out their vulnerable homes.
"A fair but extensive home buyout and removal program must be established," according to a report just issued by Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy. Many properties "have been flooded three or more times since Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. . . . We need to identify these areas and remove these homes from harm's way; it is unlikely we can develop strategies to protect them from severe rainfall events."
The Harris County Flood Control District, which includes Houston, is moving forward. Officials announced last week that they are “actively pursuing the funding necessary to proceed with Harvey-related home buyouts.”
Such a billion-dollar effort would probably be far-reaching, ranging from Meyerland in southwest Houston to Greenspoint, a lower-income neighborhood on the city’s north side, to areas around Ellington Airport southeast of downtown. Those three Zip codes lead Harris County in repetitive national flood insurance claims. Other locales have frequently been underwater, too, and even before Harvey, “several thousand people” had requested that their property be purchased, according to the flood control district.
Buyouts would not only take homes out of harm’s way but also provide open land that could be used to absorb heavy rains or provide space for enlarging drainage channels. These would lessen flood risks for the rest of the city.
Yet large-scale buyout programs often meet fierce opposition. A proposal to abandon some low-lying neighborhoods of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina spurred racial acrimony and other resentments. Ultimately, the idea was dropped.
By contrast, nearly all homeowners in Staten Island's devastated Oakwood Beach opted to sell when New York state came calling after Hurricane Sandy. In the wake of Hurricane Irma, similar questions are likely to arise in the Florida Keys, where federal officials said Tuesday that many homes were destroyed or badly damaged.
In Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, buyouts could be contentious. While City Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, who represents Meyerland, says they should be considered only as “a last resort,” residents weary from repeated losses and living in dread of the next major rainfall may feel differently. Those like Suzanne Smith say they would leap at an offer for their homes if government authorities were to create a big enough program.
Smith, 53, grew up and raised her children in Meyerland, but she’s set on leaving. “I can’t stay in this house where every time I fall asleep I worry it will flood and I’ll have to be rescued by a National Guard helicopter,” she said last week.
Her home on Heatherglen Drive is just two blocks south of the miles-long Brays Bayou, which bisects the neighborhood. She was flooded by Allison in 2001, then again during what’s now known as the Memorial Day Flood of 2015 and the Tax Day Flood of 2016. During Harvey, water reached nearly up to the eaves of her home. She lost artwork and $90,000 of inventory for her online menswear business.
“I can’t do this again,” Smith said.
Even before the hurricane struck on the weekend of Aug. 26, many in Houston were beginning to fathom the depths of the area’s flood dangers. As a result, the hurricane didn’t uncover a new peril; it added several exclamation points to previously issued warnings.
Last year, after the extensive April flooding, a Harris County Flood Control District publication asked a simple question: “Will we ever solve our flooding problems in Harris County?”
The answer, basically, was no.
What did that publication advise Houstonians to do? Buy flood insurance. “Everyone is at risk for flooding and should take steps to protect themselves and their families,” it declared.
Advocates of more-aggressive steps hope the widespread inundation from Harvey — which reportedly reached more than 100,000 homes — will finally spur action.
In the past, some flood control officials have minimized the need for more-extensive remedies. They asserted that the 2015 and 2016 floods were rare events, with less than a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year.
But the risk appears to have been profoundly underestimated.
Decades ago, many older neighborhoods like Meyerland were deemed to be outside the "flood plain" — that is, unlikely to ever be underwater. Years of unchecked development upstream have altered the equation, however.
New subdivisions, strip malls and office parks have meant more pavement and less land to absorb rain. So more water rushes into the region’s drainage system and, downstream, into other Houston communities. The curious result is that some older Houston neighborhoods have become more flood-prone with time.
Samuel Brody, director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University, has a set of slides showing Meyerland's evolving susceptibility. In 1979, only a sliver was considered to be a flood plain to the north and south of Brays Bayou. That began changing significantly in the mid-1980s, and today, almost all of the community is deemed to lie in the flood plain.
“Over the years, though Meyerland hasn’t changed much, Katy and other western suburbs have gone gangbusters,” Brody said.
More Meyerlands are likely as development upstream continues, he and others warn.
As drastic as home buyouts sound, they wouldn’t be unprecedented in Harris County. Since 1985, more than 3,000 properties in various areas have been purchased with a combination of $300 million in federal and local funding, according to the flood control district. There remain more than 107,000 properties in federally designated flood plains throughout the county, officials said.
What makes the Meyerland area so likely a buyout target is its history of storm-soaked disasters. Federal statistics analyzed by Syndeste, a risk analysis firm, show the community produced more than 3,000 claims totaling $102 million in damages against the federal flood insurance program from the 1970s through mid-August.
The most-affected properties are on the streets closest to the bayou. Purchasing enough of them might enable the concrete-reinforced channel to be widened, improving the odds that the rest of Meyerland would stay dry during heavy rains.
This would dovetail with a massive county and federal government project underway to enlarge and revamp the bayou. The $500 million project is expected to ameliorate flooding in numerous communities but would not eliminate it in the Meyerland area, according to a Rice University analysis published last year.
Some residents oppose talk of buyouts, at least for now. They argue that the changes coming to Brays Bayou, combined with a program to simply elevate homes in the area, can rescue the most-
Cohen, who also serves as Houston’s mayor pro tem, said she would “hate to see” vacant lots start to dot the community. “It just leaves open prairie. A place like Meyerland is a beautiful neighborhood. We really hate to give up on that.”
Others think the magnitude of the flood risks will force the issue. Jim Blackburn, an environmental law professor in Rice’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, said he understands how people feel “losing community” and the strong cultural ties they may have there. “But this is a triage situation due to the errors and omissions of the past,” he said.
He estimates that about 10,000 homes should be purchased countywide, an endeavor that could cost $2 billion to $3 billion.
“We’re looking at a lot of money,” Blackburn said. “But there’s a realization, now with Harvey, that we’ve got to get people out of harm’s way.”
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, essentially the county's chief executive, was reported Monday to be considering all options, including accelerated buyouts. Harvey, he said, was a "game-changer."
Dozens of people in Meyerland have torn down older houses and rebuilt ones that loom far above the ground, or have hired contractors to raise their homes.
Across from Suzanne Smith, for example, is a house elevated several steps above street level. Even as Harvey’s torrential rains submerged Smith’s home almost to the roof, her neighbor’s front door stayed dry.
Yet lifting a house is expensive, and most Meyerland residents have been unwilling or unable to afford such a project. Smith said elevating her four-bedroom home would cost about $200,000. A federal program offered in 2015 to pay most or all of the cost, but 700 people in the area are on a waiting list for similar work. So far, only 10 houses have been dealt with.
“I can’t wait another eight floods before I lift this house,” she said.
Instead, barring any other solutions, she expects to sell the lot and move elsewhere.
Staying in Meyerland is only costing her money. Real estate prices have dipped since 2015 — battered by each cycle of severe flooding. And that was before the latest episode. Smith thinks her property value has dropped from above $600,000 to about $400,000, not much more than the value of her lot.
At the same time, the cost of flood insurance from the federal government is high and rising. Her policy costs $5,400 annually and will go up 25 percent each year until she knocks the house down or raises it at least five feet.
“This is a beautiful area, and it’s right here next to everything,” Smith said. “But we can’t live like this. We can’t do it. I don’t know anyone who feels safe in this neighborhood in a one-story home.”
Whoriskey reported from Washington. Andrew Ba Tran and Dan Keating in Washington contributed to this report.