Monday, February 9, 1998

In Houston, flood control looks like real estate business

HOUSTON (AP) - The flood control business here looks a lot like the real estate industry.

In the Houston area, authorities move the people instead of diverting the water flow in flood-prone areas.

The Harris County Flood Control district accomplishes this rather Herculean task by allocating county and flood control funds for the purchase of homes in the county's flood plain.

The agency has bought 25 properties since last summer, mostly along the San Jacinto River above Lake Houston.

"We have recognized that there are some areas in which we could never protect the people," said Coleen O'Brien, project manager for the flood district. "I can never lower the San Jacinto River 10 feet, not feasibly nor economically."

She estimates that throughout the county there are 2,500 homes located in flood plains that are so low the district will want to buy the property as an alternative to continuing to provide flood protection and rebuilding assistance.

Harris County is focusing buyout efforts on the most flood-prone properties in the Forest Cove and Hamblen Estates subdivisions northeast of Houston, near Humble. Beginning March 1, the buyout program will be expanded to home owners in the Cypress Creek flood plain, also north of Houston.

Ms. O'Brien, project manager for the flood control district, says there are enough homes in the flood-prone areas that the buyout will go on for years, limited only by the money available to buy the land. The goal is to get people who live in the flood plains of Harris County out of harm's way before the water comes.

She says $2 million has been allocated for the purchase of a large number of homes in the Cypress Creek watershed, north of Houston, beginning March 1. Another $1 million will be available for other purchases in Harris County, she said.

Most homeowners were volunteers for a federally funded, county-administered program two years ago. That Federal Emergency Management Agency program ran out of money before all the tendered homes were purchased.

To willing sellers the buyout program is a godsend. Jackie and John Knight, who lived on Sunrise Trail in the Forest Cove subdivision for almost 19 years and who rebuilt after the 1994 flood, are among the flood district's happy buy-out customers.

"They gave us a second opportunity to vacate from there," Jackie Knight said of her old home. "They paid moving expenses, assigned a relocation broker to handle relocating to a new house. Personally I can't say enough good things."

Ms. Knight said she considers the program a good one, but added that some people in the area have an inflated idea of the value of their property. She also says the current buyout program seems to have some inconsistencies. Properties seem to be picked at random.

"Those people wonder why they are not in the buyout," she said.