Shoring up the Houston area’s defenses against the scourge, the inevitability, of flooding in a city built on a swamp has been Mike Talbott’s “one and only career.”
The Houston Chronicle reports as a young engineer, a project manager, the director of operations and, finally, the executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District, he has borne witness to some of the worst flood-related disasters to hit the area in modern history.
He recalls Hurricane Alicia in 1983, when the district’s old Main Street office stopped shaking long enough for him and a few other engineers to briefly leave their Radio Shack TRS-80 computers and step out to watch the eye pass overhead; and 2001, when he surveyed the devastation from Tropical Storm Allison from a helicopter that had to refuel twice because the floods were so widespread.
And then there were the epic floods of 2015 and 2016 when, as the agency’s executive director, he fielded countless calls from the press and the public, demanding to know why thousands of Houston homes were underwater.
The answer was always longer than anyone had time for. And there was always one thing he wished he could say, but held back out of sympathy for the families who’d lost their homes: It could have been so much worse.
Talbott, 60, steps down this month as executive director of the district and its 2,500 miles of managed waterways, still convinced of that hard, but incontrovertible, truth.
The clearest clue to Talbott’s mission in his 35 years with the district lies in one word in its title – control.
He leaves behind a system greatly enhanced for doing that, with better drainage and more flood plains converted to green space. But he also leaves a district without sufficient money to fully address the flooding problem and with federally-sponsored county projects, the largest efforts to expand local drainage, continuing to crawl along, almost 30 years after they were authorized.
“There will always be critics,” said city of Houston flood czar Stephen Costello, who the mayor appointed this year in response to the floods of 2015 and 2016. “The flood control district has continued to focus on its primary mission, to mitigate and control flooding. They won’t prevent flooding. That’s up to Mother Nature.”
It was 1979, when a spate of vicious floods, including Tropical Storm Claudette, moved the county to accelerate efforts to address its flooding problem.
“It was a year like 2015-2016,” Talbott said. “When you go for long periods without big floods, people think there isn’t a problem anymore. Big floods remind people there is more work to do.”
So the district got to work.
Then-executive director Jim Green conceived a plan to modernize engineering, which began with growing the staff of engineers from two to eight (it now has 40). That effort in 1981 swept up Talbott, a New Braunfels native then a few years out of engineering school at Texas A&M University and business school at the University of Houston.
The first order of business was to make a digital map of the drainage system – a tall task in the 1980s. As a project manager, Talbott helped coordinate contractors who surveyed the bayous and canals, measuring each width, slope and turn and the features of the surrounding landscape.
Flood engineers complied that data into a computer model that proved revolutionary for local efforts. It seems simple in the age of laptop computers, but the model was a spectacular achievement.
It could simulate rainfall in any part of the county and show approximately how much runoff would end up where. They could also model potential projects to see how they would affect flooding.
Before that model, the district would do projects in areas of recent flooding. Then in the next storm another spot would flood.
But after the model, the district could run simulations to identify the most problematic areas of the system. So for the first time, they began to compile a long prioritized list of cost estimates for repairs needed through the decades to come. That, Talbott said, helped authorities like the commissioners’ court understand how much work remained to be done.
“Then at least we knew what had to be done, and we got to prioritize based on available funding,” Talbott said.
Also, as part of the effort in the mid-1980s, the district wrote the first drainage rules for private development. Talbott helped draft standards for a several-hundred-page manual of drainage criteria. It set requirements for size and geometry of private ditches and reservoirs, and developed a design style where streets could flood without swamping homes.
“It really worked,” said Wayne Klotz, a veteran Houston hydraulic engineer and past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, who has worked with the HCFCD as a contractor since the 1970s. “Anything that was developed since the mid-80s just really doesn’t flood, unless it’s in the statutory flood plain.”
The development criteria have grown several times since. Critics contend that they should be more stringent, that new development should pick up more than its fair share of drainage to relieve vulnerable homeowners and set the region on a promising long-term path.
That, they contend, could happen by mandating more green space and on-site detention ponds, as is done in parts of Fort Bend County.
Throughout his tenure, Talbott said, he helped drainage design trend towards green aesthetics. Waterways and reservoirs used to be rigid concrete features, often built out of sight when possible. But through the end of the 20th Century, drainage facilities have become parks, like Buffalo Bayou Park or Art Storey Park on Brays. When they are dry, joggers cross trails on the bottoms of the basins, or along the tree-lined banks of bayous.
“Mike was instrumental in implementing those types of concepts that we didn’t talk about in years past,” said Costello. “Integrating environmental and recreational features while still providing flood protection.
In the later years of his career, the district revamped its modeling of the drainage system, using high tech airborne radar to precisely survey the region, which in turn, was used to draw up a master plan that could push Houston to its next generation of flood control.
Unfortunately, the price tag on a total upgrade came out to $25 billion, which means it is unlikely to happen soon.
“One thing Mike doesn’t get credit for is (the notion that) flood control is underfunded,” said Klotz.
And it’s how Talbott answers the main qualm with his record – that major construction projects have lagged years behind schedule. Between 1986 and 1990, the county got approval to split the tab on five bayou expansion efforts. Work on 20 miles of Sims Bayou finished in 2015, but it’s the only one. Work on one basin and four miles of Greens Bayou is five percent complete.
The largest project – 21 miles and four basins for $500 million on Brays Bayou – was initially scheduled for completion in 2014 and is now delayed to 2021.
Talbott said the schedules were based on optimistic projections of federal spending rates that never fully materialized, then plummeted when Congress in 2011 banned earmark funding, which had supplied a reliable money stream to the projects. Local Congressman Al Green said he plans to introduce legislation in 2017 that would return steady funding to the bayou projects and pick up progress.
The district currently spends about $60 million per year on improvements; Talbott said his successor will need three to five times that to make a serious difference. No such funding increase appears now on the horizon.
Talbott hands the baton to Russ Poppe, the district’s current director of operations. An Aggie born in Freeport, Poppe spent 11 years at various county engineering posts, including as manager for engineers designing roadways, parks and county buildings.
“Mike is a solid leader,” Poppe said. “He’s a great mentor and he’s given me a lot of responsibility to learn what it takes to be executive director of the HCFCD.”
His first priority, he said, will be to fortify and build on the legacy of the directors before him.
Talbott, meanwhile, said his first priorities in retirement include hunting, fishing and visiting New Orleans.
“I do plan on being fully retired,” he said. “My wife – she’s ready for me to come home now.”
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