HCFCD executive talks about life after Harvey

May 26, 2019 GMT

Matt Zeve is deputy executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District, which is implementing projects using funds from the $2.5 billion bonds approved by voters in the August 2018 election.

The Dulles High School graduate also has attended recent meetings of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the federal agency conducts scoping sessions to collect community comments on its study of the Buffalo Bayou and its tributaries. He earned bachelor and master degrees in civil engineering from Texas A&M University.

While he’s been deputy executive director for less than a year, he has worked with the flood control district for approximately 3.6 years.


How long have you lived in the Houston area? Are you a native of Fort Bend County?

I was born in Houston, and when I was 3, my folks moved us to Sugar Land. So I grew up in Fort Bend County.

Your work experience includes serving as project manager for local engineering firms. How did that prepare you for work in the public sector?

I worked in the private sector for 15 years before joining the Flood Control District. My opinion is that working in the private sector helped me grow technically, but also helped me learn management, accounting and leadership skills that have directly translated to my work in the public sector. Private sector work instilled a sense of urgency that is also important to public sector work. On the private side, we always had to work hard to stay on schedule, stay within our budget and meet client expectations. We still have to do that in the public sector, except our clients are the 4+ million people who live in Harris County.

Can you update us on the status of projects in the Addicks and Barker reservoirs? How many projects are under way? Have any been completed?

HCFCD has eight projects from the 2018 Bond Program active in the Addicks Reservoir watershed and one project from the 2018 Bond Program active in the Barker Reservoir, some of which are beginning with the preliminary engineering and design stages before advancing to construction. I also would like to refer people to our website where we update project progress. We haven’t completed any of the projects yet, but we are making good progress. (Visit https://tinyurl.com/y2p9lqnv, https://tinyurl.com/y5vq4szp and https://tinyurl.com/y2wtar4y.)

Are there other projects the district has that might be of interest to Katy/West Houston residents?

HCFCD is in early discussions with the City of Katy on a potential partnership project. The 2018 Bond Program includes $175M for partnership projects with other agencies. So there is a chance that we may be working together for a flood-damage reduction project within the City of Katy.


How has Harvey changed what the district does?

It has not changed what we do, but it has changed how much we are able to do. We have been asked to do so much more since the recent flood events in 2015, 2016 and 2017. HCFCD already had been working to become more efficient internally so we could deliver more services and projects with the same budget. Obviously, the 2018 Bond Program funding has improved our funding situation. So now, in addition to increasing our maintenance activities, we are working to deliver all of the bond projects.

Do you think that in 10 years, Houston will be much better able to handle floods?

Yes and no. I know that flood damage reduction infrastructure will improve throughout the county because of the 2018 Bond Program and other drainage improvement projects from other agencies and municipalities. However, some drainage infrastructure may not get improved in that time frame. Extreme rainfall events such as the ones during the week of May 7th didn’t involve HCFCD channels. The flooding was due to the local drainage systems being overwhelmed. That is a longer term issue that is not easy or cheap to address.

I also don’t think that our area is better able to handle more floods from the emotional perspective. Many people are not willing to accept that they live in a very flood-prone area and prepare themselves mentally and financially for a potential flood event. History has proven that our area has always flooded and probably will continue to experience flood events. We all need to understand our flooding risks and prepare to deal with what comes along with those risks. I often use an analogy of earthquakes and San Francisco, California. Everyone knows that an earthquake could strike anytime, without warning, and cause severe damage. But people still choose to live and work there because they accept that risk and prepare for it as best they can. Everyone in Harris County should buy flood insurance.

How do the suburbs impact flooding in the city of Houston?

Development does increase the volume of stormwater that reaches our bayou network. So as development has increased in the western portions of the county, a larger volume of water flows east toward the Ship Channel (almost all of the county drains from west to east). Many people are not aware that all development since the early 1990s required detention basins to store that excess volume and release it slowly after storm events have passed.

Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research released the 2019 Kinder Houston Area Survey on May 13. Respondents are certain that the Houston area will see more major storms like Harvey. But, the number of people who named flooding as their top concern is 7 percent, an 8 percent drop from last year. Do you have a comment or reaction to the survey finding?

My personal opinion is that I am not too surprised by that response. I don’t know who the survey reached out to, but I do know that people in Harris County care about a wide range of issues, including flooding. As bad as flooding was during Hurricane Harvey, it is estimated that 9 percent - 12 percent of the structures in Harris County flooded, which means a large majority of Harris County residents didn’t have water in their homes during Harvey. If the survey team only received responses from that group of Harris County residents, I can see why flooding isn’t their main concern. For those directly affected and those that are still recovering, I would guess that flooding is their #1 concern. Flooding is my #1 concern.

Did you experience flooding at your home after Harvey?

No. My house is in the White Oak Bayou watershed, outside the limits of the 0.2 percent annual exceedance probability floodplain (aka the 500-year floodplain). My house is also built using a pier and beam foundation. During Harvey and the Memorial Day 2016 event, water filled up the streets and actually flowed under my house to the street behind my house and then toward the bayou.

While Harvey caused widespread devastation, some people say that it produced a cooperative effort among public/private entities that didn’t exist before and will be helpful in mitigating flooding. Do you agree?

Yes and no. Harvey has helped open dialogues between HCFCD and many other public agencies to start working together and providing flood damage reduction projects for the citizens we serve. In some cases, it has started a less constructive attitude along the lines of “we have bad drainage, it’s your problem, fix it.” Sometimes, the drainage issues aren’t the statutory responsibility of the Flood Control District and when we clarify that and offer to provide what support we legally can provide, some groups aren’t satisfied with that. I encourage Harris County residents to educate themselves about the roles and responsibilities of public agencies that deal with drainage issues so they can work effectively with us for projects that will improve the drainage system. We can help with that, through the information on our website.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I like to spend time with my wife and two rescue dogs (a mini schnauzer and Chihuahua mix). I have been working more than I want to since the 2016 Tax Day floods, so I have to make sure that I make time for them. I have been a regular member of the 5:00 AM class at Bayou City CrossFit since 2009. The intense workouts really help counter the work-related stress. I like reading, especially military history. My nephew is a pretty good baseball player, so I try to attend his games when I can. And I enjoy watching sports with my close buddies.