Emmett, on Ike anniversary, says Harris County must do more to prevent flooding

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Harris County Judge Ed Emmett used his annual State of the County address to hail the progress in emergency preparedness the region has made since Hurricane Ike, which made landfall 10 years ago Thursday.

Emmett praised Houston and Harris County officials for working closely during and after Hurricane Harvey a year ago, lauded the passage of a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond in August and said more must be done to protect against the future storms that are certain to wallop the county in years to come.

“Although the past year has seen Harris County focus on recovery from Harvey, I believe we have turned the corner and are now focused on the future,” Emmett said to more than 1,000 attendees during his lunchtime speech at NRG Center.

The county executive called for the preservation of what remains of the Katy Prairie, the grasslands and wetlands in west Harris County that act as a sponge during rainstorms. Thousands of acres have been swallowed by development and converted into impervious surfaces like concrete and pavement, which researchers say contributes to the region’s vulnerability to flooding.

Emmett again called on Gov. Greg Abbott to tap the state’s Rainy Day Fund to help fund flood mitigation projects, especially after 86 percent of Harris County voters declared they were willing to help fund their own recovery by passing the $2.5 billion flood bond.

“Come January and the next regular session of the Legislature, I am hopeful that the voices of reason will prevail and that the working relationship between Harris County and the state of Texas will be strengthened,” he said.

Emmett lauded a number of safety improvements the county has made since the Category 4 Ike made a direct hit on Houston and Galveston a decade ago: A partnership with the Texas Department of Transportation and city of Houston to prevent underpass drownings; the Transtar building, another joint effort between the city, county and TxDot; and a new emergency operations center.

The EOC proved crucial during Harvey, when Emmett, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and emergency operations staff spent days based out of the Katy Freeway compound.

Emmett thanked meteorologist Jeff Lindner and Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator Francisco Sanchez and first responders for their leadership during the storm, and Harris County Flood Control District leaders Russ Poppe and Matt Zeve for shepherding the flood bond through to passage.

He also criticized radio hosts and residents on social media for “demonizing” bureaucrats who manage the labyrinth of local, state and federal agencies making incremental progress rebuilding after Harvey.

How voters view Emmett’s leadership during Harvey, and his management of Harris County’s recovery in the year since will be key to his re-election bid in November. Emmett, 69, has been county judge since 2007 and is seeking election to a third full term.

His opponent, 27-year-old political newcomer Lina Hidalgo, argues that Harris County failed to invest enough in flood protection in the years preceding Harvey.

Zach Despart covers Harris County for the Chronicle. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at zach.despart@chron.com.