July 2018 Luncheon: County Engineer John Blount
Wednesday, August 29, 2018
John Blount is a 1984 graduate of the University of Houston. After college he served as an Army Corps of Engineers officer on both active and reserve duty, achieving the rank of captain while being stationed in the United States, Republic of Germany and the Republic of Honduras. He has worked in the civil engineering field for thirty-three years and is a Registered Professional Engineer (WI) (TX) as well as a LEED Accredited Professional. He has been employed with Harris County for over thirty years starting as an Inspector and advancing to Director of the Engineering Department. He currently holds the position of County Engineer. He serves on the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) Joint Wastewater Committee and was previously Chairman of the Texas Onsite Wastewater Research Council appointed by the governor. John is a leader in green infrastructure and sustainability practices.
The Houston Contractors Association was pleased to welcome Harris County Engineer John Blount as the featured speaker for the July luncheon. Mr. Blount started his presentation by highlighting the response and recovery Houston made after Hurricane Harvey drowned the city. Blount stated that over one trillion gallons of rain fell in just four days. That is sixty percent of Harris County’s annual rainfall. He put this staggering amount of rain into perspective. At peak flow, he stated that if Lake Houston were empty, it could have been completely filled in under 5 hours.
“What did Harris County engineering department do in response to this?” Blount asked. He stated that within 72 hours all nine-hundred traffic signals were inspected and placed in safe conditions. Also, he stated that within five days post-Harvey, all 13,556 lane miles and 836 bridges within the county were inspected. In six days all 186 Harris County buildings were inspected and all needed repairs were either already underway or had been scheduled. In two weeks, Blount stated that all road wash outs and damaged bridges were repaired to safe working conditions.
Blount stated that unincorporated Harris County had 31,727 homes that flooded as a direct result of Hurricane Harvey. As soon as the rains stopped, Blount stated that there were crews going through the effected neighborhoods looking for flooded houses. As part of the National Flood Insurance Program, Blount explained that if the house is in the flood plane that a determination has to be made on the severity of the home’s damage. Over 4,300 homes were inspected, which means the inspector walked every component of the house to determine the amount of damage to the home and whether to issue a permit or not. As a result, Blount stated that currently there are 295 substantially damaged homes that cannot be rebuilt without being elevated. The only options home owners have are to elevate, tear down, or have their house be bought out by the city.
When the effected homes are inspected, there are several factors that need to be determined. First is to know whether the home was inside or outside the flood plain and how many feet of flooding the home endured. Mr. Blount stated that in 2009 there were major changes in infrastructure regulations and knowing whether the home was a part of a subdivision that was built pre- or post- 2009 was important as well.
In the Houston area, there were over seventy-five thousand homes built in subdivisions after 2009. Of those homes only 467 homes flooded, which is less than three fourths of one percent. Blount deemed this a success for the county. As a collaborative effort along with the city’s engineering department, Blount stated that various Houston area development and engineering groups assessed the data to revise flood plain regulations for Harris County.
After being set into effect January 1st, 2018, the new regulations were the most stringent in the United States, Blount stated. Groups like HCA were actively involved in the recovery efforts for they were in all the meetings, discussions, and helped in the formulation of the new regulations. Blount stressed the importance of input from industry groups, like HCA.
Immediately after the disaster, the Harris County engineering department met with the commissioner’s court to emphasize the need for funding to buy-out the severely damaged homes in the flood plain. Blount said that waiting for federal funding could take nine months or more. As a result of the meeting, the commissioner’s court authorized $20 million to buy out the houses in the flood plain that were deemed too damaged to rebuild.
Sixty days after the end of Harvey, the first house was bought out. After seventy-seven days, the first home was demolished. Blount was highlighting the speed to which the city was addressing the damage and bouncing back. Harris County has purchased forty-six properties and in the process of appraising over another three hundred homes with thousands more to be appraised.
As a part of Mr. Blount’s PowerPoint presentation, an image of a home on stilts appeared on the screen. The home was elevated twenty feet off the ground. Blount stated that during the flooding, the people who lived in stilt houses like the one shown that usually ride out storms were trapped in their houses with over twenty feet of water under them and four feet of water flooding their homes. The home being projected was the first home demolished in the post- Harvey recovery efforts.
Mr. Blount lastly gave a construction activity forecast for Houston. He stated that traditional road and bridge work will continue at pre-Harvey rates. Blount stated that Houston is as busy as it was before Hurricane Harvey and there will be a lot more work. This community has not slowed down and the resilient spirit Houstonians have is evident in the wake following Hurricane Harvey’s destruction.
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