Out of Control

The City of Houston requires developers in the floodplain to elevate and mitigate -- build houses on higher ground and dig detention ponds for runoff. Except, not always.

 Harris County's top flood control engineer gave a slide show to a group of colleagues Saturday, showing them what happens when nature overwhelms a community's best-laid plans.

Steve Fitzgerald, chief engineer for the Harris County Flood Control District, said some of the torrents from Tropical Storm Allison last June qualified as a once-in-10,000-years event

"There is something called probable maximum precipitation," Fitzgerald said, referring to the most possible rainfall believed able to fall in a certain area. "We've estimated it at 31 inches over 12 hours, so we were close to that." -- as reported by the Associated Press, October 14, 2001

Jenard Gross's development is almost complete, but his storm-water detention is still a mystery.
Michael Stravato
Jenard Gross's development is almost complete, but his storm-water detention is still a mystery.
Jenard Gross's development is almost complete, but his storm-water detention is still a mystery.
Deron Neblett
Jenard Gross's development is almost complete, but his storm-water detention is still a mystery.

In August, two months after Tropical Storm Allison killed 21 people and flooded 50,000 homes in a four-county area, the White Oak Bayou Association, a nonprofit civic group, hosted a forum for flood victims at the old Heights Fire Station at 12th and Yale.

More than 200 people crammed into the second-floor hall, where they endured three hours of too little air-conditioning and too much shoulder-shrugging by a handful of public officials -- a stultifying combination, and no less so for a roomful of people who had recently lost everything they owned.

The official proclamation following a flooding disaster in Houston hasn't changed in decades. Stripped down -- minus the rudimentary description of the hydrologic cycle, the aerial images of nature's subversive proclivities and the review of "ongoing" flood control projects -- the "probable maximum precipitation" theory simply means this: "We have never seen such intense rainfall."

At least until October, when Steve Fitzgerald reached back to the Pleistocene era for a comparable deluge, more people than not have accepted this conclusion. Others have come to see it as bureaucratic butt-covering. In September 1998, almost 1,200 homeowners in the middle reach of White Oak Bayou were flooded by Tropical Storm Frances. A year later, 300 of them sued the Harris County Flood Control District for failing to carry out a plan designed to protect their neighborhoods. A subtext of the litigation is the district's characterization of Frances as "unprecedented."

The lawsuit hasn't amounted to much yet, except to illustrate how the district may have felt compelled to describe Frances as the biggest storm ever. In a deposition for the case, Fitzgerald was asked about agreements, executed between 1988 and 1992, that authorized municipal utility districts to construct massive drainage systems for new subdivisions in northwest Houston. The agreements levied a per-acre impact fee so the district could simultaneously build a series of "regional" flood control projects to protect residents inconveniently located downstream of the new development.

In the 17 years since the regional detention plan was conceived, however, the district has collected a small fraction of the anticipated $46 million in impact fees. Accordingly, critical components of the regional plan -- in particular, a 160-acre basin at Fairbanks-North Houston Road -- were delayed or scaled back. During the deposition, Larry Dunbar, a hydrologist and an attorney for the homeowners, asked Fitzgerald to explain why new development wasn't also delayed or scaled back until the flood control work had been completed.

Dunbar: And you said before there was no system capacity available in White Oak Bayou between North Houston-Rosslyn Road and Windfern at this time period, right?

Fitzgerald: Yes.

Dunbar: Okay. So why was system capacity allocated to these MUDs during that time if there wasn't any available?

Fitzgerald: I do not know.

Little wonder, like Brays Bayou a decade ago, the White Oak has become a flash point in the hostilities between angry homeowners and local drainage officials. An estimated 5,000 houses in the White Oak watershed were flooded in June -- five times more than were damaged by Tropical Storm Frances -- including, for the first time, homes in downstream Inner Loop neighborhoods such as Timbergrove Manor and Shady Acres. The reason, aside from the remote possibility that Allison was a "once-in-10,000-years event," is elementary: Storm-water runoff from suburban development in northwest Harris County has overwhelmed a bayou already struggling to handle the drainage demands of a densely populated urban area, including parts of downtown.

In August, at the Heights Fire Station, Fitzgerald gave a travelogue of Allison's destructive path. As the lights went down for his slide show, Fitzgerald told the audience that Houston "was never psychologically ready for this severe of a disaster." Not everyone bought it. Kevin Shanley, an urban planner whose home in Clark Pines has to be demolished and rebuilt, told Fitzgerald that the flood control district's impact-fee scheme "isn't working."

"It's money in a bank account," Shanley said. "But it doesn't keep the water out of my house."

Fitzgerald, who has been with the district for 20 years, is used to being hammered by wet and unhappy citizens. Blond and boyish, he let the criticism run down his back smooth as rain. The most uncomfortable man in the room was Dwayne Culp, a senior engineer for the City of Houston's Department of Public Works and Engineering. A large reticent Canadian, Culp spends part of each day as Fitzgerald's counterpart, a licensed hydrologist in charge of floodplain management within the city limits.

Understandably, first-time flood victims can be highly emotional, a phenomenon from which Culp was at pains to sufficiently distance himself. There may have been more he wanted to say, but Culp stuck to a script, a narrowly construed reading of his job description. The city's floodplain-development ordinance, he said, strikes a balance that helps protect homeowners without restricting new development. New buildings, for example, are required to be constructed 12 inches above the mapped floodplain. To compensate for the resulting loss of floodplain storage, which puts neighborhoods in the area at risk, Culp said, "we enforce storm-water detention requirements for developers."

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