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.

Bursts of ironic laughter erupted from several local residents, who live in the shadow of the T.C. Jester Apartments, under construction in the White Oak floodplain south of 11th Street. Earlier this year, the developer, Jenard Gross, trucked in 22,000 cubic yards of fill dirt to raise his 13-acre building site above flood elevation. Then he started construction. By August, the work was proceeding smoothly, except for one thing. As one man at the Heights forum fairly shouted at Culp, "Where's the mitigation for that Gross site?"

Culp paused, then looked to his right, at Steve Fitzgerald, who everyone noticed was looking at Dwayne Culp.

New development in the White Oak floodplain worries nearby residents in Timbergrove Manor and Shady Acres.
larger view
New development in the White Oak floodplain worries nearby residents in Timbergrove Manor and Shady Acres.
larger view
Fred Lazare predicted his house would flood someday.
Deron Neblett
Fred Lazare predicted his house would flood someday.

Almost four months later, in late November, the Houston Press met twice with Culp and city floodplain manager Mike Loomis to determine how Gross planned to meet the city's storm-water detention requirements. Gross also plans to develop five to ten acres hard against the bayou across East T.C. Jester from his apartment complex.

But after more than three hours of interviews and a thorough review of various maps and building permits for both developments, neither Culp nor Loomis could explain how Gross would protect the adjacent neighborhoods from the impact of his projects. A reporter arrived for a subsequent discussion, only to receive a phone call from Gary Norman, a city public information officer, who asked for a postponement. Culp was still meeting with Gross's representatives, Norman explained.

"All the engineers are talking, and we should have it worked out by the end of the day," Norman said, a bit sheepishly. To work it out took another week, which seemed like a long time to decide where to dig a hole.

The lack of basic information about a large construction project that could affect thousands of homeowners and their families is indicative of numerous problems with the city's storm-water detention requirement, which isn't mandated by the building code, according to Culp, but is a "policy" administered by the floodplain manager. In the last two years, Loomis has approved some 70 acres of new development in the densely populated stretch of the White Oak floodplain downstream of Loop 610, including the two Gross sites; the nearly completed 288-unit Retreat at City Park apartments, south of 18th Street; and just to the east, a Perry Homes town-house project.

But a review of those projects suggests that the city's administration of its detention policy is rife with bias toward developers. Loomis routinely allows developers to fill in the floodplain and carry out construction before ensuring the land needed for detention is even available -- a practice that, in essence, "devalues" existing neighborhoods that are at greater risk of rising floodwaters with each new construction project.

At times, the city's deference to developers, with whom storm-water detention is an unpopular and costly imperative, has come at the expense of other residents. For instance, Culp and Loomis were informed in October 1998 that the floodplain for White Oak Bayou had grown considerably and, once new maps were published, would include land about to be developed. However, the city waived storm-water detention requirements for two projects on the pretext that the new elevations were "preliminary."

To be fair, Culp and Loomis are simply overwhelmed, by both the demands of developers and the city's growth-at-all-costs mentality. The fourth-largest city in the country has only two people, one of them a part-time hydrologist, to oversee development along more than 6,600 miles of creeks, rivers, bayous and tributaries. It seems almost by design that Loomis is not a hydrologist and is therefore not in a position to challenge the conclusions of professional engineering firms hired by developers.

And though Loomis reviews building plans for adherence to the city's policy, he isn't expected to actually enforce that policy. Inspections are conducted, not by drainage professionals but by structural engineers. Violators are pursued by a third public works division, Neighborhood Protection, whose primary functions are the patrol of runaway weeds and the demolition of dangerous buildings.

In the wake of a flood that caused $5 billion in property damages, Houston's apparent unwillingness to deal with its destructive drainage problems has not gone unnoticed. After Tropical Storm Allison, two congressional committees in Washington, citing Houston's large number of repeat claims, debated changes to the National Flood Insurance Program. Unfortunately, the proposals discussed would likely hurt the city's 60,000 policyholders while offering no incentive for the local government to discourage development in flood-prone areas.

Mary Abshier, president of the Clark Pines Civic Club, estimates that more than 80 of the 90 homes in her tiny subdivision, just east of White Oak Bayou, suffered major flood damage in June, including her own. Fearful of the new development along White Oak Bayou, many residents are opting to get out while they can, she says, and have added their names to the list of thousands hoping for a buyout by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "It's disturbing," she says. "I never had to flee for my safety before."

Unlike most people, who may sense the proximity of disaster but tend to be shocked when it arrives, Fred Lazare expected his house to flood one day.

That didn't make it easier for him to wade through the living room at 3 a.m. with two children in his arms; to clean up the mess and tote up the loss; to deal with insurance agents and contractors and the task of rebuilding his family's sense that all is well. But it did explain the nocturnal visions he'd been experiencing, which in June became premonitions.

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