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.

Loomis, who is certified by both the state and national associations of floodplain managers, at one point argued that the county broke a federal law by enforcing "preliminary" floodplain data before FEMA began publishing the new map. The flood control district "is wrong," Loomis says. "You can't start using the new maps until a letter of final determination has been issued by FEMA. Because, until then, it can change. Once we got the LFD [letter of final determination]" -- in late January 2000 -- "we could accept that map and start using it."

Fred Garcia, director of communications for the flood control district, says he is "at a loss" to defend Loomis's accusation that the district did something illegal. "We started using the information in October 1998 because FEMA acknowledged their intentions to revise the [map] based on new information," Garcia says. "We felt it was the best available information at the time."

But Culp counters that FEMA rejected the county's hydraulic computer models in the mid-1990s; the district eventually lowered the flood elevations one foot, which FEMA accepted. "Were we supposed to use that map, too?" Culp argues. "If we had been enforcing the proposed models, the city would have been enforcing less than the best data."

…and after development of the T.C. Jester Apartments and Stanley Park residential projects.larger view
…and after development of the T.C. Jester Apartments and Stanley Park residential projects.
larger view

Yet the city's use of the old data denied residents the storm-water detention they probably deserved. Because the city didn't start using the new flood elevations until January 2000, Baxter had almost a year to fill his site before it became subject to the city's storm-water detention policy.

"These people were filling the floodplain as fast as they could get the dirt in there, prior to the map change," Loomis says, adding that though he knew the floodplain had been altered considerably, there was nothing he could do. "It was out of the floodplain at the time, so they didn't need a floodplain fill permit. We had no control over that."

Actually, Loomis seems to have made a conscious decision to allow Baxter to violate the spirit of the city's policy. For one thing, FEMA encourages local communities to use more restrictive data, including draft maps and preliminary flood insurance surveys. For another, the federal agency had completed its review of the actual floodplain delineations by October 1998. The new maps were delayed another year while FEMA reviewed additional data on subsidence in the upper reaches of the watershed.

Jim Blackburn, a Houston environmental attorney whose clients include the homeowners suing the flood control district, says allowing Baxter to develop his land based on an outdated map "just makes [him] nuts."

"That whole project was approved on the basis of old maps, which means they were already obsolete from a flood control standpoint," Blackburn says. "These are the kinds of things that happen all over this county, and it has to do with an attitude of protecting developers more so than protecting the public."

"What's the difference between God and lawyers?" Mike Loomis asks.


"God doesn't think he's a lawyer."

Loomis is a round man with a red face, a gray mustache and large wire-framed glasses, a 55-year-old Harley-loving people-person with a back-slapping congeniality. Loomis assumes a certain status in holding down what he calls "one of the hottest seats in town." Before he became the city's floodplain manager, five and a half years ago, he was a hazard mitigation specialist for FEMA, a state windstorm inspector and an insurance adjuster.

"So I've been helping people a long time," he says. "I'm not the most popular guy in Houston -- as a developer, you would not like me -- but I'm here to do a job and keep people safe."

Loomis offices in a double cubicle in the corner of a first-floor office at 3300 Main Street. He points out two framed certifications on the wall near his desk. "No. 3 issued by the state association of floodplain managers, out of, I don't know, maybe 60 across Texas now," he says. "No. 96 in the country from our national association in Wisconsin, out of several thousand now. I proctored the national exam in Louisiana a couple of months ago."

Because of the city's repetitive flood-loss record -- 1,989 buildings, 5,600 floods, $103.7 million in claims since 1978, not including damages caused by Allison -- FEMA ordered Loomis to submit a floodplain management plan before the agency would adjust local flood insurance rates. Last month, Tom Rolen, director of public works, announced that an audit of Loomis's plan had earned floodplain residents a 10 percent discount on flood insurance.

The city impressed auditors by removing 33 repetitive-loss properties from the floodplain; by requiring new housing in floodplains to be built one foot over flood elevations; by requiring developers to limit postdevelopment drainage discharges to predevelopment levels; and by making floodplain maps available to the public. "Every library in the city has floodplain maps now," Loomis says. "That's our flood protection library."

That may be beside the point. To gather public input on the city's floodplain management practices, Loomis distributed questionnaires at town-hall-style meetings held last winter. Either he didn't distribute very many or few people got their hands on one. Loomis reported just 18 responses to the questionnaire -- not enough to guide the policies of a city the size of Houston, the floodplain management plan said, although they "may provide anecdotal evidence of systemic problems."

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