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.

It's difficult to see how the public health and safety are secured by a policy that is so lacking in accountability that it extends on behalf of developers legal protections that may not exist. Then again, the city's storm-water detention policy, like the flood control district's, is apparently based on the assumption that tropical storms and other "flood events" won't occur until all the necessary detention is in place.

In September 2000, for instance, Loomis approved a mitigation plan for Gross's second development site, across East T.C. Jester. The plan identified land just west of his nearly completed apartment site for storm-water detention. But earlier this year Gross sold that land to Lovett Homes, which is planning a 77-home subdivision called Stanley Park. The developer hasn't submitted a new mitigation plan, nor does the city require one at this point. Culp says he is hesitant to require developers to excavate for storm-water detention prior to filling in the floodplain, or even before construction is completed.

"That gets into dangerous things for the city to do," Culp says. "It adds a whole bunch of liability to the city if you say, 'You have to do things in a certain way,' and traditionally the city hasn't said you have to construct things in a specific order."

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.

Given such attitudes, which fail to acknowledge the threat it poses to existing neighborhoods, it's surprising that the city's floodplain management plan was considered strong enough to lower local flood insurance rates by 10 percent. Before FEMA gave its stamp of approval, Kevin Shanley, the urban planner from Clark Pines, contributed a lengthy critique of Loomis's plan, noting several things the city claimed to be doing but hadn't actually got around to implementing.

For example, the city has yet to begin including floodplain information with residents' water bills, an "annual outreach project" for which the auditors awarded high marks. Nor has the city initiated a "flood-threat recognition system" to warn residents that high water is expected. A program to notify homeowners that they live in flood-prone areas is also still in the planning stages.

The city's floodplain management plan and the storm-water detention policy create a false sense of security, Shanley says, and contribute to the illusion that public officials are protecting residents from flooding. To the contrary, he says, the city appears committed to doing the "absolute minimum" that federal law and the local ordinance allow. "That's the killer," Shanley says. "That's what's wrong, and that's what has to be changed."

Some changes are already afoot. Three weeks ago, in his second interview with the Press, Culp said the city would amend its policy and require developers to excavate storm-water detention before construction begins. During that same interview, attended by public information director Gary Norman, Culp was asked if, as a hydrologist, he thought the city should go further and limit development in the floodplain. Culp paused for a moment before replying.

"As an engineer who works for the City of Houston," he said, choosing his words carefully, "I have to support the ordinances that are developed by our elected officials. But do I think you should develop in the floodplain?"

Before he could finish his answer, Norman interrupted. "I would rather you not answer that," he said. "I would rather you just stick to what's factual, if you could, and stay out of the opinion side of it."

"All right," Culp said with a shrug. "That's why you're here."

Within a few days of Tropical Storm Allison, the Harris County Flood Control District issued a report that called the storm "extraordinary." The district concluded that "severe and record-breaking flooding was inevitable for over 15 major bayous in the center two-thirds of Harris County."

Fred Lazare, Timbergrove Manor resident and president of the White Oak Bayou Association, says residents in the lower reach of the White Oak aren't sure what to believe. "There are two schools of thought," Lazare says. "Was Allison just a freak convergence of bad events, or was it a harbinger of things to come? More people than I would have thought think it's going to happen again and again."

Indeed, dozens of residents have already decided not to return to Timbergrove Manor, which extends on both sides of the bayou and encompasses 1,000 homes. Lorraine Cherry, vice president of the neighborhood civic club, says 11 of 19 houses on her street are up for sale; eight of those are so badly damaged they will have to be demolished. Many others are anxiously waiting to learn whether FEMA and Harris County will fund a buyout program that would eliminate the houses from the White Oak floodplain. In the meantime, however, the future of this once quiet and tidy neighborhood -- a solid, middle-class enclave of young professionals, middle-aged families and retirees -- is uncertain.

"A lot of people just walked away," Cherry says. "They did nothing to their houses and they're no longer salvageable. If the buyout doesn't happen, they'll be stuck. Their houses have no more value on the market. We're staying for a couple of years, I guess, because we're not even sure we can sell the house now."

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