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.
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.
T.C. Jester Apartments is raised above the floodplain on 22,000 cubic yards of fill dirt.
Deron Neblett
T.C. Jester Apartments is raised above the floodplain on 22,000 cubic yards of fill dirt.
The original Eureka Springs detention plan proposed by the White Oak Bayou Association…
larger view
The original Eureka Springs detention plan proposed by the White Oak Bayou Association…
larger view
…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

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."

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.


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.

"I stood up at a District A town hall meeting about a year ago and said I'd had a dream that there was water in my house," Lazare says. "So, no, I wasn't really surprised."

Three years ago, the White Oak Bayou Association -- Lazare is the group's president -- wanted the city and county to pool their money and build storm-water detention ponds along a stretch of the bayou between Interstate 10 and Loop 610. The association, with the help of local civic clubs and residents from the surrounding neighborhoods, had found several tracts of vacant land that could be purchased for excavation: 180 acres along the old Katy rail corridor; 37 acres owned by Texas Crushed Stone Company, south of 11th Street; and an extinct 20-acre oil and gas field, south of 18th Street.

No sooner had the association completed its survey when a case study in the flood control benefits of storm-water detention presented itself. Tropical Storm Frances thrashed White Oak Bayou's 25-mile length, flooding 1,200 homes from Jersey Village to Arbor Oaks. But damages were considerably less east of Antoine Road, notably downstream of two detention basins built by the flood control district. Further along, toward downtown, the bayou had gone over the bank again, threatening a half-dozen subdivisions, including Fred Lazare's, Timbergrove Manor. Fortunately, Lazare and his neighbors were spared the worst of Frances when the floodwaters found refuge along the rail corridor, in the gravel yard and at the old oil patch.

County flood control officials attributed the high water levels in the area to the heavy rainfalls, which, of course, seemed to go without saying. A month later, the weather lost some weight as the definitive cause when FEMA released a draft version of the new flood-insurance rate map for White Oak Bayou.

The last time anyone checked, in the mid-1980s, the capacity of the White Oak channel from downtown to Cole Creek was more than adequate to handle a 100-year storm, or about 12 and a half inches of rain in 24 hours. In other words, there was no theoretical floodplain. But the draft map released in October 1998 told a different story: The floodplain extended as much as 3,000 feet on the east side of the bayou below 28th Street and on the west side south of 11th Street, encompassing neighborhoods that had never flooded.

Just as Tropical Storm Frances demonstrated the utility of storm-water detention, the draft floodplain map underscored how vulnerable older, inner-city neighborhoods like Timbergrove Manor and Clark Pines were without it. But before the flood control district could fully evaluate the White Oak association's detention plan, city planners proposed extending East T.C. Jester to Ella Boulevard, which would encourage the development of nearly 100 acres in the floodplain.

Opposition from nearby residents was fierce and focused on Greg Baxter, the road's major beneficiary, who had purchased the old oil field site south of 18th Street. Baxter appeared to have stumbled into some bad luck: Just two months before council took up the road extension, local drainage officials were notified of pending revisions to the floodplain for White Oak Bayou, and Baxter's land, which was under water during Tropical Storm Frances, was in the heart of it.

The flood control district immediately began using the new map delineations in its regulation of development in unincorporated areas of the county. As a condition for funding from the Army Corps of Engineers for flood control projects in the White Oak watershed, the district's engineers have the authority to review plans that affect the bayou inside the city limits.

After meeting with the developer, the district informed Baxter, in writing, that he would need to design his project "relative" to the new elevations, which meant the developer needed to provide storm-water detention. When some councilmembers, spurred on by the project's opponents in the surrounding neighborhoods, questioned the wisdom of allowing new construction on land that would soon be floodplain, Bart Standley, the developer's engineer, stepped up with a reassuring letter to Orlando Sanchez. Standley attached a copy of the district's requirements and explained to the councilman that Baxter was prepared to abide by them.

And Baxter was true to his word on part of the deal. Both the Albertson's and the apartment site have been raised above the new floodplain. But according to city records, the supermarket -- six acres, including a giant parking lot -- has no apparent on- or off-site storm-water detention; and the detention at Baxter's 9.3-acre apartment site is far less than what the flood control district would have required.

Baxter broke no laws, of course. While the flood control district must sign off on certain floodplain developments within the city limits, denying a building permit is not an option. FEMA, which oversees the flood insurance program, has delegated final approval to the city's floodplain manager. Culp says, despite what Baxter's engineer told council, the city had decided not to recognize the new map until FEMA actually published it, which didn't happen until April 2000.

"If this gentleman…said he was going to do his best to meet all the requirements of the new map, that's an agreement he made with somebody else," Culp told the Press. "Obviously City Council was involved in encouraging him to do that; the homeowners were requesting he do that. But that's not something we could force upon him."

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."

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.

"What?"

"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."

Nearly half the opinions expressed were directed at what many consider the "systemic problem" of unfettered development in the city's floodplains. One respondent to Loomis's questionnaire demanded "stricter guidelines" for developers. Another wrote "no building in the 100-year floodplain," echoing a respondent who wanted the city to prohibit the "placement of fill in the floodplain." One person asked that the city's floodplain management office "consider the economic impact of such fill/construction on existing development."

Culp says it's unlikely the city will heed those suggestions. "In a place like Houston, restricting development to places outside the floodplain would make it virtually impossible to develop anything," he says. "So I don't think our legislative officials are going to make that decision."

Perhaps not, but one of them may be starting to see the light. Three years ago, District A Councilman Bruce Tatro was vilified by residents of Timbergrove Manor and Shady Acres for sponsoring the East T.C. Jester extension and Baxter's development project. But prompted by residents who were flooded by Tropical Storm Allison, Tatro has started to drive a harder bargain on development in the White Oak floodplain. Last July, the councilman sent a request through public works director Rolen for specifics on the storm-water detention planned for the T.C. Jester Apartments.

By October, Tatro, frustrated by the lack of a satisfactory response, was criticizing the floodplain management office every week at the council's "pop-off" session. Finally, in late November, Tatro threatened to use his authority to withhold Gross's occupancy permit. Meanwhile, the Press wasn't having any better luck with the developer's detention plan, which Loomis approved back in August 2000.

At the time, the developer told the city he would excavate an empty lot upstream, just west of the Retreat at City Park apartments. However, at some point after that -- Gross didn't return the Press's calls -- the developer started claiming he had already taken 22,000 cubic yards from an eight-acre tract owned by the flood control district. The district leases the land, a ball field complex that is home to the Timbergrove Little League, to the Retreat for use as a storm-water detention pond.

But as recently as three weeks ago, Tom Moody, the Retreat's drainage engineer, said he knew nothing about other developers using the ball field as detention. When informed of that, Culp -- under pressure from Tatro as well -- launched an "investigation" into Gross's storm-water detention.

On December 10, after several meetings and discussions with the developers' engineering consultants, Culp provided the Press with a simple, two-column ledger that indicates three developers -- Gross, Baxter and Perry Homes -- are claiming storm-water detention capacity at the ball field. According to the figures, which were prepared by the consultants, the sports complex has already been lowered five feet, with another two feet to be excavated in the near future. That was enough for Culp to declare that the mystery of Gross's detention had been solved.

"The only obligation the city really had in this process is to make sure on paper the balance works out," Culp says. "And we've done that."

Tatro isn't so sure. He says the numbers, which supposedly reflect how much fill each developer brought in and how much came off the ball field as detention, don't add up. And even if they did, the councilman wonders why the math wasn't done before Gross received his building permit almost 18 months ago.

"What really ticks me off is a plan was submitted, and there was no data to show the developer was going to excavate what he said he would," Tatro says. "This is all being done in hindsight."

The only way to verify the validity of what's on paper is to examine the relevant site plans, grading layouts and topographical surveys. Because of their technical nature, the Press lined up a professional engineer willing to examine the documents to determine how much fill had been placed on the development sites and whether something close to an equal amount of storm-water detention had been excavated from the ball field.

But while Culp expressed no qualms about providing copies of that information in his first interview with the Press, he declined on December 10, claiming the city legal department had declared certain building plans "copyrighted material" and therefore not subject to disclosure under the Texas Open Records Act. Culp agreed to allow a reporter to look over the site plans and grading layouts in Loomis's office -- access, he says, the city's attorneys had warned him not to provide.

"They didn't even want to give [the plans] to us," Culp says.

To the untrained eye, the plans were, to say the least, inconclusive. Even more puzzling were two attorney general opinions, dated 1981 and 1987. While both opinions discourage the city from furnishing copies of material protected by copyright -- assuming, of course, that building plans are copyright-protected in the first place -- they both clearly permit members of the public to make their own copies, "unassisted" by the government agency. The city did not immediately respond to a second request by the Press to make "unassisted" copies of the documents.

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."

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."

Earlier this year, the White Oak Bayou Association submitted a proposal to the flood control district that represents the area's last hope for storm-water detention. Eureka Springs, designed by Kevin Shanley, is modeled on the 441-acre Willow Waterhole, a detention and conservation reserve constructed along Brays Bayou. But the project, envisioned for the 187-acre Katy railroad corridor, south of 11th Street, is expensive. The cheapest of three alternatives designed by Shanley would cost $53 million.

Federal funding through the flood control district is unlikely. Steve Fitzgerald says that although storm-water detention in the lower White Oak watershed is desperately needed, Eureka Springs would provide a negligible flood control benefit.

"People have been asking us for ten years or more to consider some of these tracts" for detention, Fitzgerald says. "But to have any impact, it would have to be a lot bigger."

In the meantime, land adjacent to the old rail yard is being claimed for development. The 77-home project has already been subdivided, and rumors abound that surveying crews seen in the area are plotting additional subdivisions near the site that would encroach on storm-water detention for the surrounding neighborhoods.

Clark Pines resident Mary Abshier wonders whether even a small detention site would have saved some of the houses in her neighborhood, including her own. Abshier bought her home in the spring of 1999, before she knew Clark Pines was in the White Oak floodplain. She says longtime residents assured her that the bayou had never posed a threat to the 50-year-old subdivision. Since June, Abshier has watched with a sense of dread as new development visible from her front yard nears completion.

"What kind of city planning is this?" she asks incredulously. "Are they really trying to destroy the inner city so that developers can come in and change the whole nature of Houston?"

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