If the Addicks and Barker Dams Fail

They've already been labeled "high risk." Experts say the resulting damage could be bigger than Katrina in New Orleans.

If the Addicks and Barker Dams Fail

The psychic's office at South Highway 6's Briarhills Parkways strip mall would be one of the first ones to go. Later, jungle gyms and mailboxes painted in Texas state flag colors might join the bobbing televisions and tombstones from Memorial Oaks Cemetery in the crude river that's been formed by a breached Barker Dam.

North of Interstate 10, Barker's younger sibling, Addicks Dam, has also been wiped out by an unstoppable current that starts to overwhelm Buffalo Bayou.

Behind the swell, suitcases — left behind by evacuated guests of the Omni Hotel — thud against upper-floor windows of an Energy Corridor office tower. Further east on Katy Freeway, Bibles from area churches, unsliced foot-long bread rolls from a Subway and family pets float toward downtown like New Braunfels tubers.

In fall 2009, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tagged West Houston's Addicks and Barker dams with an "extremely high risk of catastrophic failure" label. According to the Corps, the 1940s-era dams, which leaked in April 2009, are two of the country's six most dangerous. As a result, the Corps, during an abnormal weather event, might be forced to release more rainwater downstream, which could send Buffalo Bayou out of its banks and flood homes in Memorial and Tanglewood.
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In fall 2009, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tagged West Houston's Addicks and Barker dams with an "extremely high risk of catastrophic failure" label. According to the Corps, the 1940s-era dams, which leaked in April 2009, are two of the country's six most dangerous. As a result, the Corps, during an abnormal weather event, might be forced to release more rainwater downstream, which could send Buffalo Bayou out of its banks and flood homes in Memorial and Tanglewood.
Mauro Amoro attempts to reel in catfish at George Bush Park following last Thursday's downpours. The nation's sixth-largest city park, which nestles the hazardous Barker Dam, is a favorite amongst gun enthusiasts, cyclists, soccer players and dog-park lovers.
Daniel Kramer
Mauro Amoro attempts to reel in catfish at George Bush Park following last Thursday's downpours. The nation's sixth-largest city park, which nestles the hazardous Barker Dam, is a favorite amongst gun enthusiasts, cyclists, soccer players and dog-park lovers.

Years afterward, as Houston continues to clear debris from the multibillion-dollar disaster, survivors might demand to know how this happened. Outdoor freaks who never could get over the loss of the soccer fields, bike trails, dog park and shooting range at George Bush Park, which had been built around Barker Dam, might relocate to the Hill Country to get their parks and rec fixes.

Others, while combing through the mangled ruins of the Texas Medical Center and River Oaks, could wonder if the psychic had seen it coming.

For more than 60 years, the Addicks and Barker dams have prevented an estimated $4.6 billion in flooding damages by limiting large amounts of water from reaching flood-prone Buffalo Bayou. But the dams, once located in the rural nothingness of Harris and Fort Bend counties, have been pushed to their limits, largely due to all of the people and buildings that currently coexist upstream and downstream of the dams.

In April 2009, during an unnamed weather event that leveled the west side with more than nine inches of rain in 24 hours, the dams exhibited signs of irreversible failure. Five months after the 2009 storms, the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the dams, which are located near the intersection of Interstate 10 and Beltway 8, slapped Addicks and Barker with an "extremely high risk of catastrophic failure" label. The dams are currently two of the country's six most dangerous, according to the Corps.

Despite the Corps' "urgent and compelling" Dam Safety Action Classification I ranking, the local chapter of the Sierra Club, concerned residents and a professional engineer say the Corps has downplayed the risk — a member of the Houston Sierra Club says that she accidentally discovered the Level I distinction while researching other matters.

Additionally, in Sierra Club v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — filed on August 22, 2011, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division — the environmental group alleges that the Corps tested fate when, in June 2011, they gave a thumbs-up to the construction of Segment E of the Grand Parkway (Highway 99). While some say the toll road is needed to keep up with fast-growing Houston, environmentalists say that the 15.2-mile segment between I-10 and Highway 290 will coax more concrete from housing and retail projects, which could send more water to the aging dams.

Local environmental attorney James Blackburn, who is representing the plaintiffs in the civil suit — currently in the appeals process after a district court sided with the Corps — says that if the dams broke, folks would have to deal with a lot more than soiled couches and temporary power outages.

"It could dwarf New Orleans and Katrina," says Blackburn, who adds that the Memorial Drive area, the Energy Corridor, River Oaks, the Texas Medical Center and maybe even downtown could be wading in nasty, disgusting floodwaters.

Not that everyone agrees. According to Michael Sterling of the Corps' Galveston District, Addicks and Barker dams aren't about to crumble. The Corps, which has put in a couple of quick fixes that may or may not work, says the soonest that Addicks and Barker can be fully repaired is by September 2017.

"All dams present risk potential; however, it is important to know that Addicks and Barker dams are not in imminent danger of failing," says Sterling, who adds, "The fact that the Houston metropolitan area is the nation's fourth largest population center is a primary concern. Any dam safety issues at Addicks and Barker could have a far greater impact due to the magnitude of people and property downstream as opposed to other dams around the country located in rural or low-population density areas."

Meanwhile, in order to prevent the reservoirs from getting too full, the Corps doubled the amount of water that can be released downstream. Properties and homes from Wilcrest Drive down to Chimney Rock Road could be flooded during a big storm, an issue that homeowners in the immediate flood plain aren't even aware of.

"I would say if you talk to 99 out of 100 people in West Houston and ask them about this problem, they wouldn't know anything about it," says Steve Rosencranz, a Sierra Club member and West Houston dweller. "It's something that nobody is talking about."

Though a Texas-based licensed professional engineer acknowledges that the dams were dry about 90 percent of the time during last summer's drought — a far cry from last week's heavy rain and flash-flood warnings that saturated Austin County down to Galveston — he says that it might not take an apocalyptic weather event to turn our town into the lost underwater city of Houston, Texas.
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13 comments
stit60
stit60

LOL!  I always enjoy these apocolyptic weather articles yall do.  Makes me laugh, makes me worry and makes me think.  WHAT IF???  Holy shhhhh.  Okay.  I'm in Mission Bend---close.  I'm goin' to Home Depot RIGHT FRIGGIN NOW and buy some wood.  Time to build an ark!

red.marcy.rand
red.marcy.rand topcommenter

More leftist apocalyptic alarmism ! The sky is falling ! Govmint must come to the rescue !

Can you believe that we folks out here in San Fransicko don't give a fiddler's fart what happens to Houston ?

turtletxn
turtletxn

Allison did not "destroy" 90 of 105 buildings on the University of Houston campus....

There is a giant difference in a building being flooded and/or damaged and a building being "destroyed."

For the record, call me a "nitpicker" but I quit reading the article at this point.

H_e_x
H_e_x

Too bad they can't fix thee dam. Too many trees to cut down for bike paths that already exist. 

tlafaver
tlafaver

It is difficult to believe much of this when it is infused with such hyperbolic statements; like water up to the tenth floor of buildings in the Energy Coriddor, and 90 of 105 buildings on UH campus destroyed during TS Allison. Get your facts straight!

Inthedamsshadow
Inthedamsshadow

Before claiming that 99 percent of the people in West Houston are not aware of the current situation, you might try actually coming out and speaking with some of the residents beyond simply those who are involved in the lawsuit. Most of my neighbors are hyper sensitive to the issues, including those concerning the City's efforts to destroy our forests to gain a paltry (but politically expedient from a Memorial super neighborhood perspective) 110 acre feet of water detention. The most important part of the story is left out - what are Congressmen Culberson, McCaul, Green, Paul and Olson doing to get funding and approval for not only upgrading the dams, but also for the Clodine Regional Detention Basin? What are Harris County and Fort Bend County doing to encourage the Congressmen to fund the dam upgrades and the development of the Clodine Regional Detention Basin? What are any of our elected officials doing to encourage the construction of a new reservoir northwest of the Addicks Reservoir? Our Mayor seems to think water stops at the City of Houston boundaries and she does nothing to work with other government entities responsible for water being fed into Buffalo Bayou from beyond. This story is larger and more complex than just the dams. See www.briarforestsn.org for some additional information. By the way, there were four meetings put on by the Corps, not just one (and they were all very well attended by our residents). Just because the local media does not question us or report our concerns does not mean we are ignorant to the issues.

1967warren
1967warren

here is just a reminder for all the newcomers to houston. google alvin or friendswood on july 25 and 26 1979. the N.W.S. weather station in alvin recorded over 42" of rain in 24hrs. yea that's right! for the few that lived in this,we will never forget and we have a good laugh when we read about these projected events based on just a few inches and what they could do to houston, ha. wait for the big one, it has happened before and will happen again some where

lovemadjc
lovemadjc

wow! i worry bout storms and heavy rains but to know we can be wiped out from this dam....when is this going to be a problem when were all gone?

Shummel67
Shummel67

I believe most taxpayers would be willing to fund a worthy project like this. We are unwilling to continue funding the waste that is rampant in all forms of government. I believe the City of Houston just received a grant to do some "improvements" along Buffalo Bayou like install a public shower?

Anse
Anse

If a psychic has an office out there and hasn't packed it up and left, then what in the heck are we worrying about?

nitpicker
nitpicker

I believe Barker's on the north of I-10 and Addicks on the south. "nitpicker"

ypman
ypman

The government has been playing a game of chance when it comes to dams for years. One only needs to visit the site of the Teton Dam collapse in Idaho for proof. While the USACE may say the problem is not really imminent they also can't say it will not happen soon. Then again part of the problem is also taxpayers unwilling to pay any additional taxes to make improvements to the nations aging infrastructure.

Interested Bystander
Interested Bystander

"thud against upper-floor windows of an Energy Corridor office tower" is pretty hyperbolic since a 10 story building would be over 100' high. Would be a enormous stetch to get water that high. However it might wash away 2nd Baptist on Voss away so al might not be so bad.

 
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