The first punch in the gut for Donna Harvey and Keith Copeland started around midnight Tuesday, May 26, when 18 inches of rancid water forced its way into their Meyerland home during the Memorial Day flood.
The storm that led Texas Governor Greg Abbott to declare disasters in 37 Texas counties moved into Houston at 9 p.m. Monday, May 25, and didn’t depart until the next morning, leaving in its wake a wide swath of damaged and destroyed Harris County homes. An overtaxed Brays Bayou, which runs through or borders the southwest Houston neighborhoods of Meyerland, Westbury and Willow Meadows, jumped its banks. Seven people died, including three Meyerland residents who drowned during a Houston Fire Department rescue attempt.
After the indoor swamp receded from Harvey and Copeland’s modest ranch-style house on Valkeith Drive, they hired contractors to rip out the mold-infested Sheetrock. Dealing with the barrage of sales pitches from drywall specialists, remodeling companies, furniture restoration professionals and landscaping services was new territory for the couple because their home, built in 1959, had never flooded before.
“The water had only come up to the curb during past storms,” says Harvey, a refrain heard from a majority of the Meyerland residents interviewed by the Houston Press.
As industrial-strength heaters dried the house, a wood beam caught fire in the attic, but the kindling was quickly doused. The power was shut off overnight to curb the chance of a reignite. Harvey and Copeland, whose chronic sleep apnea requires an electrically powered machine, checked into a Holiday Inn. Since they would be gone for only one night, they left their two dogs and their cat inside the house.
The second blow happened the next morning, when the fire sparked and flames swallowed the property. Everything was lost, including their three pets, which they found dead inside. “That’s the worst part of it all. I’m still pretty sad and angry,” says Harvey.
Four months later, Harvey and thousands of southwest Houston residents along Brays Bayou are still dealing with the aftermath. According to Harris County Flood Control District documents, eight inches of rain clobbered the area around West Beltway 8 and Brays Bayou in a three-hour stretch. The grand total: 11 inches between 8 p.m. May 25 and 8 a.m. May 26, resulting in 1,185 flooded homes along a compromised bayou.
Meyerland, located in a 100-year floodplain just outside Loop 610 and bound by Beechnut Street to the north, Bellfort Avenue to the south, Chimney Rock Road to the west and South Post Oak Road to the east, received the brunt of the damage. The neighborhood, one of Houston’s crown jewels, originally opened during a ribbon-cutting ceremony presided over by then U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon in 1955.
Though pre-Memorial Day storms exacerbated the problem, the wreckage of the southwest Houston communities could have been avoided, according to a former employee with the City of Houston Public Works Department.
If only a federal flood project designed to head off exactly this kind of catastrophic occurrence hadn’t fallen far behind, sailing through deadline after deadline.
Since 1994, the Harris County Flood Control District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have labored on the Brays Bayou Federal Flood Risk Reduction Project (often shortened to Project Brays), a massive $480 million flood-control development that will widen 21 miles of the bayou from State Highway 6 to the Houston Ship Channel. But the federal project — the most expansive partnership between the Flood Control District and the Corps — is eight years behind schedule and won’t be completed until 2022 at the earliest.
According to a Project Brays document, a section between Chimney Rock and Loop 610, which encompasses the heavily flooded neighborhoods of Meyerland and Westbury, had a scheduled completion year of 2013. It didn’t get done.
Instead, after completing a section east of Main Street by the Texas Medical Center, project officials decided to jump all the way upstream to build a retention basin near Highway 6. The reason, according to Project Brays’s project manager, Gary Zika, is that “it’s more cost-efficient to dig a hole.” Zika adds that the project has hit snags, including delays with federal reimbursements as well as time-sucking lawsuits brought by utility companies.
The lack of any improvements to the southwest Houston section of Brays Bayou bugs Mark Kosmoski, a former senior assistant director of the city’s Public Works Department. “There would’ve been flooding due to the intensity, but the bayou should have moved more water downstream faster,” says Kosmoski.
On June 3, just eight days after the floods, the Public Works Department began issuing roughly 1,000 substantial damage predetermination letters to flood-affected homeowners.
The daunting verbiage states that if a homeowner suffers substantial damage under the 50 percent rule — if repair costs exceed 50 percent of the structure’s pre-flood market value — then that structure, under Federal Emergency Management Agency floodplain regulations, needs to be raised by at least one foot. According to a National Geodetic Survey, southwest Houston sank by six feet between 1906 and 2000 owing to natural subsidence, so many of Meyerland’s 1950s- and 1960s-era structures sit much lower in the floodplain than they did a half-century ago.
Amy Hoechstetter, general manager of the Meyerland Community Improvement Association, says that more than 750 homes (more than 30 percent of the neighborhood) received water, but only 60 of those homes will require something other than a simple repair job. “I don’t know what you consider flooded, but almost all of them were not substantially damaged,” says Hoechstetter.
If homeowners aren’t able or willing to drop approximately $150,000 on lifting their structures, the city won’t grant a repair permit, leaving displaced residents with the crummy choices of selling the damaged property for the land value or tearing down the house and completely rebuilding. The city offers an appeals process, but residents say it’s convoluted and complicated.
Critics think that the substantial damage letters were rushed and that the city hasn’t done enough to clear up misconceptions or inform residents of the FEMA-suggested home valuation solution of using depreciated replacement cost (rather than the Harris County Appraisal District value), which can help some homeowners ditch the dreaded substantial-damage tag.
The result has been panic among displaced residents who are still living in rentals for the foreseeable future. “Some people who received the substantially damaged letters have walked away from their homes because they don’t know what to do,” says Kosmoski.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker, during a neighborhood event at Meyerland’s Godwin Park on June 14, said substantially damaged homes were determined by aerial surveillance and drive-by reviews, even though FEMA requires a more thorough analysis. Mark Loethen, deputy director of the Public Works Department, refused to speak to the Press when contacted for an interview. Instead, we were passed to Gary Norman, executive staff analyst at the department.
“City staff completed a preliminary damage assessment of flood-affected areas of the city immediately after the recent flood event,” says Norman. “This assessment determined the level of flood damage based on the level of floodwater inundation and structural damage that could be observed from the public right of way.”
Hoechstetter explains that many property owners in the 2,307-home subdivision, now littered with PODS storage containers and bulk-trash bins, remain overwhelmed.
“They are dealing with the uncertainty of funds from the insurance company, the decision to repair or rebuild, the difficult task of finding a contractor or a builder who has what they want and is available, navigating the city approvals, construction time, and, at last, moving in. This process is likely to take a year,” says Hoechstetter.
When the water raced into Sheldon Weisfeld’s house on Endicott Lane, located just south of Brays Bayou, Weisfeld positioned important possessions on top of four-inch food cans because the strategy had worked during previous flood episodes.
The family’s belongings were ruined in an instant. “In 15 minutes, the water went from street level to the headlights on the cars that were parked on the street,” says Weisfeld, whose family lost four vehicles in the flood. Weisfeld says his Meyerland home received an astonishing 44 inches.
Weisfeld’s decimated space was still without a workable kitchen and downstairs bathroom in early September. He was waiting for the insurance company, which was asking for paperwork destroyed in the flood, to issue a proof of loss so that he could procure a permit to start repair work. In the meantime, dehumidifiers hummed around the clock, shooting Weisfeld’s electric bill from $280 to $1,500 a month.
The aftershocks of the disaster are a strain on his 29-year marriage. Some nights, he sleeps at an apartment that he rented for his college-age son, who had to move out of the second floor of the flood-ruined house after suffering respiratory problems. “It’s a destruction of your life,” says Weisfeld.
Weisfeld’s next-door neighbor is Chris Bell, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and Houston City Council and a candidate for Houston mayor. His house took in 33 inches; Bell, his wife, their two teenage sons and their two dogs still live upstairs.
“I’m upset that the section wasn’t completed,” Bell says about the southwest Houston portion of Brays Bayou originally targeted with the 2013 completion date. A Harris County Flood Control District document shows that Brays Bayou crested the top of its 51-foot bank at Rice Avenue on Tuesday, May 26, hitting a peak of 52.2 feet between 5 and 6 a.m.
Project Brays, in addition to widening and deepening the bayou that was originally constructed in 1968, will replace or modify 30 bridges and create four new detention basins that collectively will store 3.5 billion gallons of stormwater. Crews are currently excavating the Willow Waterhole Stormwater Detention Basin, located on the southern edge of Meyerland near South Post Oak and South Main streets.
According to Project Brays literature, when the undertaking is complete, 29,000 homes and businesses will avoid risk from a 100-year flood, while 3,470 homes will avert flooding possibilities from a 25-year storm event.
Under the 50-50 cost-share arrangement, the Flood Control District pays for right-of-way acquisitions, utility relocation, bridge replacements or modifications, and maintenance, while the Corps picks up the tab relating to design and construction costs. Harris County pays up front and invoices the federal government for reimbursements, a dollar figure that’s approved annually by Congress. Zika says that as of this month, $305 million of the $480 million has been spent.
According to Zika, Brays Bayou’s upstream improvements spared more than 1,000 homes and businesses because the detention basins, including the Eldridge Stormwater Detention Basin, near the intersection of Highway 6 and Westpark Tollway, were filled with a startling 7,000 acres of water.
“It rained a lot…eventually, gravity wins and it goes into the pipes,” says Kosmoski, vice president of the Houston-based civil and consulting engineering firm Kirst Kosmoski. “When the volume is so great, the water doesn’t have a way of flowing, so it just goes up. That’s the essence of a floodplain.”
Additionally, Kosmoski says, unlike the Austin area, where the soil is sand-based, Houston is predominantly clay, which makes water absorption a slower process.
“The ground was saturated, and then there were eight- to ten-plus inches of rain on top of it…but anything’s better than nothing. That just bothers me when you miss the piece in the middle,” Kosmoski says about Project Brays’s incomplete components. Harris County Flood Control District documents show that an estimated total of 3,015 homes flooded, including residences along Brays, Buffalo, Little White Oak and Keegans bayous as well as the Willow Waterhole, Brickhouse Gully and Spring Branch tributaries.
The Harris County Flood Control district is now facing heat from homeowners along both sides of upper White Oak Bayou, where a bundle of homes drowned during Tropical Storm Frances in 1998, Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 and an unnamed storm event in 2002.
As a result, residents Edward and Norma Kerr filed, on behalf of more than 400 families, a class action lawsuit against the Harris County Flood Control District. The suit alleges that careless development — and a lack of counterattacks to alleviate flooding — turned neighborhoods such as Jersey Village, White Oak Manor, Woodland Trails and Oakwood Forest into retention ponds.
In June, the Texas Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, required the jury to determine liability in the case. The decision, according to local environmental attorney Jim Blackburn, “is important to maintain that there are limits to government action and that residential homeowners have property rights just as large corporations and developers do,” he says.
The Houston Public Works Department’s substantial damage predetermination letters, which told more than 1,000 property owners that their homes may need to be raised, were a debacle from the start, says Debbie Gersh, a Houston-based independent home restoration professional who is helping Meyerland residents patch their wrecked properties.
Gersh explains that one of her clients, who had 14 inches of water in the house, never received a letter. Another client, whose house stayed dry on the inside, got the letter. Gersh adds that the city sent a follow-up to “clean up the mess of the first letters,” but the hysteria among stressed-out residents had become deep-seated.
“It was upsetting to a lot of people,” adds mayoral candidate Bell about the letters that started to hit mailboxes approximately eight days after the rain called it quits.
Shortly after the letters went out, councilmember Ellen Cohen, in an email to constituents, wrote that the distribution of the document is a FEMA requirement. According to section 7.5 of the FEMA manual Substantial Damage in the Disaster Recovery Environment, that’s just not true.
Additionally, section 7.5 of the FEMA document lays out a more detailed analysis for determining substantially damaged properties that involves more than just photos taken from a helicopter or a drive-by in a city-owned vehicle.
When asked if the letters are required by law, the Public Works Department’s Norman wrote in an e-mail, “Communities participating in the National Flood Insurance Program are required to determine which structures in the community are substantially damaged and to notify the property owners.”
The substantial damage letters also failed to disclose alternative valuation methods that homeowners can use in order to try to land under the 50 percent threshold, which is life or death for a flood-damaged home.
Many homeowners are using the values, which are typically on the low side, from their HCAD property-tax statements. Even if a piece of land is worth $300,000 and the house is valued at $40,000, a homeowner is left with only $20,000 (or half of a $40,000 house) for the total value. In this scenario, all estimated repair costs must fall under $20,000 or the house needs to be placed on stilts.
However, the FEMA manual allows a depreciated replacement cost denominator, which almost always generates a higher figure. That’s because the dollar amount is based on the value a property owner has listed on his home insurance policy. As of the time this article was published, specific information about depreciated replacement cost wasn’t listed on the Public Works Department’s website.
Norman says the information can be found in the Chapter 19 Houston City Code ordinance titled “Floodplain.”
“Chapter 19, the City’s Ordinance, allows for ‘other’ methods of documenting the value of the existing structure as approved by the City Engineer. Many of the forms and checklists provided to the public by [the Floodplain Management Office] invite the property owner to submit ‘other’ information for valuation,” Norman writes.
For some who are covered under FEMA’s flood insurance policy, the six-figure burden of raising their foundations isn’t an option because insurance payouts, which top out at $250,000 for single-family residential buildings, cover only the cost of flood damages and not rebuilding expenses.
The estimated damage to Scott and Margaret Flippen’s residence eclipsed the 50 percent threshold, so they’re trying to decide whether to raise the house or leave the neighborhood they’ve called home since relocating from Virginia three years ago. The couple and their three young children moved to an apartment after 18 inches of floodwater trashed their Meyerland home, located down the street from Kolter Elementary School, where the couple’s oldest recently started kindergarten.
“The flood dominates all conversations. We’ve tried to talk about the start of school and the kids, but it always comes back to the flood,” says Margaret. “The people who are in that limbo are super-stressed out.”
While homeowners can rip out carpet and chuck cabinets without a permit, the City of Houston’s Floodplain Management Office won’t allow most other repairs, such as plumbing and electrical work, without a Floodplain Development Permit.
Some residents with permits in hand have had to scratch and claw for them.
A week and a half after the flood, Glen Rosenbaum, an attorney with Vinson & Elkins who had the means to hire Kosmoski to put together a permit application, handed in the paperwork to the Floodplain Management Office. Rosenbaum’s house on South Braeswood Boulevard, which abuts Brays Bayou, took in 21 inches of floodwater but wasn’t substantially damaged.
The Floodplain Management Office, which is run by the Public Works Department, asked for additional details on the repair job. A few days later, Rosenbaum submitted a comprehensive document that included exhaustive contractor and subcontractor cost breakdowns.
This time, the city said the paperwork wasn’t any good because Rosenbaum’s house had since been determined to have suffered substantial damage.
“When asked by Mark Kosmoski, the city stated that they did not have any calculations or other documentation supporting the ‘substantial damage’ determination,” Rosenbaum says. City employees still wouldn’t budge, and required Rosenbaum to hand over an adjuster’s report.
Finally, nearly six weeks after the original permit application had been filed, a city inspector took a few steps into Rosenbaum’s house and saw that the space wasn’t substantially damaged. The repair permit was issued the next day. Rosenbaum says the ordeal ate up dozens of hours of time spent by his hired help.
Gersh, the home restoration professional, says she also got the runaround from the Floodplain Management Office when she tried to pull permits. “I had three different city employees telling me three different pieces of information,” she says.
“It’s really concerning to me that they don’t have a handle on this,” says Gersh. “The city received accolades for the work they did during [Hurricane] Katrina. How they can do the complete opposite in this case is beyond me.”
In June, the Public Works Department’s Loethen blamed social media for any so-called bad information that’s floating around. “Come and talk to us…we’re trying to combat that with facts,” Loethen told the Houston Chronicle.
The Press tried exactly that, but Loethen, who took home $152,027 as a city employee in 2013, wouldn’t give us the time of day.
Before jumping through hoops with the city’s permitting office, many residents of limited means were forced to wait or are still expecting insurance checks to land in their mailboxes.
On Memorial Day, Catherine Couturier’s daughter celebrated her first birthday at the family’s Meyerland home. By the next morning, balloons and party streamers floated in three inches of muck.
Afterwards, Couturier, her husband and their two kids tried to sleep in their one-story, ranch-style home on Wigton Drive, but they woke up with headaches. Instead, the family rented an apartment that’s significantly out of their price range and waited months for the insurance reimbursement.
“We couldn’t pay out of pocket since we live on an art-gallery income,” says Couturier, owner of Catherine Couturier Gallery on Colquitt, who hopes the repairs will be completed by next month.
Natalie Monzon, who lives north of Brays Bayou on Braesvalley Drive, lost her entire first floor to 12 inches of floodwater. For the past three months, she’s lived upstairs with her husband and their two teenage sons.
Monzon loves to cook, but her current kitchen consists of a small table, a microwave and a hot plate. “We’ve been eating a lot of scrambled eggs,” she says. With luck, the house will be repaired by Thanksgiving, even though her contractor hadn’t emailed her back in two weeks.
When it’s done, her friends and neighbors may or may not be around to see it. One of her neighbors is selling the house as is, and two of her other neighbors, who moved to Meyerland only a few years ago, are leaning toward completely rebuilding but may end up fleeing.
On the south side of Brays Bayou, Robert Binstock’s house on South Braeswood has been “gutted to the studs” after two and a half feet of water scurried inside. The longtime Houston attorney placed the home on the market instead of raising his house by five feet, which he says the city would require him to do since his home sits in a low-lying area.
“Brays Bayou needs to be completed. Some buttons need to be pushed and politicians need to do something,” says Binstock. “Every year that it sits [uncompleted], there’s more of a likelihood that it will flood again.”
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A little farther south, two dressers and an easy chair, ready to be hauled away by bulk trash collection, sat in the yard of Harvey’s charred house. An orange safety fence around the perimeter drooped because somebody had snipped it in two.
Harvey says that people are stealing things from in and around the property. “It’s like kicking a dog when they’re down,” says Harvey, who has no choice but to knock down the shell of a house, which was her retirement. “I’ll need to get another loan. I’m 70 years old.”
A mailman was out delivering letters, but not to Harvey’s disfigured house. Instead, he ignored the mangle of burned wood and walked by a property that’s for sale. And another. And another.
Next week: A group of people caught in the Memorial Day flooding waited for hours for help from the Houston Fire Department. Tragically, not all of them survived the rescue.