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Not Worth A Dam

For 15 years Carl Hopper had no reason to fear the little stream behind his Friendswood home, which is shaded by towering oak trees on a half-acre lot in Imperial Estates. Clear Creek seemed far enough away from Carl's two-story house, and most of the time there wasn't much water in it anyway.

Then in 1979, Tropical Storm Claudette delivered four and a half feet of Clear Creek to Carl's living room. It destroyed his furniture and his belongings and, much worse, washed away pictures, letters and other remembrances of his late wife.

Carl repaired the damage and kept the house, but for more than a decade he lived in a drier part of town. In 1994 he moved back with his new bride, Barbara. Just a few months later, after two days of steady rain, Carl and Clear Creek met again under the same miserable circumstances.

The Hoppers considered moving for good after the '94 flood. They changed their minds, though, when they heard the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had a plan to solve their problem. It involved the channelization -- the widening and deepening -- of an 18-mile stretch of Clear Creek from the Brazoria County line all the way to Clear Lake. The project was first proposed in 1968, but for various reasons, some of which have been forgotten, it was never carried out. Determined to see the Corps get started, Barbara became a vocal supporter of channelization.

"We checked and it was always, 'Oh, yes, we have a project. The contract's going through. Not to worry,' " Barbara recalls. "A lot of people made major improvements to their houses because they were told they were fixing the creek."

But environmentalists vehemently opposed the Corps plan, claiming it would destroy the vibrant riparian habitat around one of the last untouched waterways in the Houston area. Critics also argued it would funnel so much storm-water runoff from upstream development that downstream property owners, particularly around Clear Lake, would flood instead.

The Corps and the Harris County Flood Control District reworked the plan to reduce both the downstream flow and the ancillary destruction of hardwood forests and wetlands. That proposal didn't gain a consensus either, however, and the Corps called for a top-to-bottom review of the project. That study won't be finished until April 2003 -- which didn't do the Hoppers a bit of good this past June.

On its first pass, Tropical Storm Allison poured almost seven inches of rain on Clear Creek in one hour. The creek's upper and middle reaches in northern Brazoria County were still swollen with runoff three days later, when Allison circled back to strike again. When it was over, Clear Creek had flooded a total of 1,500 homes in Pearland, Brookside Village and Friendswood, including Imperial Estates, which remains virtually uninhabitable. Almost every house within two blocks of Clear Creek is empty. On Imperial Drive, 49 houses, including the Hoppers', are waiting to be demolished.

This time, there's no going back for Carl and Barbara. They've bought a house in what she calls "a cookie-cutter subdivision" out of harm's way. Meanwhile, it's hard to tell what they blame more for their trouble: the weather or the environmentalists.

"My house is ruined, my life has been altered drastically, and they're going to bulldoze the entire neighborhood," Barbara says. "And for what? To satisfy those pooh-koo tree huggers."

It can't be known whether a wider, deeper Clear Creek would have contained Allison's fury or, as many seem to believe, she was a freak of nature that couldn't be tamed. But for three decades, the Hoppers, their neighbors and many others believed channelization was their only hope against the floodwaters of Clear Creek.

In a sense, they were duped -- by federal officials who knew channelization and other so-called structural flood- control methods had grown obsolete; and by local officials who, expecting the Corps to take care of Clear Creek's problems, ignored a fundamental law of nature in encouraging new construction in the floodplain.

Clear Creek is just 47 miles long, but it provides the only storm-water drainage to Galveston Bay for a 260-square-mile area that includes parts of four counties and 16 cities. Over the past decade, the creek has become overwhelmed by the relentless urbanization of the watershed, particularly in Pearland. The city's population grew from 16,000 to 39,000 during the 1990s, a rate of expansion that has been accompanied by an exponential increase in flood damages.

Indeed, tension between city officials and local residents frustrated over repeated flooding of their neighborhoods came to a head September 6, less than a week after Clear Creek spilled its banks yet again. In Pearland, a standing-room-only crowd of homeowners at City Hall blasted councilmembers and the city's drainage plan for failing to protect their lives and property from the impact of new development.

 

Meanwhile, just to the north, councilmembers for the City of Brookside Village directed their legal counsel to gather information for a possible injunction to stop new construction in Pearland, where the population is expected to double again in the next 20 years.

To many, the only solution is to proceed with the channelization of Clear Creek. But even if it's approved 18 months from now, the Corps plan could take eight years to complete. In the meantime, history has proved that it doesn't take a storm of Allison's magnitude to turn the once-benign stream into a meandering menace.

"It's a disgusting situation," Barbara Hopper says. "We live on a coastal plain. You can't put hundreds of thousands of people on it and not give them a place for the water to go."

Under the circumstances, Mona Shoup probably couldn't find a place less inclined to welcome her. But one Sunday afternoon last month, she drove slowly through the deserted heart of the Hoppers' old neighborhood.

"These poor people," said Shoup, with a sympathetic shake of her head.

A petite brunette with a whispery voice, Shoup is the name and face most associated with the antichannelization faction. The Hoppers refer to her as "that environmental girl," and in the wake of Allison, she's likely been called worse by those who have supported the Corps project. While most people who can be described as environmentalists usually have several fights going on at once, every minute of Shoup's spare time is devoted to keeping Clear Creek the way it is.

In 1997, just after Shoup had moved from Tulsa to Nassau Bay, where Clear Creek empties into Clear Lake, she met Terry Hershey, the doyenne of local environmental advocates and a longtime critic of the channelization project.

"Terry and I were in a car for three hours one day, and she tried to talk me into taking up the issue," Shoup recalls. "I said no because I really didn't know how to go about it. Well, she got me again, and I told her the only way I'd do it was if she taught me."

They spent almost every day together for six months, poring over Hershey's voluminous files and going over the long history of the project. Hershey introduced Shoup, a former environmental reporter for the Tulsa World, to local politicians and drainage officials, hydrologists and urban planners. She even told Shoup what to name her new organization: The Friends of Clear Creek.

"I was totally naive about politics," Shoup admits. "But I knew how to do research, and I wasn't shy about picking up the phone and calling people."

The Corps project was designed in 1986 to save about 400 homes, mostly in Friendswood and Pearland, that had flooded repeatedly. The plan envisioned a 350-foot-wide trapezoidal channel that would not only widen and deepen Clear Creek but also remove the natural oxbows and bends that slow the water as it flows downstream. The project, estimated to cost $129 million, would unavoidably destroy the vegetation and mature bottomland hardwood trees along the creek's bank that are habitat for wood ducks, spotted sandpipers and roseate spoonbills.

Shoup hated to see the natural beauty of Clear Creek ruined. But as a resident of Nassau Bay, she was particularly interested in another side effect of the plan. According to the Corps analysis, channelization would raise flood levels around Clear Lake by two and a half to three feet during a major storm.

The Corps's answer to the increased flows was a set of floodgates, completed in 1996, that allow another outlet for Clear Lake water to empty into Galveston Bay. But Shoup and many Clear Lake residents had the same question: What happens during high tide, when the water level of the bay is higher than that of the lake? How could water pass into Galveston Bay then?

To address that and other concerns, the Corps and the Harris County Flood Control District came up with an alternative plan that, theoretically, would reduce the amount of water being channeled downstream. As for the effectiveness of the floodgates during certain bay conditions, the alternative plan noted that "intensive rainfalls are not associated with high tides." It also stated, "Conversely, high tides are not associated with severe storms, as shown with Alicia in 1983."

"When the Corps and Harris County said that, they lost all credibility with the people in Clear Lake," Shoup said. "These are water people down here. You can't tell them something like that and expect them to buy it."

As if to prove their point, a few months after the alternative plan was proposed, in September 1998 tidal surges from the bay flooded NASA Road 1 in Webster. Residents along Todville Road in Seabrook were evacuated. Two days later Tropical Storm Frances hit shore. While Clear Creek didn't flood -- northern Harris County took the brunt of the storm -- Clear Lake was "like a giant ocean," recalls Shoup. "The waves were crashing, there was debris washing up all over the place. It was really frightening."

 

Convinced neither plan would protect downstream property owners, Shoup secured a $25,000 grant from the Brown Foundation for an independent analysis. The study, by a Sugar Land hydrologist named Larry Dunbar, found that both plans may have underestimated the extent of potential flooding. Dunbar recommended an option that the Corps and Harris County had hardly considered: a $70 million buyout of the 400 flood-prone properties that the project was designed to save.

Buyout would be not only cheaper but smarter in the long run, Dunbar reasoned. The riparian habitat along Clear Creek absorbs and stores large amounts of rainwater, reducing flood peaks in the stream. The wetlands and forests are like natural detention ponds, capturing and holding runoff. What isn't absorbed as groundwater makes its way slowly back to the creek.

The buyout, Dunbar argued, "would eliminate the majority of the flood damages that the current plans are also attempting to eliminate [without] removing the majority of the existing floodplain…"

This is far from the tree-hugging radicalism that some channelization supporters like to imagine. After the disastrous Mississippi River floods of 1993, cities and towns in the Midwest agreed to participate in a massive buyout funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to remove 12,000 flood-damaged homes and businesses from harm's way. St. Charles, Missouri, which suffered about $26.1 million in flood damages in 1993, removed 1,374 buildings. When the Mississippi flooded two years later, damages in St. Charles were only $283,094.

The Mississippi floods also led to a federal review of the Corps's flood-control mission. In 1997 a joint report by the Office of Management and Budget and the Council on Environmental Quality strongly recommended "consideration of long-term alternatives to structural flood control," including the "protection of important environmental and natural resource values that are inherent to the floodplain and adjacent lands."

Two years later the Clinton administration authorized the Flood Mitigation and Riverine Restoration Program. Known as Challenge 21, it recommended that the Corps cover 65 percent of the costs of removing properties and relocating residents out of flood-prone areas, which would then be turned into parks or nursed back to their natural state. Communities that decided to participate would pay the remaining 35 percent of the costs.

While the Bush administration hasn't decided to fund Challenge 21 yet, some lawmakers are frustrated by FEMA bailouts of homes and businesses built in flood-prone areas, which have risen to $6 billion annually. In July, only weeks after Allison, a congressional committee held hearings on a bill called Two Floods and You're Out of the Taxpayer's Pocket that would limit -- and in some cases ban -- federal flood insurance to those who don't move after filing two or more claims.

It's about time, says Houston environmental attorney Jim Blackburn of the Galveston Bay Conservation and Preservation Association.

"FEMA is not the solution to the problem, FEMA has become part of the problem," Blackburn says. "FEMA provides this unwitting helping hand that's there to pull everyone's chips out of the fire. They just tell everybody to get flood insurance and the government will pay for it. The feds are paying out a lot of money in this part of the world."

Indeed, flooding along Clear Creek cost taxpayers more than $77 million between 1978 and 1995, according to the National Wildlife Federation's study "Higher Ground." Friendswood ranks ninth in the nation for so-called repetitive claims, with $29.3 million in losses during the 18-year study period.

Tropical Storm Allison added another $19.6 million onto that total in July, when FEMA agreed to buy out 502 Friendswood homeowners. The agency recently authorized a $10 million buyout in Pearland -- almost matching the $10.5 million the city had received over the previous 18 years combined, according to "Higher Ground."

"It's real simple," Mona Shoup says. "You don't build where it's going to flood. Floodplains flood, so don't build there."

Herb Barrier always begins the story the same way. "Our lifestyle changed at 2:15 in the afternoon on October 18, 1994," Barrier said one recent morning over a plate of biscuits and gravy at the new Randalls on FM 518 in Pearland. "That's when we learned we had ten and a half inches of water in our house."

A solid 68-year-old with a broad face and silver hair, Barrier is chairman of the flooding and drainage committee for the tiny city of Brookside Village. He is also one of about 150 Pearland and Brookside Village residents who have sued the Texas Department of Transportation, claiming the '94 floods were caused by Beltway 8, which runs parallel to Clear Creek along the border of Harris and Brazoria counties. Barrier was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, until the case was stripped of its class-action status by a judge last year. Still, many families, including Barrier and his wife, Bobbye, plan to continue their legal fight individually and in small groups.

 

After breakfast, Barrier produces a report on the beltway drainage system built by TXDOT. It says six channels were constructed to allow floodwaters to move freely from one side of the road to the other -- a good thing. Yet there was a shortage of detention basins needed to capture and store the excess water before it rushed into Clear Creek. The report, prepared by a county flood-control agency known as Brazoria County Drainage District No. 4, said that "with the beltway increasing the runoff and the velocity due to the concrete of the beltway, the flow is simply entering Clear Creek with bad timing in that particular area."

TXDOT installed the additional detention ponds a few years ago, which Barrier says kept his house dry during Allison. But 80 homes in Brookside Village did flood in June, and for that he blames the "massive development" he sees happening in Pearland.

"I have lived in Brookside Village since 1961," he says. "Until '94, I never flooded. Never even had flood insurance. Never needed it. In 1994, we had 17 houses flood, including mine. In June, we had almost five times as many. You tell me what's going on."

Whatever it is, it's happening in Pearland, too. Flood damages have more than kept pace with the city's growth during the 1990s. Fewer than 100 homes flooded in October 1994, when 28 inches of rain fell on Pearland in two days. Allison, a storm of similar intensity, damaged more than 900 homes and a dozen businesses, says Pearland Fire Marshal Larry Steed.

"It was devastating," Steed says of Allison's aftermath. "Some homes had as much as 30 inches of water in them. We had houses that flooded that never flooded before."

Fear of flooding has become so pervasive in Pearland that it has triggered an angry backlash among residents. At an emotional city council meeting a week after Allison, residents of Pine Hollow, on the city's eastern edge, complained that streets in the subdivision were still under water 12 hours after the storm had passed. Some homeowners asked the council to impose a moratorium on new construction until the city's drainage problems could be worked out.

In late August, after several days of intermittent downpours, Clear Creek spilled its banks again, flooding homes in Pearland's Corrigan South and West Lea subdivisions. At the September 6 council meeting, one man, a resident of the oft-flooded Corrigan South subdivision, said he hasn't been able to live in his house since June 9.

"I remember when it rained for four days and it didn't flood," he said. "Now it rains for two hours and it floods. It happened again the other day. We need something done."

But who is actually responsible for flood control in Pearland is, at times, unclear. Pearland regulates the floodplain within its city limits. Drainage District No. 4 maintains the Brazoria County side of the creek, while the Harris County Flood Control District handles the other bank. And because Clear Creek is considered a U.S. waterway, the Army Corps of Engineers has jurisdiction as well.

Confronted by demands from flood victims, state legislators in 1995 passed a bill to create a regional authority that would coordinate drainage projects for the entire watershed. A study estimated the necessary work would take 50 years and would cost $500 million. Voters rejected the measure by a three-to-one margin.

"People thought it would create a new taxing body, and that's all they had to hear," recalls John Hargrove, engineer for the City of Pearland.

There were also concerns that Harris County, which would have two appointees to the four-member regional board, would exercise too much control over Clear Creek. A group called the Pearland Round Table said in a pre- election newsletter, "Harris County has never demonstrated its interest in Brazoria County's flooding and drainage problems. They have never contributed to efforts to reclaim and improve Clear Creek…"

Such animosity was, no doubt, in reference to a dispute between the flood-control district and Brazoria Drainage District No. 4 that almost went to the courthouse. In the spring of 1995, the Brazoria district had started a mechanized dredging operation to improve the flow of Clear Creek north of Brookside Village. According to public records, Brazoria County claims it had secured all the proper endorsements for the work from Harris County and the Corps.

 

But a year into the job, Harris County officials demanded the dredging operation be halted. They claimed the county drainage district didn't have the necessary permit from the Corps, nor did it get permission to work on the Harris County side of the creek. The flood-control district said the "unauthorized" operation could lead to downstream flooding. When Harris County threatened to get a legal injunction, the clearing was stopped, and -- officially, anyway -- it has never resumed.

Roger Davis, a Brazoria County drainage commissioner, says many residents on his side of Clear Creek consider the Harris County Flood Control District "the 900-pound gorilla" that nonetheless is never around when you need it.

"They have a great many flooding needs up there, especially up in the northern part of Harris County," Davis says. "There aren't a lot of people down here, so most of the time they don't pay as much attention. But, you know, we consider half that creek ours."

Davis and his colleagues haven't always been welcome on the Brazoria County side of Clear Creek either. Twice in the mid-1990s, the drainage district was sued for attempting to regulate development in the watershed. In February 1997 a district court judge ruled in both cases that the district had no authority to require developers to install on-site detention ponds.

A few months later, state Senator J.E. "Buster" Brown filed a bill that would have given the district the right to accept or reject drainage plans for new construction. However, opposition came from some surprising places. Newly elected drainage commissioner Ben Lenamon claimed, in a letter to legislators, that the district already had too much power. Lenamon argued that "restrictive measures must be placed upon districts that attempt to impose unfair and needless restrictions on citizens' rights to build their homes and develop their property."

The City of Pearland also opposed Brown's bill, which never made it out of committee. The city's attorney argued that FEMA and 30,000 Pearland residents looked to the city to enforce drainage regulations. Giving the county any authority could jeopardize federal flood-insurance coverage for homeowners.

The drainage district finally got what it wanted, but not before it threatened to sue the developers of Shadow Creek Ranch, a 3,350-acre master-planned community just west of State Highway 288. In 1999 Pearland City Council approved $200 million in future property-tax breaks for the Shadow Creek developers; the drainage district's share of those taxes would have been $23 million.

Commissioners balked, however, when neither the developer nor the city would agree to allow the district to review Shadow Creek's drainage plans. After months of haggling, drainage commissioners voted to withhold their share of future tax revenues from the development. "It doesn't make sense to give up our tax dollars without being able to monitor what goes on out there," district commissioner Jeff Brennan said at the time. "Property owners downstream must be protected."

The district was prepared to take the matter to court, Davis says, but recent legislation gave commissioners the authority to review all future drainage plans. "And they didn't get our $23 million, either," Davis says with a laugh, adding that the county drainage district and the city have since agreed to work more closely.

"We're on the same page now," he says. "First time it's ever happened."

On a recent morning, Herb Barrier peers into a 30-foot-wide drainage ditch off FM 2234. A hundred yards to his right is Clear Creek. To his left, just across the road, heavy-equipment operators are digging an enormous lake for the future Shadow Creek Ranch.

"When that lake comes up," Barrier says, pointing left, then right, "it will drain right into Clear Creek."

Barrier can't help but refer to the new development as "Shady Creek Ranch." Indeed, the enormous site and the inevitable storm-water runoff it will generate looms just upstream from Brookside Village. More than 1,000 acres of Shadow Creek Ranch are in the Clear Creek floodplain; another 240 acres are even closer to the creek bank, in the floodway.

Last year Barrier noticed what looked like illegal ditch digging at the site. Suspecting the developer was tapping in to county ditches to drain the land into Clear Creek, he took photographs of the work and showed them to George Carter, the mayor of Brookside Village. Carter sent a letter to the City of Pearland, asking for assurances that the digging "will not cause our citizens any undue harm." Pearland looked into the matter but reported the developers were simply clearing agricultural ditches dug by the former owner, a rice farmer.

 

But Carter remains uneasy. "All that runoff from Shadow Creek Ranch has to go downstream," he says. "It's a straight shot to Brookside Village of a lot of acre-feet of water."

Brookside Village residents don't need to worry, says John Hargrove, Pearland's city engineer. In the last decade, he says, Pearland has required developers to meet "rigorous" drainage regulations.

"It's a well-known fact that development increases runoff," Hargrove says. "The question is, Is it managed properly?"

Building in the floodplain begins with two assumptions: There is an identifiable topographic area that stores water during a 100-year storm, which is measured at about 12.8 inches in 24 hours; and this floodplain has been measured and mapped to some degree of certainty by FEMA.

Engineers begin to "reclaim" the floodplain by calculating how much storm-water runoff is likely be generated by a 100-year storm after the developer fills it with dirt and covers it with building slabs, parking lots, driveways and streets. They then figure out how to capture the runoff and store it on-site, releasing it in stages so there is no rise in the base levels of the receiving stream, which, in the case of Shadow Creek Ranch, is Clear Creek.

Shadow Creek's developers propose to shrink the 100-year flood by reducing the amount of runoff to the creek. This involves an upstream diversion through a drainage system that includes 22 lakes and two dry detention ponds. The flow reduction scheme requires FEMA approval because the developers plan to reclaim 80 of the 240 acres in the floodway, where the depth and velocity of floodwaters are greatest.

But do these flood-control measures work as advertised? Some experts have their doubts. For one thing, developers often build poorly designed detention systems that don't hold enough water, or that discharge into the receiving stream at the wrong time, resulting in increased flood levels downstream. For another, drainage plans typically are designed to protect new construction, but do nothing to reduce the incidence of flooding on existing structures in or near the floodplain.

In fact, most of the worst of the flooding around Clear Creek occurs in older neighborhoods built before modern drainage standards were enacted less than 25 years ago. Back then, there were only "flood-prone maps," which Pearland engineer Hargrove describes as "gray blobs" on a sheet of paper. Not until the mid-1970s did engineers use "steady flow assumptions" to measure the floodplain.

"It helps, when you look at examples of bad performance, to look at when it was built and the tools they had at the time," Hargrove says. "You'll find there were no maps, no FEMA, no flood insurance. People just built them."

The reliability of modern floodplain maps is questionable, however, considering that 100 years apparently isn't what it used to be. A 100-year flood has a 1 percent probability of occurring in any year. Yet there have been at least a half-dozen such storms in the last two decades. One explanation is that these aren't 100-year floods, but 50-year or even ten-year floods; the difference is only a matter of a few feet on a map.

FEMA maps are periodically "adjusted" to account for current conditions in the floodplain. But by the time the maps are officially released, they are invariably out of date, usually because local floodplain administrators, like the City of Pearland, spend years disputing their accuracy. Indeed, one in four property owners who have filed repeat claims with the National Flood Insurance Program live outside the official 100-year floodplain, according to the "Higher Ground" study.

"It's always been a bit of a game the local governments play to keep these maps as small as possible," says attorney Blackburn. "I think the floodplains are larger than what's being shown."

Most of Brookside Village wasn't in the floodplain when it was built in the early 1960s. Over the years, the banks of Clear Creek haven't moved any closer to the tiny city, but its waters have. Though no Brookside Village homes were flooded during the recent rains, it seemed clear to Mayor George Carter that another disaster was imminent, especially now that construction of Shadow Creek Ranch had begun.

At the September 6 meeting, Carter and his three-member council agreed to file suit to stop further development in Pearland unless more storm-water detention basins are built. Both the City of Pearland and Brazoria Drainage District No. 4 have developed regional detention plans, but only a fraction of the proposed capacity has been built.

The drainage district, for example, has built just one of a planned 15 basins. Commissioners have been unwilling to raise taxes to carry out the entire $28 million plan. In fact, the drainage district actually lowered its tax rate last month. Pearland's regional detention ordinance was touted by city officials as the first of its kind in Texas. But since it was passed in 1997, Pearland has constructed only 360 of the 2,100 acre-feet that are needed. Again, the issue is money: Detention ponds are expensive to build -- about $7,500 an acre, and land prices in Pearland are rising rapidly.

 

In Carter's view, Pearland has handled its storm-water detention needs, not by building the required basins but by allowing developers to dump their runoff into Clear Creek. During heavy rains, that additional storm water ends up in Brookside Village and other neighborhoods in the watershed.

"We've talked back and forth with them for years about this, but they've turned a deaf ear to us," Carter says. "What's happened is that somebody down there in their infinite wisdom has decided that people in these older homes and subdivisions will be sacrificed."

Indeed, while its regional detention plan lacks adequate funding, Pearland is lavishing incentives on developers. In addition to the $200 million in future property taxes earmarked for Shadow Creek Ranch, the city is planning a $115 million bond referendum in November to build several new roads -- some of which will open up land in the Clear Creek floodplain for development.

The city hopes to break ground this year on an extension of Pearland Parkway that will run parallel to the banks of Clear Creek and cross the stream near Beltway 8. City officials say the parkway extension is necessary to reduce cut-through traffic in area subdivisions. But the new road also will pass through the heart of a future master-planned community, the 525-acre Fairways at Highland Glen. The project was announced by the builders last September -- two months before Pearland City Council approved funding for the parkway extension.

Pearland needs approval from the Army Corps of Engineers before it can proceed with the parkway extension; the new right-of-way would encroach on about six acres of wetlands. The Friends of Clear Creek, the Sierra Club, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Galveston Bay Conservation and Preservation Association have registered their opposition and are urging the Corps to hold a public hearing. State Representative John Davis also has written the Corps, suggesting that "in light of Tropical Storm Allison," there should be additional public comment.

"It's a development road, not a mobility road," Blackburn says. "When you are building [a road] for development purposes, you've got to look at what you're providing access to. And they are providing access to lands, at least some of which are flood-prone."

And that puzzles David Conrad, water resources specialist for the National Wildlife Federation. Conrad says Pearland's decision to participate in the post-Allison buyout -- the city has to cover $2.5 million of the $10 million cost -- isn't consistent with the decision to invite development in the floodplain by building a road through it.

"The whole reason Congress developed the buyout program was to help communities remove buildings out of harm's way, and then maintain wise floodplain management in the future," Conrad says. "This would appear to be taking several important steps forward and then racing backward at the same time."

The second-floor hall of the Heights Fire Station, at 12th and Yale streets, was hot and crowded. More than 200 people had shown up, most of whom were fanning themselves with handouts they had picked up at the door. The most effective was a heavy-stock newsletter put out by the Harris County Flood Control District, with the headline "White Oak Bayou: An Evolving Urban Watershed."

White Oak Bayou is more than twice as long as Clear Creek. In places, White Oak has been channelized and lined with concrete, while for now, the creek remains untouched. White Oak has 8,600 homes in its 100-year floodplain; Clear Creek, a fraction of that. Perhaps the only thing that links the two waterways is the misery of the people whose homes have been flooded by them.

One night last month, the old firehouse was filled with two kinds of White Oak-area homeowners: those still dealing with the effects of Allison, and those who fear the next storm will flood their homes. Drainage officials from the flood-control district and the City of Houston were there as well.

After a half-hour of socializing, Fred Lazar, a thin, somber-looking man and the current president of the White Oak Bayou Association, opened the meeting. "For some of us, Allison was the third storm that put water in our houses," he said at one point. "A resolution to our problems will come only when the public policy issues are addressed."

 

No doubt similar kinds of meetings have been held around the city the last four months. Allison damaged almost 50,000 homes; 3,602 of them were destroyed. At last count, the damages were tallied at $1.76 billion. The flood-control district's Steve Fitzgerald told the White Oak Bayou gathering that the storm seemed to stun the city.

"People were not prepared for this severe of a disaster," Fitzgerald said. "People were in denial." But, he added, "this storm will help us get ready for the next one."

Few others in the room shared Fitzgerald's optimism. After all, $84 million has been spent channelizing White Oak, building detention ponds and digging bypass channels. And yet White Oak still left its banks. And it isn't just the urban areas downstream that flood now. After Tropical Storm Frances in 1998, homeowners miles upstream in the Jersey Village area sued Harris County for not providing adequate storm-water detention. The district had collected impact fees from developers to pay for the detention, but didn't build enough capacity.

Many who attended the White Oak meeting were from Timbergrove Manor, where hundreds of homes were damaged by Allison. They complained that land near the I-10 overpass at T.C. Jester that had once been considered for storm-water detention was being developed into an apartment complex. Fitzgerald said the flood-control district determined the area was too small for detention.

"Well," one man replied, "didn't you take into consideration that if it wasn't going to be detention, it was going to be developed?"

Another resident pointed out that when he bought his house two years ago, Timbergrove Manor wasn't in the floodplain. But when new FEMA maps came out in April 2000, his house was three feet below the base flood elevation. Now he has to decide whether to spend tens of thousands of dollars rebuilding his home four feet above the ground, or agree to a FEMA buyout.

"Why should I raise it one foot above the floodplain if in 18 months from now my house is going to be below it again?" he asked.

One question triggered wild and spontaneous applause from the crowd: "What about the constant building up and down the bayou?" asked a man in his mid-thirties dressed in a red T-shirt. "Why do these permits keep getting issued?"

Dwayne Culp, the City of Houston's chief of drainage, replied that floodplain management is essentially a federal issue. The city enforces a drainage ordinance that meets FEMA standards that allow residents to qualify for the National Flood Insurance Program.

"Development is allowable as long as it's in compliance with the ordinance," Culp said, adding that short of changing the rules, "there's nothing anyone can do about it."

Steve Fitzgerald tried to end the meeting on an upbeat note by emphasizing the importance of a pending Army Corps of Engineers project for White Oak Bayou. The plan includes funding for floodplain buyouts and storm-water detention, but it also envisions five levees and the channelization of eight sections of the bayou. The Corps project would prevent an estimated average of $54 million a year in flood damage along White Oak, Fitzgerald said.

Jim Pulliam, a former president of the Bayou Preservation Association, wasn't impressed. Pulliam recounted how he had once come across a master plan for the city, dated 1912, that recommended a 500-foot buffer around the city's bayous. Pulliam's conclusion: Under the circumstances, maybe all homeowners should have flood insurance. "Even if you live three or four miles from a bayou, which includes just about everybody in Houston," Pulliam said, "get flood insurance."

This may be the most pragmatic advice for Clear Creek-area residents, too. What shape the Corps project will take is anyone's guess. The agency is expected to finish gathering data for its review by the end of the month, says Don Allen, the Corps's project team manager in Galveston. Brazoria and Harris counties have asked the Corps to expedite its decision, but Allen says it won't come before April 2003.

The Corps eventually will take one of three steps: It could follow through on the plan to widen and deepen Clear Creek; it could decide on a mixed bag of solutions, including localized channelization, new bypass channels and even buyouts of some flood-prone property; or it could decide neither option provides enough flood protection to justify federal funding. Most people believe the final plan won't involve the same amount of channelization as originally proposed. But some Clear Creek drainage officials believe at least some of the stream will have to be widened and deepened, and the more the better. Pearland's John Hargrove says it would have saved a lot of homes by now, especially during Allison.

 

"If the Corps's plan had been done, we wouldn't have had near the flooding problems we did," Hargrove says. "I have no doubt about that."

However, a lot of people are determined to see the creek remain in its natural state, none more so than Mona Shoup. Somehow the two sides must reach a compromise, she says, or risk losing the federal funding altogether. She and others will be making a strong case that FEMA should purchase and remove the flood-prone homes in the watershed. They'll also be pushing local officials to re-examine rules and regulations that allow houses to be built in the floodplain. Otherwise, the future isn't pretty.

"It catches up with you," she says, "like it did in Houston with this last flood."

Like it has for Barbara and Carl Hopper. Flood insurance and local drainage policies weren't enough to prevent the decimation of their neighborhood. Nor could they cover the emotional cost of having their lives flushed out from under them.

Barbara knows the whole history of Imperial Estates, how it was first settled by Quaker farmers. How they passed the land down through the generations until the early 1960s, when people from around the country started coming down to work for NASA; astronaut Deke Slayton used to live in Imperial Estates.

It was quiet and lovely, a nice place to take an evening walk. The houses were set back off the roads, and large trees gave the area a rural feel. The residents were a mix of retirees and young families, with dogs and kids who played in the street.

Starting over someplace else "will be fine," Barbara says, but at their ages -- Carl is 80; Barbara, 70 -- it's not something they had planned to do.

"We won't have any trees where we're going, and it doesn't have a patio," Barbara says. "This was just a nice place to live. An idyllic place to live, and now it's going to be a no-man's-land."


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