Public Works Didn't Install Barriers for Flooded Underpasses Because It Assumed Drivers Would Ignore Them

Here's what the warning sign and flashing lights look like.EXPAND
Here's what the warning sign and flashing lights look like.
Meagan Flynn

Over the past year, Houston could have installed 27 mechanical-arm barriers at some of the most flood-prone underpasses in the city. Since the city never installed those gates, designed to swing down in high water, we have no idea what difference they could have made during the major storm that caused Houston's historic flooding this week. That's because last fall, within a matter of weeks, two reckless drivers ruined it for everybody, crashing into the very first gate's control box. The gate never even had a single test trial during heavy rain. 

So the Department of Public Works and Engineering decided it wasn't even worth fixing the gate a third time, nor was it worth installing the 26 others. Instead, Public Works has opted to install signs that say "DANGER HIGH WATER GO BACK" with flashing lights, which are triggered by automatic sensors in the ground once water rises six inches above the gutter. 

It's a curious decision, considering how dangerous flooded underpasses can be. Eight people and potentially more died underwater in their cars this week. Those people did not drown at underpasses where Public Works had planned to install these gates; most people died near highway underpasses, and three died at one on 610 near the Galleria, prompting Harris County Judge Ed Emmett to pledge to develop a barrier system with state and county transportation officials.

But as for the city's own abandoned automatic barrier system, what we don't really know is if anyone would have been prevented from driving through high water had those gates been in place — or, for that matter, whether anyone ruined or even lost cars on those roads before Public Works manually blocked off the underpasses. 

In explaining why the department decided not to go forward with the mechanical arms, Public Works spokeswoman Julie Gilbert compared them to the arms at railroad crossings — which exist on most major thoroughfares that see regular train traffic. 

"The point is that the arms, we know, just like the railroad crossing arms, people go through them," Gilbert told the Houston Press on Wednesday. "People go around barricades. People run red lights. [The arms] are not designed to be barricades. They're designed to be deterrents. But based on driver behavior, it's just not going to work with that type of arm."

Good thing the flashing warning lights at the Yale and Center Street location are blocked by a tree.EXPAND
Good thing the flashing warning lights at the Yale and Center Street location are blocked by a tree.
Meagan Flynn

Gilbert said Public Works decided that driver education — the "turn around don't drown" campaign — in combination with the flashing-light warning signs and the barriers that the city uses to manually block off flooded roads was a better strategy than automatic gates that block traffic. Generally, how it works now is that Public Works will go out and place barricades after a Good Samaritan calls 311 and warns of high water at a specific location. At the underpasses where the city installed the flashing warning lights, the underground sensors also alert Public Works about the flooding so workers rush out to set up barricades. (Eight of these 26 flood-warning systems are still under construction; see a full list at the bottom),

But Gilbert said that sometimes it doesn't matter — people still go around them. 

And so thanks to those people, the kind of system that warns you when a train's coming — that warns you when an intersection's too dangerous to cross — won't exist on Houston's most flooded streets.

Below is a list of all 27 locations, many of which are at the sites of pump stations:

Elgin @ R.R.,N. Calhourn (4401 1/2 Gulf Freeway Pump Station)
4401 ELGIN STREET, HOUSTON, TX, 77004

Allen Parkway at Montrose Blvd
1989 ALLEN PARKWAY, HOUSTON, TX, 77019

Allen Parkway at Waugh
3087 ALLEN PARKWAY, HOUSTON, TX, 77019

Main @ Holcombe (Main Street Pump Station)
MAIN & HOLCOMBE BOULEVARD, HOUSTON, TX, 77030

Fannin @ Holcombe (Fannin Pump Station)
FANNIN & HOLCOMBE BOULEVARD, HOUSTON, TX, 77030

6514 Jensen (Jensen #2 Pump Station)
6514 JENSEN DRIVE, HOUSTON, TX, 77026

1700 Jensen (Jensen No. 1 Pump Station)
1700 JENSEN DRIVE, HOUSTON, TX, 77026

3500 Kelley Pump Station
3500 KELLEY, HOUSTON, TX, 77026

5800 Elysian @ Kelley (Kelly Underpass Pump Station)
5800 ELYSIAN STREET, HOUSTON, TX, 77009

7506 East Hardy (East Hardy Pump Station)
7506 EAST HARDY ROAD, HOUSTON, TX, 77093

5405 Mesa Drive (Mesa Road at Liberty Road)
5405 MESA DRIVE, HOUSTON, TX, 77028

10704 West Little York (10702 W. Little York Rd)
(ONLY Pump Station for Detention Basin)
10704 WEST LITTLE YORK ROAD, TX, 77041

Houston Avenue @ Memorial Underpass
(No Pump Station - Site Verified)
774 Houston Ave, HOUSTON, TX, 77002

Shepherd @ Memorial
(No Pump Station)
4450 MEMORIAL DRIVE, HOUSTON, TX, 77007

Houston Avenue @ Center (Houston Ave. Underpass)
(No Pump Station )
HOUSTON AVENUE & CENTER STREET, HOUSTON, TX, 77007

1500 North Main @ Brooks
(No Pump Station)
600 BROOKS STREET, HOUSTON, TX, 77009

Clinton @ North Wayside
(No Pump Station )
7220 CLINTON DRIVE, HOUSTON, TX, 77020

Yale @ Center (Yale Street Underpass)
(No Pump Station)
YALE & CENTER STREET, HOUSTON, TX, 77007

Lawndale @ R.R.- East of Sims (Lawndale Underpass)
(No Pump Station - Site Verified)
9600 LAWNDALE, HOUSTON, TX, 77012

Broad @ Erath
(No Pump Station)
615 BROADWAY STREET, HOUSTON, TX, 77012

Harrisburg @ R.R.
(No Pump Station)
8040 HARRISBURG BOULEVARD, HOUSTON, TX, 77012

75th @ R.R., North of Rusk (75th Street Underpass)
(No Pump Station - Site Verified)
306 S 75TH STREET, HOUSTON, TX, 77011

Forest Hill Underpass
(No Pump Station)
247 FOREST HILL BOULEVARD, HOUSTON, TX, 77011

Wayside under Lawndale
(No Pump Station)
6598 LAWNDALE, HOUSTON, TX, 77023

Polk @ R.R., E. Milby (Polk Avenue Underpass)
(No Pump Station)
3799 POLK, HOUSTON, TX, 77003

Franklin Under Commerce
(No Pump Station)
2050 FRANKLIN STREET, HOUSTON, TX, 77002

OST @ Spur 5 (OST @ RR Underpass)
(No Pump Station - Site Verified)
5455 OLD SPANISH TRAIL, HOUSTON, TX, 77023

Old Galveston @ R.R. (Old Galveston Pump Station)
4953 GALVESTON ROAD, HOUSTON, TX, 77017

10200 Old Katy (Conrad Sauer)
(ONLY Pump Station for Detention Basin)
10150 OLD KATY ROAD, HOUSTON, TX, 77043


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