Public Works Finally Has Some Plans to Block Flooded Roads

I-10 flooded after Hurricane Ike.
I-10 flooded after Hurricane Ike.

The morning after the Memorial Day rains, city officials announced that some 2,500 cars had been abandoned on Houston area roads. The floods had claimed five lives. Some were found stranded in their cars.

"We had localized street flooding, sheet flooding in certain areas," said Mayor Annise Parker at a press conference the following day, "and the underpasses—the places in Houston that often flood in a very severe rain—flooded."

Four months later, those dangerous underpasses are about to get an upgrade that, possibly, could have mitigated some of the catastrophes and hardship that many drivers endured. 

Since July 2011, the Storm and Drainage Division of Public Works has been working on developing automatic sensors at 27 flood-prone underpasses throughout Houston that detect flood levels. When the flooding starts to get bad, flashing warning lights will alert drivers, and, when it gets really bad, a gate will come down like at a railroad crossing, preventing drivers from entering the high-water zone.

Finally, the first of the 27 systems is ready for testing at Houston Avenue and Memorial Drive. The gate will only be installed on the other 26 if it's effective and practical at this location, said Daniel Menendez, deputy director of the Engineering and Construction Division of Public Works. They're expecting to finish construction on all of them by the end of fiscal year 2016, but Menendez said they do not have a  more exact estimate in mind.

As for why it took so long to finally see the results of that 2011 vision, Menendez noted that they "try to do things prudently here and not just have a knee jerk reaction," and that designing the electronic sensors and a way for those sensors to automatically notify Public Works took a lot of time. After City Council approved the project for fiscal year 2012 as part of Public Works' Capital Improvements Plan, Menendez said, they spent much of that year selecting engineers and designing. It was about a year and a half before they began issuing construction orders—something they have done intermittently and gradually instead of all at once. "We've infused this new program while not stopping the rest of the other projects from moving forward," Menendez said. "We felt like we didn't need to make it an emergent project because we had other means to maintain safety."

Currently, those other means are entirely manual. Crews head out, usually after it's too late, to put up the barricades by hand, said Eric Dargan, deputy director of Public Works' Storm and Drainage Division. “If everything goes according to plan,” he said, “we in Public Works would not have to wait until we're notified that the danger is already there. We would be able to proactively monitor our underpasses throughout the city of Houston, and we would know ahead of time.”

Under the current system, the way Public Works is notified about flooding is through a 311 call from a concerned citizen. Under the new system, Public Works will be able to activate the warning lights (and eventually, maybe, the gates) after those automatic sensors notify them. Dargan said he's hopeful this is going to improve public safety significantly. “It takes a dedicated citizen to pick up the phone and make the call,” he said of the manual process. “Normally they don't make that call until somebody's car has already gotten flooded.” 

Menendez said that for now, a little more than half of the 27 locations have both the flood gauges and the sensors installed. For the last year of the project, Menendez noted that they are pushing the work orders out "a little bit more expeditiously." "We're building them in such a manner that retrofitting them with arms is not a difficult task," he said.

Below is a list of all 27 locations—many of which are the sites of pump stations—where you won't have to worry about wading into a pool. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7506 E. Hardy (East Hardy Pump Station)
7506 E HARDY RD, HOUSTON, TX, 77093

5405 Mesa Dr (Mesa Road at Liberty Road)
5405 MESA DR, HOUSTON, TX, 77028

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

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

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

Houston Ave. @ Center (Houston Ave. Underpass)
(No Pump Station )
HOUSTON AVE & CENTER ST, HOUSTON, TX, 77007

1500 N. Main @ Brooks
(No Pump Station)
600 BROOKS ST, HOUSTON, TX, 77009

Clinton @ N. Wayside
(No Pump Station )
7220 CLINTON DR, HOUSTON, TX, 77020

Yale @ Center (Yale Street Underpass)
(No Pump Station)
YALE & CENTER ST, 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 ST, HOUSTON, TX, 77012

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

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

Forest Hill Underpass
(No Pump Station)
247 FOREST HILL BLVD, 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 ST, HOUSTON, TX, 77002

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

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

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


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