There's no need to visit Glassdoor.com to realize that one of the worst places to work this past year was at the Harris County Flood Control District. While Hurricane Harvey was whomping Houston and southeast Texas with trillions of gallons of water, the engineers, meteorologists, scientists, surveyors and other technical specialists over at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District must have been sweating bullets.
Command central probably looked like a scene out of the film Apollo 13, with seasoned brainiacs working round the clock running hydraulic models, making flooding predictions and anxiously watching the levels rise in our bayous, waterways and the Addicks and Barker dams and reservoirs.
Hurricane Harvey was one of the worst weather events in our nation's history but, unless conspiracy theorists are correct and the government actually does control the weather, finger-pointing must be relegated to decades of near-sighted planning, unbridled construction and mother nature's wrath.
But for those downstream of the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs, the nightmare was only beginning, only this time the enemy had a face. On August 27 the Corps and the Harris County Flood Control District — with both reservoirs rising more than half a foot per hour — made the difficult decision to initiate controlled releases of the reservoirs. Some residents south of I-10, west of Gessner Road, north of Briar Forest Drive and east of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs went from having minimal flooding, or none at all, to being inundated with more than four feet of water for the next ten days.
William Styron touched a nerve in his book, Sophie's Choice, and Meryl Streep made us truly understand the heartbreak that comes with having to choose between three very horrible outcomes. But when the district decided to send the water downstream, with a guarantee that the release would cause flooding, did they make the wrong choice?
"Some streets and homes downstream of the reservoirs flood when the combined release rate from the reservoirs exceeds approximately 4,000 cubic feet per second." — Harris County Flood Control District website, hcfcd.org.
Water was being released from Addicks at approximately 7,000 cubic feet per second and from Barker at approximately 6,300 cubic feet per second.
It's only with 20/20 hindsight that we can ever truly know what should have been the right decision, but six months after Hurricane Harvey, it seems that the decision to flood multi-family dwellings especially has come at a tremendous price.
Once the controlled releases were initiated, the waters rose so fast that residents had to evacuate by boat. Cathy Harling Montgomery, a 71-year-old resident of The Pines on Memorial Drive near Beltway 8, drowned in her first-floor condominium unit; another Memorial-area resident, Robert Arthur Haines, also drowned.
Owners of units in The Pines, as well as nearby Memorial Drive Townhomes and Somerset Place, took another hit after the waters finally receded. After being submerged under four feet of sewage-tainted water for ten days, the mold was growing rapidly and wicking up the walls, endangering second story units if not gutted quickly.
Mountains of ruined drywall, carpet, cabinets and furniture soon loomed tall, turning these Memorial-area condominiums into something resembling a war-torn country. Considered private property by the City of Houston and therefore ineligible for debris removal, The Pines homeowners collectively faced more than $500,000 in debris removal charges, on top of individually paying out-of-state contractors as much as $5,000 to gut a two-bedroom unit.
While Somerset Place and Memorial Drive show evidence of rebuilding, The Pines is stalled in that its bylaws require 100 percent approval when deciding to tear down, repair or sell to a developer. Reaching a consensus among the owners of the 254-unit complex — where second story units are somewhat habitable and first floor units have been gutted to the studs — has proven impossible so far. With more than half the residents of The Pines unable to return home yet still on the hook for property taxes and HOA fees, the tensions are riding high.
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J.J. Watt and his Houston Flood Relief Fundraiser still offered a glimmer of hope, having raised more than $37 million dollars in donations. He and his foundation chose well, allocating a portion of the first $30 million through four non-profits: SBP (to rebuild homes), Save the Children (child care and after school programs), Feeding America (distribution of food to the needy) and Americares (for health needs).
Unfortunately, Houston's problems are monumentally expensive and even a modern-day hero like Watt can't fix us all. As it turns out, the efforts of SBP's Owner-Occupied Rebuilding Program are being concentrated in northeast Houston.
"Unfortunately, SBP is unable to approve all of the applications it receives. Because of the widespread need, SBP has had to make difficult geographical choices. In an effort to maximize our impact, SBP will initially focus rebuilding efforts on neighborhoods in Northeast Houston where we have received the most interest and where the fewest services are being provided." — SBP Team
The Harris County Flood Control District is still facing countless individual and class-action lawsuits under the principles of inverse condemnation, initiated by businesses, residences and properties devastated by the release from Barker, Addicks and also the Lake Conroe dam. Only time will tell if these suits will hold up in court and what the ultimate tally will be for this decision.