It was like something out of a nightmare for people living along Buffalo Bayou downstream of Addicks and Barker reservoirs. The floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey seemed to be leaving most of the homes in the areas below the dams unscathed — until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started releasing water from the reservoirs on August 28.
Patsy Waldrop and her husband Kirby weathered the first part of the storm in their house just west of Kirkwood and Memorial. They'd picked up Kirby's 91-year-old mother from an assisted living facility in Columbus and brought her home with them the Friday before Harvey rolled in, deciding that the house they'd lived in for 23 years without flooding was the safest place to be for the storm.
On the night of Sunday, August 28, after the reservoirs had been releasing water for more than 12 hours, the Waldrops were all downstairs when somebody looked outside and noticed the water was rising. “We kept saying it would be OK, and then it was coming up through the slab and the redwood siding,” Patsy says now.
By Tuesday morning there was a foot and a half of water in the house and the family had decided to get an air mattress so that Kirby's mom could float out of the house, instead of having to find her footing through the muck of the flood.
Just as they were getting ready to try it, a boat pulled up outside and a man hollered asking if anybody needed help. Kirby stuck his head out the front door and said yes, and within minutes three large men were carrying Patsy's mother-in-law out to the boat so deftly she never got wet.
Patsy grabbed a plastic bag filled with her mother's clothes, and she and her husband each carried a small duffle bag with pajamas, an extra pair of shorts and some toiletries. They left the windows open and the radio was still blaring when they finally came back to pick up some more things over the weekend, sloshing through the water that is expected to remain in the house until the dams are done draining.
The controlled releases, which topped out with the dams gushing a combined 13,000 cubic feet per second, sent water surging into homes along Buffalo Bayou in neighborhoods, outlined by I-10 to the north, Gessner to the east, Briar Forest to the south and the reservoir to the west. Mayor Sylvester Turner ordered a mandatory evacuation for all homes that had flooded once it became clear the water would not recede anytime soon.
Now, Bryant Banes, a civil attorney whose home in Heathwood was one of those swamped with water after the worst of the storm was already over, has filed a lawsuit against the federal government. Banes maintains the Corps effectively condemned more than 3,000 structures when they opted to start releasing water to take the pressure off Addicks and Barker.
Meanwhile, the Corps has announced that they are slowing down the rate of release from both reservoirs, which should help protect bridges crossing Buffalo Bayou and the banks of the bayou itself, although it won't change the rate at which the water recedes from houses below Addicks and Barker. The engineers expect water will continue draining from the reservoirs and keep these homes flooded until September 15, according to a release from the Corps. (The bayou banks are prone to shifting and Harris County Flood Control has long maintained there are stability issues on certain bends in the bayou, as we've reported before.)
This comes as people are looking back at the years of warnings that this kind of event could happen, about developing rice fields and wetlands that used to sop up storm water, about how Addicks and Barker were aging, about how another plan was needed to be put in place before a major storm like Harvey hit.
And it's true, the mess with Addicks and Barker really should not be such a surprise.
After all, in 1996 a report from engineers with the Harris County Flood Control District found that Harris County's reservoir system was not cutting it, a problem that put thousands of home in jeopardy. At that time the proposed solution was a $400 million underground system that would pipe water from the reservoirs to the Houston Ship Channel. However, the advice was never heeded and the report was forgotten.
"My embarrassment is that I knew enough that this was going to happen," Arthur Story, the then-head of Flood Control, told the Dallas Morning News. "And I was not smart enough, bold enough to fight the system, the politics, and stop it."
The story played out the same way in 2009 when the Corps of Engineers issued its own report finding that the dams were at "extremely high risk of catastrophic failure." The Corps has spent the years since that report coming up with smaller (and cheaper) ways to keep the dams up and running, as we've previously noted.
Now, as water is drawn out of the reservoirs, Corps engineers expect the water will recede from the homes that flooded upstream of the reservoirs. They also say the water will drain from the homes below the reservoirs, but only at a "gradual" rate and one directly tied to the rate at which releases are reduced.
“After careful deliberation, we developed a plan to draw down water in a manner that minimizes risk for maximum amount of people,” said the Galveston District commander, Col. Lars Zetterstrom.
They're also opting for this draw-down because of concern over the water control structures used to provide flood risk management for the Houston area, considering how the floodwaters have already broken gauges along Buffalo Bayou.
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But the Corps is only cutting back on the flow from Addicks and Barker so long as the area doesn't see more rain. If it starts raining before the reservoirs are fully drained, the Corps has already noted that engineers will most likely have to increase the release rates from the reservoirs.
Still, despite the damage, Patsy Waldrop says her family has flood insurance and they don't intend to sue the Corps for the flooding.
“ We understand these things do happen,” she says. “It was an unforeseen event and they handled it as best they could. Nobody saw this coming, no matter what people say.”