In some locations across Houston, "turn around don't drown" taglines and warnings are sometimes not enough.
Last year, during the April Tax Day floods, a woman drove around a tow truck blocking the Post Oak ramp to Westpark Tollway, only to be consumed by 17 feet of floodwater beneath the underpass. Right nearby, two others drowned on the I-610 frontage road near the U.S. 59 interchange. In total, eight people died in that storm, with some bodies not surfacing until days later.
The death toll sent authorities searching for better ways to block drivers from entering high-risk, flood-prone roadways, most commonly beneath underpasses where rainwater builds up and drainage may be slow. County Judge Ed Emmett, with the Harris County Toll Road Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation, ordered a comprehensive review of the most dangerous locations in the county and where additional barricades or warning systems may be necessary. Now, as Tropical Storm Cindy looms, Harris County and Houston emergency management officials are preparing dozens of barricades or gates in the case of flash floods.
Manual flood gates can be lowered to block off the I-610 and Richmond underpasses in both directions and the Westpark Tollway frontage roads right near the U.S. 59 and I-610 interchange — arguably among the most life-threatening flood zones in the city. Raquelle Lewis, spokesperson for TxDOT, said that staff and law enforcement officers will man these gates to make sure nobody tries to sneak through.
Barricades are ready to block locations such as Memorial Drive at Waugh, which turned into a pond during the Tax Day floods; Greens Road beneath I-45 and the Hardy Toll Road, the area near Greenspoint that was inundated with murky water on Tax Day 2016; and Studewood at I-10, where a man nearly drowned while a KTRK reporter helped him out of his sinking vehicle to land. That's among 37 other locations in the Houston area and more than a dozen on Harris County Toll Road Authority-controlled roadways (see all the locations in the PDFs at the bottom).
None of the barricades include automatic gates — that, unfortunately, was a pilot program that failed at a Houston Avenue location after two reckless drivers in two weeks crashed into the control box, the Houston Department of Public Works told us last year. After that, the decision was made: Apparently Houstonians can't handle electric gates on their roads, and therefore no other locations would try it out.
Instead, Public Works has set up flood warning systems at 22 locations across Houston, with several more under construction. These warning systems include flashing lights and signage that says "HIGH WATER" and instructs drivers to turn around when the lights are flashing. To double the precautions, many of these locations may include additional road barriers should flooding get dangerous.
Whether that will happen this week is up in the air: The National Weather Service's tropical storm warning for Houston has had Houstonians telling stories of Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 — but all signs seem to indicate that Cindy's wrecking ball won't be bearing down quite that hard. Since the eye of the storm has moved east of Houston as of Wednesday morning, it appears Houston may be getting Cindy's scraps rather than a full meal. About three to five inches of rain is still in the forecast, however — and so is the tropical storm warning, and so for local emergency management officials, they'd rather be safe than sorry.
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The Houston Fire Department has prepared high-water rescue boats, Governor Greg Abbott has put the state's emergency medical task force and Texas Military Forces aircraft on standby, and over in Galveston, County Judge Mark Henry issued a voluntary evacuation order for the Bolivar Peninsula.
Stay tuned for more Cindy updates as the National Weather Service releases them periodically today.