Damage Control

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The ad hoc committee's recommendations were numerous and, at times, highly technical. The gist of the commentary was that the Klotz model had erroneously calculated a variable called the roughness coefficient, which represents the watershed's capacity to naturally absorb runoff. The result of the miscalculation, according to a committee report, was "higher water surface elevations than would normally be expected…"

After reviewing the West Houston Association's recommendations, Dunbar said some of the concerns "made sense," although, in his view, there wasn't "anything that gave a lot of detail to what all the issues were." Dunbar suspects the association ultimately convinced the district to change some of Klotz's assumptions, which had the effect of decreasing the size of the floodplain upstream.

"Whether or not [the floodplain] was knocked down legitimately with legitimate comments or it was 'Let's try to fudge as much as we can and get this thing knocked down,' I don't know," Dunbar acknowledges.

However, he adds, the real question is why the West Houston Association was allowed to hold up a map revision while its engineers, with the help of the district's consultant, pored over the district's data. Indeed, among the association's recommendations was that the district consider even more input from the "technical community" before reaching any conclusions on the map revision.

"Obviously the West Houston Association wasn't overly excited about seeing this come out," Dunbar says. "But, hey, they're developers. They don't want the Harris County Flood Control District to do something without them knowing about it. Well, hey, join the rest of the public, guys."

It took almost a year, but the district and the association settled their differences, just as construction of the first phase of the White Oak Bayou regional plan was wrapping up in October 1994. Klotz factored in the impact of the channel improvements and two detention ponds, and a few months later the district submitted a new Letter of Map Revision, which soon fell into a three-year black hole created by another dispute, this one between the district and FEMA over subsidence.

Finally, in August 1998, the Harris County Flood Control District announced that FEMA had accepted the map revisions, and allowing for final comment, the new flood insurance rate maps for White Oak Bayou would be published and available to the public in 18 months.

A few weeks after the district's announcement, on September 11, 1998, Ed Kerr came home to find his wife heroically swinging a push broom to keep a stream of water four inches deep moving out the back door of their one-story house on Woodlands West Road.

"I was as irritated as I could be," Ed remembers.

Upstream in Jersey Village, Bob Mays thought he had seen White Oak Bayou at its most threatening in 1992, when it backed up three feet in the street and came over the sidewalk. When he awoke that Friday morning after Tropical Storm Frances, the downstairs of his house already had 13 inches of water in it.

A couple of months later, he was taking yet another load of debris to the curb when a neighbor walked over. "He said, 'Have you heard about this lawsuit?' " recalls Mays, who has lived in Jersey Village for more than 20 years. "I said, 'No, but I was hoping there'd be one.' I just knew we weren't supposed to flood in '98, and we did. You just don't have an area that sits here for years and never flooded, then all of a sudden…"

Harris County Flood Control District officials declined to discuss the specifics of Kerr, et al. v. Harris County Flood Control District, et al.

However, chief engineer Steve Fitzgerald and spokesperson Fred Garcia, who is also an engineer, answered questions from the Houston Press about the district's policies and the evolution of the White Oak regional plan. Fitzgerald also gave deposition testimony under questioning by hydrologist-attorney Larry Dunbar.

Comments from both sessions offer insight into the district's actions that is lacking in the legal arguments filed by the Harris County attorney's office. Early on, in a perfunctory pleading, the county's attorneys argued that developers in the upper White Oak watershed had failed to abide by the on-site detention requirement. Later, in a position the district still maintains, the damages from Tropical Storm Frances were attributed to an "act of God."

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Brian Wallstin